Being in treatment was a life changing experience. Remuda Ranch is a place utterly drenched in God. I felt His serenity amidst the discord, His renewal of my spirit against its damage, and His restoration mending my body. With each awe-inspiring Arizona sunset, I was one step nearer home, and beginning life afresh. Unburdened by the heretofore continuous torment of my eating disorder. I expected nothing less than an enthusiastic and supportive reception, and primarily that is what happened. Primarily.
While I was an inpatient, I heard many horror stories from my fellow invalids regarding the hurtful way they were dealt with by members of their respective churches. As troubled as I was by this, I knew it went far beyond that for God. I knew His heart was deeply grieved when we mistreated each other. Before I was discharged, I had a personal meeting with the head pastor there. Henry.
“An eating disorder is a mental illness. It’s a horrific battle to fight, but it isn’t a sin. Don’t let people put that burden on you. ” He smiled at me. “We have enough sins to carry without adding more.” He was warning me about what to expect when I went home. I had no concerns though. My church family had rallied around me during my entire ordeal. Sent me cards and letters, some anonymously, to comfort and strengthen me. This congregation was responsible for the down payment for my admission, and someone’s frequent flier miles flew my husband and I across the country within days of my long- awaited plea for help. No. I wasn’t worried.
As for the question of eating disorders being labeled a sin? I know the religious community is divided on that issue. Eating disorders are, in fact, diagnosable mental illnesses, with anorexia nervosa having the highest mortality rate of all other psychiatric afflictions. I also know that when your body, (and consequently your brain), are not being nourished properly, you are physically incapable of clarity or rational thought.
I look back and now and recall so vividly that the smaller I became, the more I thought everyone around me was overreacting. I truly did not see the cause for such upset. Couldn’t see it. I’m not a scholar or any manner of authority when it comes to sins that the Bible doesn’t mention by name, and I would be slightly wary of anyone who claims to be. I have a hard time though, marrying the kindness of the Lord I know, with one who holds those accountable for sickness that scientists believe are caused in part by genetic contributions and possible chemical imbalances. Again, only my opinion. And in the end, I have to wonder how much it really matters. After all, mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)
When I arrived home at last, it was beautiful. There were tears and embraces and it was just as I’d dreamt during my disconnected desert months. Pastor Henry’s warnings seemed unwarranted. Before long though, I understood why he’d sat down with me. I felt so vulnerable being on the “outside”. After months of introspection and emoting and unearthing every misery I’d felt since my conception, I was this ambulatory, raw wound. Vulnerable. Exposed.
I should have been more guarded. Hindsight, and all of that. Because I did encounter some judgment and thinly veiled disdain for my failings. A friend, who I don’t believe meant the harm he ultimately inflicted, actually said that in light of all I’d “done over the past few years…” I should take some time to rest before serving in the church. Absolutely true and right and appropriate. But because of all I’d done? Cue the clichéd snowball effect.
Thus began my cutting bender. My inaugural lacerations appeared as the word FAILURE etched across my leg. I never bothered to get it sewn up, and still today I can make out the faint outlines of the F and the L. (Though these days, I use them as a reminder that the Lord does not see as man sees. For man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.) (1 Samuel 16:7 )
There were a few encounters such as that one. With only a handful of people really…and yet I really struggled with it for a while. What that friend said? It was true. I had made a huge mess of my life over the past several years. But I had also repented. Told God I was sorry. Changed direction. Asked forgiveness of the people I had hurt. And together we had all moved forward. Why was this coming up again? Did God work that way? Did He keep a cumulative record of all of our sins? Was God saying to me, “Sorry kid. You blew it one too many times. You’re just not good enough to be used by Me anymore.” I realized that I already knew the answer to that.
The Bible tells us in the book of Psalms, that when God forgives us, our sin is removed as far as the east is from the west. In Isaiah, God says that He will remember our sins no more. And one of my favorite verses comes from Micah : “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” That’s not a God who is keeping score. That’s a God whose mercies are new every morning. So while my friend and others of his philosophical ilk might have misspoken with their speech, they also lacked an ingredient that is by far more essential.
Grace is defined as unmerited favor. Getting something you do not deserve. And I can relate to that. But I couldn’t always. As Christians, we sing about grace all the time. Most praise and worship songs involve the concept of thanking God for His grace, how we’re unworthy of His grace, we stand in His grace..and on and on. But how many of us really understand how much we need it?
I shudder now to remember the intolerance I carried in my younger heart. How lightly I could dismiss someone’s remorse or contrition. From abortion to adultery, I understood and accepted that God forgave each penitent soul…but in that dark, ugly place where our most secret of secrets are kept, I didn’t. I would smile and join in prayer, feign a pious smile when a prodigal returned to the fold..but I had to suppress a powerful urge to shake the sinner’s shoulders very hard and demand, “What were you THINKING?!” or, “How could you have been so selfish/stupid?!”
But now, having looked into the eyes and hearts of a few potential shoulder-shakers of my own over the past several years, I’m thinking that this might be a natural part of the maturation process for the Christian. One that has nothing to do with the length of years that one has been walking with Jesus or even the heinousness of a particular sin, because to God? They’re all abhorrent. It’s us who attach degrees of immorality. Only us. Score another one for the humans.
My road to discovering the true meaning (and necessity of ) grace, wasn’t fleet or facile. Rather, it was arduous and heartbreaking, but a more worthy lesson I’ve never learned. It was a tumultuous four-ish..years for me and my family. The separation then reconciliation between my husband and I, a foreclosure on our home, an unexpected and very difficult pregnancy, a breast cancer scare and subsequent lumpectomy, and then my rapid spiral back into the pit of anorexia was a whirlwind that left us all disoriented and slightly wrong-footed. As for my role in much of the above and all those read between the lines back stories not included, well…pivotal.
I realized with no small amount of irony, that I had become one of those people. One of those people who I would have been disgusted with just ten years before. Five years. Two. One of those, “What were you THINKING?!” people. And I had no satisfying answer to that exasperated query. Not for myself. Not for anybody. What I needed was pure absolution. To prostrate myself at the feet of those I had wronged, at the feet of God, and plead for mercy. For unmerited favor. For grace. And something wonderfully astounding happened when I did that.
It showed up.
I felt it.
Forgiveness flooded through me, softening my resistant force, mending all that shame had unraveled. Getting to the point where there was no possibility of denial, no way that I could convince myself that I’m not that bad or basically decent..was the best thing that could have happened to me. That’s a gift to be given. You’ve done something detestable? It can be made right again. Sit down. Take my hand. You’re not alone…let me tell you about something remarkable called grace.
Some Christians might coast through the majority of their days. They might never experience that time in the valley where they find themselves crying out in genuine anguish. Never abandon themselves to that place of brokenness. Wondering how they got to where they are and how they became who they’ve become. I suppose when faced with those two options, the former seems much more preferable, but for those of us who’ve been through it?
We know better. We know grace in a way those happy-go-lucky don’t. We get grace. We’ve been showered with blessings we could never merit, and so desire to pour the bounty into the souls of people hurting. The word grace is mentioned 131 times in the New Testament. That doesn’t even begin to cover it. How does one fit the ocean into a teacup?
I’ve noticed lately that it’s fairly easy to spot those of us who truly understand grace the way it’s intended. We’re the ones whose faces are sorrowful rather than sour upon hearing of hardship that a person caused for themselves, our arms ache to hold the abject, the forlorn, we seek to find some of our own story in each relation of regret.
And we’re the ones who tremble when the opening chords of “Amazing Grace” resonate on a Sunday morning. Standing with our hands raised upward to the heavens or kneeling in prayer, we’re embraced by the lilt.
We weep. This is our song.
I didn’t get it before. But I’ve got it now.
I’ve got it.
How sweet the sound…