“Do not be afraid” appears more than any other phrase in Scripture. Certainly it’s a helpful phrase if one were encountering a warrior-angel. But biblical writers use it more frequently in situations where people are being asked to step beyond who they think they are into greater realms of trust and leadership.
When I was young, I took the stage during the children’s message, telling my pastor confidently that I wasn’t scared of anything—even the alligators in my basement—because God was my strength. Childhood fantasy aside, I was a bold, outspoken, strong child, eager to do whatever I could to help God and others. I led my youth group’s devotions. I was president of my high school’s Christian fellowship. I even preached at an outdoor church service.
When it came time to listen for a calling career-wise, I felt led toward ministry. My life was infused with God, and I wanted to share that with others. I was a good leader, a good speaker, and a good shepherd. I wanted so badly to serve God and others. And I longed to honor Scripture’s call to use my gifts. So I looked to the (all male) authority figures in my Christian community to chart out the path for how I could become a pastor. I strained to hear the Word from their mouths. I was eager, “Yes, Lord, send me!”
So what did I hear from my spiritual leaders? What was their message for my life? That was the problem; it wasn’t one message but a contradictory collection of messages that didn’t make much logical or spiritual sense. I was told that I could help teach young children, without training (something I wasn’t very excited about or good at), but I couldn’t teach adults (the very task I was often praised for accomplishing with skill) even with training. They advised that I should go to college, not to pursue a career in ministry, but to find a good Christian man to settle me down. “Good” Christians used their gifts to the fullest extent to further the kingdom of God. But “good” girls didn’t speak out in adult Sunday school, let alone try to teach.
They also didn’t eat.
“I’m being really good right now,” a girl sitting next to me in Bible study said, declining the gooey, dark chocolate brownie I offered her. Her holiness, her meekness, her gentility, her very womanhood was linked to what, and how much, she allowed herself to enjoy.
I absorbed all these messages of what it meant to be a woman of God deep into my body. The voices of authority muddled with my own insecurities about who I was, what I looked like, and how God had gifted me. Sprinkled with the harsh pepper of the world’s messages—buy this beauty product, diet using this new fad, hide your pounds—these voices overtook me and became my identity.
When I looked to Scripture—my only real authority—it seemed to echo what others said. I took many passages out of context. Instead of seeing biblical marriage as something only some are called to, something that doesn’t last through eternity, I heard only, “You are not a true woman of God unless you seek a husband.” Instead of seeing the great cloud of biblical women witnesses who rarely had a husband talking on their behalf, I read, “You are not a true woman unless your husband speaks for you.” “You are also not a true woman if you eat more than you deserve each day.” And what I “deserved,” as someone who wasn’t fitting neatly into the godly woman box, was not much.
I wanted to conform myself more fully to what the voices said God wanted me to become: more submissive, more soft-spoken, more beautiful. Since I couldn’t seem to transform from the inside out, I began to transform from the outside in. I cut my calorie consumption to only 800 calories a day (and often fewer than that). I ran for miles, no matter the weather, to beat the insubordination out of my being. I read and re-read snippets of the Bible as “encouragement” for what I thought would make me the woman God wanted: “Man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4) and “Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink…” (Luke 12:29). I was so hungry, literally and figuratively, for God to tell me how to become worthwhile that I took Scripture out of context—and it nearly killed me.
Only when a still, small voice called out from my deepest place, the place as yet untouched by anorexia’s spindly fingers, did I hear that my strength as a woman was not a weakness. “You are fearfully and wonderfully made…no longer male and female…all have been given gifts…to seek the kingdom of God.” I took in the whole of Scripture like it was a loaf of bread, not a crumb. Its entirety fed me, from the story of God providing manna in the wilderness to Jesus being fed by ravens in his own wilderness. Throughout Scripture, God was feeding people with love and with the assurance that God’s community welcomed men and women of all personalities and all gifts, without fear.
What was hardest in my journey was not the anorexia; it was the recovery. I did not trust myself. What I thought was the voice of God was in actuality the voice of others, and the voice of my own fear. I feared my personality. I feared that I would never become a godly woman. I feared that I would never be able to conform myself to the will of God.
In recovering from anorexia, I had to relearn how to read Scripture, not as separate, disjointed messages colored by the voices of male “authority” around me, but as a whole, creative, redemptive narrative of God’s journey of trust with God’s people. Scripture’s authoritative voice was not one of confinement, but one of freedom. I had to relearn how to see myself, too, as a whole person, not as a prescribed list of attributes applied blindly to every Christian woman. My deeper hunger, far deeper than my hunger for any chocolate cake, stemmed from my desire to be useful to God as what he created, what he spoke into being. The Voice that called woman into being—just as she was—and called her good was my only voice of authority.
Now food has a different meaning for me. It is hospitality. It gathers people with different gifts and personalities and callings to one table. It feeds the various hands that serve others. It is a significant means to connect to God. It is, as I am, the fearless, beautiful, nourishing body of Christ.