“Who does this? How did I get here?” I made the desperate plea to my support group after years of struggling with food addiction. Now, after one more cycle binging, determining to stop, then, in shame, reaching for food as comfort again, I felt more lost than ever.
So many food addicts are in this place. Overcoming is not simply a matter of a food plan, willpower, and determination. A woman I truly trusted and who cared about me knew this. So after our group meeting she pulled me aside, encouraged me, and said, “I don’t think you’ll ever stop eating till you get God, and turn your life over to Jesus.”
Get God? I thought. I’m Jewish. I know about God. Even though my family wasn’t overly religious, we went to synagogue for the major celebrations, weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. I knew the Old Testament stories. I’d seen the movie The Ten Commandments. Admittedly, though, I didn’t really know God. I knew of Him. I’d heard and read about Him. I’d never thought of relationship with Him. I had no image of Him other than as the booming voice from the sky in the movie, talking to Charlton Heston. To me, God was more like cultural wallpaper in my background. He was always there as a backdrop.
The woman who told me to turn my life over to Him, on the other hand, was right in front of my face. I trusted and admired her. I could see the results of her recovery. She was doing well. She was doing something right. I was not: slipping up, falling back, and finding it increasingly difficult to pursue recovery. I needed something different because all I’d been doing wasn’t working. If God was the answer, I decided, it was time to try Him.
I began to read more of the spiritual nuggets in the recovery literature. There was always something that said to be free from your addiction you must turn over your issues to a power greater than yourself. I had no idea what that meant, but I kept reading. I said the prayers I’d heard: “God, help me.” In particular, I said the famous Serenity Prayer, and I must have repeated it one hundred times that first week alone: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
For nearly six years, I tried God on for size. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I kept on because I couldn’t deny the results I saw in the women in my recovery group who talked about God and Jesus in a personal way, like He was their personal power source, counselor, and friend. We all followed a similar food plan and counseling practices, but they were getting the lasting results that I wanted and hadn’t realized. So I went a step further. I checked out their churches. This was a big deal for me. God was one thing, but Jesus was another. I was a Jewish girl. All my family and friends were Jewish. I didn’t want to believe in Jesus. To do so, meant potentially losing every single person who mattered in my life.
During this time, I read the most remarkable series of stories about the lost. The stories interested me because, face it, when we are in our compulsion, still wandering in and out of the food fog, aren’t we lost?
The first story was about a man who had one hundred sheep. One went missing so he left the ninety-nine in open country to go find the little wanderer. Who does that? I wondered.
The second story was about a woman with ten silver coins who loses one. She lights every lamp and turns her house upside-down, inside-out, cleaning even the nooks and the crannies to find that one coin that’s fallen between the cracks. Then she calls all her friends, tells the whole neighborhood. “Rejoice with me,” she says. That’s a lot of to-do over one coin, I thought.
The third story is of a father who has two sons. The younger one gets lost but he doesn’t just wander away. He takes all his father has to give, then leaves, intentionally leaves, and not just his father’s house but his father’s ways. The son unplugs from his good life and becomes trapped in a bad one. It doesn’t take long for him to leave the beaten path and fall into darkness. He’s not only lost his way then, but his means and self-respect. He feels empty but the truth is he’s full of shame. Maybe out of habit, he reaches for something to feed the emptiness. He’s so hungry that the slop the pigs are eating look pretty good. The slop. It’s at this point the son comes to his senses. He has to get out of here. He has to get home.
I could so relate. I could see him reaching for the food and thinking, so ashamed, Who does this? I could see him trying to find a way out, wondering in despair and frustration, How did I get here?
What I wasn’t prepared for was the father. While the son was still a long way off, the father sees him and, the story says, “is filled with compassion.” While the son was still far away, the father goes out the gate. Even after the son has taken from him, left him, forsaken him, the father’s hollering for help to fix a feast for the son like he’s never had, to give him a robe and a ring and new sandals and a kiss, an embrace. The father’s going to get his son, and not just going. The father’s running.
What I didn’t realize is God is not something to be got. He’s the Father. He loves you and sees you even when you’re a long way off. He’s the one who runs to get you before you even think of getting Him. He’s the one prepared to give you his riches and power, a kiss instead of criticism, his very Self instead of shame. He’s the Shepherd who rescues you and left all of Heaven to do it. He’s the one who turns everything inside-out, upside-down, and reaches into the dark when you, His treasure, have fallen between the cracks.
I suddenly understood what the woman in my recovery group meant when she said I needed to “get God.” She knew God is personal, not a booming voice in a movie scene, not wallpaper. She knew He wants relationship with us, even when we’re in the midst of our mess, full of food, guilt, and shame. She knew the Father loves us so much that He comes, not just to get us, but to give to us His embrace, blessing, and power. And she knew what that power is exactly: His grace.
I would like to tell you that my leap of faith to believe in Jesus and charge up on His power and grace brought full and instant recovery. But that’s not the whole story. It was just the start. Grace is like manna in the Old Testament. It has to be picked up each new day, and there were days I failed to go after it. I had been eating right for about four years at this point, but I was still obsessed with food and weight, still thinking on both all the time. So while some things had become better, like an end to binges, I still was focused on food. I wasn’t enslaved, but I wasn’t free either.
One hard day of the constant noise in my head of what I could and couldn’t eat, how I should weigh and look, I decided I was going to charge up on God like never before. I remembered the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Struggling with how to go forward with his life, Jacob wrestled all night, insisting on answers and God’s blessing. “I won’t stop until you bless me,” he said.
That, I decided was what I would do too. I wanted more than God’s grace. I wanted His blessing and freedom from the obsession with food, weight, and appearances once and for all. So I stayed home from work and spent a whole day reading the Bible and praying to God. Hour after hour I prayed, on my knees, stretched out on the floor.
I never received what I expected, some revelation about how I was off emotionally, with my eating plan, or in my character. When God spoke, He said simply: I love you. Do you know how much I love you?
After seven years of hard core recovery work, I had suddenly found the last missing piece I needed to overcome food addiction. I just had to love God and let Him love me. The blessing wasn’t something I had to work to get or fight to keep. It wasn’t something I had to try or fake. It was something I just needed to receive.
And the hour that I truly believed and received His love? That’s when I was truly free.
Rhona Epstein, Psy.D., CAC, is a licensed psychologist, certified addictions counselor, and marriage and family therapist who has personally experienced recovery from food addiction. The author of Food Triggers: End Your Cravings, Eat Well and Live Better (Worthy Publishing 2013), Dr. Rhona has been helping individuals find freedom from food triggers and addiction for twenty-eight years.