Ever heard of orthorexia? This eating disorder starts with wonderful intentions—to eat healthfully. But like all things, it can turn deadly if it becomes our sole focus. Spiritual orthorexia happens when we concentrate wholly on right living and can turn deadly if it becomes our soul focus.
Have you ever wanted to set a spiritual goal but gotten confused and discouraged by everyone’s ideal of what your goal should be (according to them)? For the next five weeks we’ll explore why and how you can set spiritual goals.
Orthorexia, or ‘Right Eating’
“We’re going to the Allen’s for the Survivor finale tomorrow night,” I told Sarah. “Do you want to come?”
“Naw,” she replied. “I think I’ll skip it this time.”
“Really? I thought you loved Survivor finale parties!”
“It’s too loud. I’ll just watch it online the day after.”
I looked suspiciously at our youngest daughter. Ever since we’d started letting her watch Survivor at the age of 12, she hadn’t missed an episode. Nor had she missed a finale party. Especially when they happened at the Allen’s house. Mostly because the Allens always went all-out on the food and had desserts we didn’t often eat at home.
For the past year, Sarah had started to eat differently. First, she cut back on sweets. Not that we ate a lot of sweets in our family. And when we did eat them, we tried to make them healthy. Next, she decided to eat vegan. Once again, not a huge deal, because I only cooked vegetarian meals.
But lately, Sarah seemed obsessed with right eating. She cut more and more foods out of her diet in an attempt to achieve optimal health. Something new had happened the previous week, though, that I tucked into my little worry purse to mull over later.
For the first time, she criticized someone else’s food choice. “Are you going to eat that?” she said, pointing to Little Debbie’s Nutty Bar in my hand.
“Yes,” I answered, a little nonplussed that she had asked me about it.
“Have you read the ingredients?”
“I try to avoid knowing just how bad my sins are for me,” I joked as I bit into the crispy, peanut-butter infused wafer covered with a thin layer of chocolate. “If eating this is wrong, I don’t want to be right!”
She dropped the conversation, but it surprised me. Sarah, the most easy-going girl I’d ever known, had openly criticized a food choice I made.
I wondered if her reluctance to go to the Survivor finale party had anything to do with her criticisms and her increased awareness of the nutritional values of food.
Pedro and I talked about Sarah’s new habits and thought she would outgrow her right-eating phase. But she didn’t. Months later, she weighed 105 and had the beginnings of osteoporosis. About the same time, I read a book on orthorexia nervosa which convinced me Sarah suffered from this cousin of anorexia.
In her quest to eat healthfully, Sarah had slipped over the edge of balanced and developed an unhealthy relationship with healthy food. She had gotten a hold of a book, Skinny Bitch: A No-Nonsense, Tough-Love guide for Savvy Girls Who Want to Stop Eating Crap and Start Looking Fabulous! and thought she’d found the prescription for life. At 15, she didn’t have the maturity to balance what she read with common sense.
We sought professional help, but the road forward had many detours and rocky places. Sarah’s dive into orthorexia brought back memories of another teenager from a different generation.
Can You be Too Religious?
I went to a parochial school where most of the students and parents held conservative viewpoints on just about everything. One of my classmates, a thin, homely girl with glasses almost as thick as mine, seemed overly extreme.
“Rachel,” I finally asked one day, “why do you always wear dresses to school?”
“Because my mom says pants are men’s clothing, and the Bible tells us not to wear men’s clothing.”
“No way!” I didn’t believe her. I’d read most of the Bible, and couldn’t remember a single verse that said, ‘thou shalt not wear pants.’
“It’s in Deuteronomy 22:5,” she said with a grimace.
“Huh.” I didn’t have much else to say until I looked the verse up for myself, which I did over lunch break. After school, I saw Rachel and her sister hurrying out of the building.
“Hey, Rachel,” I called out.
She and her sister stopped and turned to face me.
“I read that verse. Ask you mom why your dad doesn’t wear a robe. That Bible verse says women shouldn’t wear men’s clothing, but it must have a deeper meaning, because everyone wore robes back in Bible times. And if you have to wear a dress, your dad should have to wear a robe.”
Both Rachel and her sister laughed, then continued on their way. Maybe not my finest moment, but I felt angry on Rachel’s behalf that her mom forced her to wear dresses. I don’t know if she ever spoke to her mom, but when the new school year started, she came to school wearing pants—with the zipper neatly removed from the front and placed on the side.
Right Living, Or Spiraling Out of Control?
I wanted to roll my eyes, but I refrained, and I kept my mouth shut. What kind of parent took a verse from the Bible and tried to ruin their daughters’ chances of fitting in with ridiculous dictates?
My outrage increased when I discovered a strange fact about Rachel’s mom—she dyed her hair. The hypocrisy made me seethe. Of course, in my immaturity I never followed Jesus’s advice from Matthew 18. I never had conversation with Rachel’s mom.
Forty years later, I still struggle when I see people so caught up in right living, they can’t see the hypocrisy of their lives. After our experience with Sarah and her orthorexia, I’ve started saying people obsessed with cherry-picking rules from the Bible suffer from spiritual orthorexia.
Warning Signs of Spiritual Orthorexia
I rewrote a list of warning signs of orthorexia from Timberline Knolls, an orthorexia treatment center, for people to assess their spiritual orthorexia.
You may suffer from spiritual orthorexia if you find yourself:
- Spending an excessive amount of time reading supplementary material about the Bible.
- Living an increasingly restrictive life.
- Eliminating options or starting new habits based on ‘biblical reasons.’ E.g., eliminating pants from one’s wardrobe or wearing a head covering in public.
- Linking self-esteem with adherence to new ‘biblical’ rules and restrictions.
- Keeping strict adherence to some of the Bible (e.g., a woman not wearing pants), but finding it difficult to love others.
- Refusing to associate with others or avoiding activities one once enjoyed because one can’t enjoy them under the new restrictions.
- Harboring a critical attitude towards others who don’t find the same meaning in ‘biblical’ mandates.
- Criticizing others vocally for choices that don’t align with the spiritual orthorexic’s interpretation of the Bible.
- Feeling shame or guilt for any slip-up in the self-imposed restrictions.
- Obsessing over more and more restrictions and ways to live in strict adherence to the Bible.
- Having significant personality changes (short-tempered, difficult to get along with, rigidly holding beliefs).
- Exhibiting a lower tolerance for other’s choices.
- Stressing and losing of sleep over the sinfulness of the world.
Disordered Thinking Can Happen to Anyone
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I live a perfect life, nor have I figured everything in the Bible out. If the Bible were a movie, it wouldn’t get a G rating. It wouldn’t even get a PG-13 rating.
Since high school, I’ve met other people who feel women shouldn’t wear dresses (or Christians should only listen to a certain kind of music, or_______ you fill in the blank). In every case, the person has stopped relying on the Bible alone and allowed enticing book titles or persuasive preachers to convict them to make changes.
Maybe, like Sarah, they lack the spiritual maturity to study on their own and test what others say against the Book. Perhaps they failed to ask for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as they read and studied. Maybe they thought they needed to reach a level of perfection in order to receive salvation.
Whatever the case, they’ve started down the slippery slope to spiritual orthorexia. And they need help, just like Sarah needed help for her orthorexia. When one finds oneself (or a loved one) caught in the grip of disordered thinking, one may need help from a professional (counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist) in order to break free and learn new patterns of thinking.
Orthorexia, whether caused by right living or by right eating requires a care plan.
What Does God Want?
As Christians, one of our spiritual goals should include self-assessment and self-awareness. At least once a year we need to reflect on what God wants from us and question the motives of our own hearts. Read through the Signs of Spiritual Orthorexia and then remind yourself of these truths:
- God doesn’t want our sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22). He wants our obedience.
- And what does God desire of us? To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him (Micah 6:8).
- He wants us to love him unconditionally and to love ourselves so we can love others (Matthew 22:38-39).
- God wants us to become students of him, not students of the law (Matthew 23:23).
- Salvation is not a reward for the good things we do (Ephesians 2:9).
Breaking habits and thought patterns requires concentrated effort. The evil one loves to ensnare us at our point of greatest vulnerability. To fall for his pranks means we’re human. To recognize them, confess, and seek help to overcome them means we have a relationship with the Divine.Don't let the evil one ensnare you at your weakest point. Salvation is a free gift. #salvation #spiritualorthorexia #selfcare Click To Tweet