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An interview with Emma Scrivener – body image, identity, suffering and community

This is one of the most encouraging & inspiring conversations that I have been a part of and I am blessed to get to share it with you!

Emma Scrivener who writes over at A New Name joined me to talk about her experience of having an eating disorder and how her view of God changed. It’s a jam-packed interview full of grace, truth and wisdom and I hope it encourages, challenges and blesses you as much as it did for me.

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Tell us about you!

I grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland and I was the oldest of three kids. I came from a very happy family; not a Christian family, but very loving. There were no big problems and nothing dramatic that happened in my life. But when I hit the age of 13, a number of things in my life changed that made me question who I was, question my sense of self and they were all sorts of normal things, but for me they added up to something that felt very threatening.

The sort of person I have always been is someone who likes rules, regulations, being within the lines and everything in its right place. Even at infant school I remember going in on my first day and tidied up the sandpits. That’s very much who I’ve always been. At 13 when there were different changes going on, I changed schools where I was bullied, I lost my Grandad and that was the first time my Mum and Dad didn’t have any answers of why that was, we moved house and I had started going along to church to get answers. I was quite confused about what faith meant. I understood it was something to do with rules and God like being a headmaster and I understood sin, but I never really understood grace. I had this skewed sense of who God was.

My body was changing as well. When I was playing with other kids I always felt like one of the boys out playing in the street, but suddenly I was meant to be a woman and I didn’t know what a woman was meant to be like. It certainly didn’t look like me – I just looked messy. Whereas before your body is straight up and down, now it’s all over the place but not like the women you see on TV or in magazines.

All of these things made me feel very out of control and added up to something that for me felt like a big mess. If you go back to that sandpit, instead of being the sand all around the outside, I wanted to be clean and tidy again. I felt like I was a spill of some kind on a carpet and I wanted to make myself like stainless steel. The word for my mess for me at the time was ‘fat’ – not that I looked in the mirror and wanted to be like a supermodel or I felt like I was too big. I didn’t really feel that. I just felt like I was a mess – full of questions inside and out. What is life all about? What does it mean to be a woman? Who is this God? Why did my Grandad die? What happened to him? What is the meaning of life? I didn’t have any answers for them. But one thing that I could control was my own body. I felt that if I whittled down my body on the outside, I could get rid of the physical mess on the outside. I could also make sense of what was going on inside. It’s like a clean up job.

Life became very simple. Instead of worry about 101 different things I didn’t have answers for, I just had one thing to focus on. Could I lose weight? And I could and I did. Then I became very ill. We got help for me back in Northern Ireland in the 1990s so people didn’t really know about eating disorders then. It wasn’t something that happened to ordinary families like mine.

The treatment focused on me just gaining weight which is really important if you do lose a lot of weight because your brain chemistry changes. The first thing that has to happen is that you get the weight back on and then you can process things like counselling. If it’s the only thing that’s addressed then you end up a bit like I did when I was about 17 or 18. I look fixed on the outside but on the inside I still had all the same issues that I had before, except now I really did feel like I was unacceptable because I put my family through a real hell for years and years. It seemed that if I was myself that was the worst thing I could be. I needed to be somebody else.

I went back into reinventing myself in different ways – through academia, trying to look a certain way, through religion. I was working with this idea of the Lord as being like a headmaster. If I could do the right things, say the right things, be the right person, that would be a new identity as a good girl that would redeem me from the mess that I was.

I threw myself into studying and went to Bible college and became a youth leader and a youth minister. In some ways I sort of understood the gospel and I was able to share it with other people but didn’t really get that grace was for me as well. I got engaged to a guy who was going to be a minister. We came to the end of our time at Bible college but I was working full time in a church and I was also studying full time. I just felt that I had to prove myself. The world sped up and went faster and faster. I was very stressed about the idea of moving house and losing contact with lots of different people, a new start and being a vicar’s wife. For me, vicar’s wives are just really amazing women – they’re not just godly women they are godly superwomen! They are very hospitable and have an open door policy and are brilliant at baking and other things that I just really wasn’t.

I got frightened. My old feeding patterns started up again except this time I was a grown up so there was no one to force me to eat. It looked like I was dying and I was. I was very unwell. Someone I had loved for years and years was my grandmother back in Belfast and she died at the same time and I was too ill to make it to her funeral. I think that the night of her funeral when I wasn’t there, I really cried out to God but not to this headmaster God. I cried out to the God of the Bible and said ‘Look Lord, I have been fighting and fighting and trying to make a name for myself for all these years and make myself OK and I can’t do it. I’m so tired and there’s really not much of me left here. I’m dying but if You want to, You can help what’s there.’

There was no blinding light, but I had the Bible open at Revelation where we had been looking and reading for granny’s funeral, and as I turned the pages I felt a real sense of stillness. I read in Revelation 1 about a Lord Jesus who is blazing and beautiful, eyes like fire and hair like bright, white wool. He is this incredible, intense person. I’d always felt I’m too intense for everybody else – but here is a God who is more intense than me and could offer more. I always felt like there wasn’t enough of anything: there wasn’t enough food, there wasn’t enough love, there wasn’t enough answers. Nothing could reach those hungers in me that were about much more than food. He was a God that could do that.

He is described in Revelation as a Lion and a Lamb. This roaring Lion with the world in His hands just captured my heart because even though I felt the world was out of control, it wasn’t. Here was this Lion and everything is in His hands. He can be trusted with my life and I didn’t need to try and make the world safe by myself because He has it all.

But remarkably He wasn’t just a Lion, roaring, powerful and omniscient; He was also a broken Lamb slain for me. That really gripped me too. Here is a God who is not just Lord but He understands what it is to be broken. A God who was broken for me but never did any wrong. I don’t need to take my own shame, guilt, sadness and pay for it in my body – He’s already paid for it on His. I think it was that combination of strength but also brokenness and grace and this awareness of the Lord who has everything and is so powerful and yet makes Himself nothing. He is broken for us – His scars are so we don’t need to scar ourselves. That was what really brought me to my knees.

That began the beginning of recovery which takes years but on that night something in my heart changed and I realised there was Someone more beautiful than anorexia. There was a picture of me, an Emma, who was outside of that identity who the Lord was calling to Himself, to relationship, that He would be with me leading me step by step.

What would you say to someone who was struggling with an eating disorder? 

First of all, you are not on your own. Particularly in our culture, food takes on the weight of so many other things beyond what it is. There are all sorts of categories of being good and bad and an identity that is associated with it. Even though it can feel with eating struggles that it’s a weird thing, the Bible talks from the very beginning in the Garden of Eden about our appetites and our desires to satisfy them and to look to things that are not the Lord. To say ‘I’m going to find something else, something that I can control, something that I can eat of that will give me my identity outside God.’ That is the shape of the human heart. It’s also the shape of those who struggle with any addictions.

There’s this misplaced sense of shame we can have when we are dealing with those feelings. Actually, the Bible talks of everybody having these desires, everyone looking outside the Lord. It’s just that for some of us it will take the shape of food, for others it might be overworking, it might be something good like looking to your family to give you your identity but you look to them too much. Everyone does this and that is why Jesus comes. He comes to break that power over us, satisfy our hungers and our desires in a way that food can’t.

Something that I found very important was asking others for help and being honest. I think that’s really key and it’s something that is very hard to do. The wonderful thing about the gospel is it talks about shining light into dark places and bringing things out into the light. There is a freedom in that. The church is all about people who are broken in different ways and cannot fix themselves so we gather around a Saviour who can. We are also united to one another to point one another to Him. Whatever the problems are, the Bible talks about us being in community in a family of believers and I think that family is really crucial. So it’s not only talking to the Lord about these things but also talking to other people and saying ‘this is an issue for me. Will you get alongside me, will you help me, will you pray with me?’ That’s the biggest first step – being open, asking for help, recognising that this is something bigger than you – but that’s OK. And not allowing this shame that is very misplaced to keep you trapped, but recognising that it is more than you can handle by yourself.

Sometimes with eating struggles, one of the things that’s attractive about food, whether you try to eat too much or too little is, it’s not a person. It’s like you’re having a relationship with the food because it can comfort you or it can make you feel in control or it sedates you or you can use it for a lot of different things. It’s taking the place of people. You don’t have to relate to food, you can just take it when you want it.

That’s the key – building relationships. Instead of channelling your feelings into food, talk them out and find other ways to express them. Even if you don’t feel like that’s possible at the moment, talking to somebody online or finding people who are supportive, although nothing beats interpersonal contact. People on the ground who are with you in your local church, people who see you everyday and can walk with you in that.

From our conversation I can see your love for the Lord. How do you grow in that passion and zeal?

It’s something I pray about. There are seasons – there are times when your Christian life is on fire and there are times when it’s harder and you’ve got to fight for it. I’m learning that there is an ebb and flow there and that’s OK. Keep looking towards Him and not listen to feelings – allow the Bible to re-frame the world. Getting your Bible out is so important because it gets your brain to see what the world is really like. I wake up in the morning thinking everything is terrible, the world is out of control, I don’t feel good about myself, but when I get the Bible in, it switches things around.

We often come to the Bible and think ‘I’m looking for a verse to take away or something that will change the way that I see today’. But there is something about just listening to it for even five or six minutes that you realise again that this is God’s world and He’s in charge. You’re looking at it from His perspective and it shifts everything around.

I think community is crucial. I think you get alongside other believers and you see them loving and caring for others and you see the diversity of the church and it sets your heart on fire. It’s so beautiful and it makes you want to be a part of that. The gospel brings people together that are so different and yet everyone has a role and a part to play. Also, the way the Lord uses people in their brokenness. It’s the very opposite of the world where the people you think will be dynamic, outgoing and skilled is not necessarily the people the Lord uses.

What does the gospel offer to someone who is suffering or watching their loved ones suffer? 

Christianity is the only faith in the world where, instead of us going up to God, we’ve got a God who comes down to us. A lot of other religions are like a ladder and you’ve got to climb up and then you get to him. In the Christian faith, we have a God who comes down to people who are in a mess and joins them in it and leads them out. A God who comes down and dies on a cross and makes Himself absolutely nothing, who understands every struggle we have and loves us and bears that.

I think when we are struggling and suffering other people are a great blessing, particularly those who have been through the same sort of things we have. But even when you can connect and support one another, there is always going to be that sense that our experience is different from someone else’s. But the Lord is with you in every moment. God works through brokenness. There is something about suffering that He brings beauty out of it. It brings us to an awareness of who we are and who He is. There’s no other way to understand it. That is not to say that God wants suffering. I really believe He doesn’t. But we do have a Lord who can bring redemption and we see that in the cross. The worst evil ever perpetrated and yet the greatest good He brought out of that.

In the same way, He works in dark places. That’s the sort of God that we follow. When we’re in those dark places or our loved ones are and no one else can reach them, then we really do cry out afresh to the God who says ‘I’ve come to bring light to those in darkness.’ That means no one is beyond hope – no one is beyond His hand. God works at the point where our strength runs out. There is no simple answer to ‘why suffering?’. I will never be able to answer anyone who says ‘why has this happened?’ because we just don’t know.

What do you think are some of the challenges to sharing the gospel today?

I think there are lots of different challenges. Culturally, the view of the body is really interesting. In some ways we are saying our body is worth nothing. You can sleep with who you want, you can do whatever you want with your body and change it in whatever way you want because it’s yours and it’s disposable and it doesn’t really matter. In our culture at the same time, we’re saying what you look like is more important than anything else and you’re getting all of these mixed messages. The Bible’s view of the body – its importance, its value – as a part of us that is going to be redeemed and matters now, really speaks into that.

A lot of stuff about identity – who am I, do I create myself, am I what I do, am I who I fall in love with, am I what I make of myself – it seems we are all searching to find out who we are and what gives us worth and what will bring us happiness. These are all questions that the Bible answers. Culturally we are looking within ourselves for answers but the answers are outside ourselves. We have an identity that has already been given.

I think we need to approach lots of different debates with people who are hurting with real grace and sensitivity. We don’t say that it is OK to do whatever you want or that it’s OK to have a view of God that you find most comfortable and works for you. The Bible says that there is a truth and it’s revealed from God and we don’t make it up ourselves.

But equally we want to come with grace too. We’re not just going to people ‘here is law on law and you’ve got to act in these certain ways and that is what will make you a believer’. People are hurting, so it’s working out how to dialogue with them, how to meet with them but also to stand firm on what the Bible teaches and to offer beyond morality – offer a relationship with Christ. We’re not talking about being good or having a nice gang of church friends, we’re talking about the living Lord Jesus. From my own experience, He’s the only person who is more beautiful than the desires of our hearts. Whether we are caught in addictions or caught in behaviours, or lost or frightened or whatever our need is, He is beautiful and the world has nothing to offer that is like Him.

When did you start writing and what made you decide to share your story?

I think it was because my husband was a blogger and I was like a blog widow so he’d tap away at night and I’d tap my feet! I’d always loved writing but after years of academia I felt that it was hard to go back into that because I’d always want to write a perfect sentence. Glen set a blog up for me and I guess I started writing about my experiences. The girl in me who loved to write was still there but I really wanted to write about things that I always swore that I’d never talk about before.

When I was in counselling as a teenager I remember my counsellor saying ‘someday if you’re going to be a writer you can write about these things’ and I remember saying to her very vividly ‘over my dead body. I’m leaving this behind. I will never talk about this. People will never know these things about me.’ That’s a story of the Lord taking our heart’s desires but changing them and giving us something we didn’t think we wanted or in a different way. So I did become the writer I always wanted to be but I wrote about the stuff I always said I never would – the things I’m most ashamed of.

As I wrote I found that there were other people who shared my experiences and not necessarily eating disorders but just ‘your story is my story’. I think as humans our stories connect us to one another and we have many things in common.

You have talked about identity and I have personally wrestled with being an academic to staying at home full-time. I love being at home with my son, but those conversations asking ‘what do you do?’ sometimes challenge me. Have you had that experience being at home with your daughter?

Yes, I think so. I’ve shared about that proud 13 year old who wants to make a name for herself – that girl is still in me. I think what I’m finding is the shape of your struggles change but the heart that beats behind them often stays the same. There was days when you think ‘is this what I should be doing? What does the Lord want from me? Is it one thing or is it another?’ I think that whatever path you pick everyone will feel that.

For years I wasn’t working and I really felt ‘OK Lord, I’d love to write a book. That would be amazing.’ The Lord was really kind and I wrote a book. That was great but it didn’t change my heart. Then there were years of childlessness and really yearning for a child and praying to the Lord for a child. I had a daughter and it’s wonderful – it’s the best gift in the world and I just love her so much. And yet she cannot fill that hole that I think just needs Jesus to say ‘you can’t do anything by yourself’.

At different points in my life I’ve looked at different things and thought ‘if I get this then I know I’m there’. Every time these things are wonderful gifts but if I look to them to give me my identity they’d just crumble. They splinter my hands.

Paul [the apostle] talks about people writing to him for advice on life and decision-making saying ‘should we go? Should we work? Should we stay?’ He says ‘stay where you are at the moment until God calls you out.’ I think that’s quite interesting for us because we strive and strive, we want to move on, we want to change but for the moment, whatever we’re doing, that is our calling. If I’m a mum and I’m changing nappies or up through the night, that’s my calling and the Lord sees that and honours that. If I’m a speaker or if I’m a high-flying business executive in the boardroom, God will use that and speak through that. Life does not start at some unspecified point in the future when I get the goals that I think will make me into a good person. Life’s happening right now.

With suffering, we often feel that once it’s over our Christian life can start again and then we’ll know what life is all about. God is at work often in the deepest ways at the times we think we’re just waiting for something. That’s true of suffering and I think that’s true of daily life as well. There’s grace in the smallest moments and He is at work in our hearts and He can do things through us that will change eternally. A kingdom that is all about the very opposite of the world’s values. Whatever the world says you ought to be, it’s just not necessarily where God works and He promises that He has a calling for all of us. He’s got work for us to do and we can be sure that He is at work.

What is life like in ministry with Glen – the joys and the challenges?

It’s the same for us as it is for every other Christian couple. There are many, many joys – it’s a real joy to tell people about Jesus and to do it as part of Glen’s job especially. There are also challenges – the whole of the Christian life you get to share life with people really deeply and that is wonderful. There’s nothing more important than sharing life and walking with other Christians. It is a real privilege and honour. But sometimes it’s really heavy as well because you’re not just carrying one another’s joys but also their burdens. There is suffering in life and it’s hard. People around us that suffer and hurt – sometimes you cry out and you don’t know what God’s up to. Sometimes God shows you a bit of it and it’s really incredible.

You just wake up everyday and you need reminding that God is in charge and you just put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes the things that you plan and think that God’s really going to use, He doesn’t use and uses the small things instead. We are just thrilled to be part of church family and we’re excited because God has given us opportunities that are shaped like us.

I think the Christian life is beautiful and it’s hard. There’s nothing more worthwhile. Everybody comes back at the end of the day to the Lord – there’s always those 3am moments, no matter what you’ve got in life, you just cry out to God and it’s just you and Him. Whatever happens in ministry and whatever you’re doing, it always comes back to your heart before the Lord and God will do what He will do. He’ll use His people in whatever way and it’s a privilege to be a part of that. But I’m under no illusions that there is anything unique or special about us. It’s just God uses everybody in different senses.

Finally, what surprised you most about motherhood and can you offer one piece of encouragement for new mums?

I think for me personally, it was a lot of redemption in being pregnant and it really helped me in terms of seeing myself and my body as something that had been created. For years and years I’d been using my body and abusing it and tossing it backwards and forwards. When I had my daughter I felt a new awareness of ‘oh wow – it can do this!’ For years and years I’d been battering it around and it’s not superhuman – it’s a gift from God.

I really enjoyed being pregnant and that wasn’t necessarily going to be the case for me. It can often be a trigger for people who have had eating disorders in the past – it can be a very difficult period. But for me it was good.

You don’t hold onto your kids. I always dreamt of having this beautiful child who will always be mine and I would love her fiercely and she would love me fiercely and there is that. But in a sense you just bring your child up and you’re teaching them to live away from you from the moment they’re born. You want them to be more independent and I hadn’t really appreciated that.

There were years and years and years where we really thought we wouldn’t have children and I think it’s a battle if it’s something you really want. I love my daughter – she is such a gift to me but that’s not the case that it solves things. You are not less if you don’t have children. God knows the path that He has marked out for you. I’m wary of saying ‘then I had my daughter and my life was complete’. It’s a gift but it’s one of many gifts that God gives. I just want to affirm that even without having a child, there is grace there.

In terms of encouragement, God has given you this child and as with so many other areas of life, He doesn’t give us things without equipping us. It’s OK to be a ‘just good enough’ mum. You do your best and things can be really hard like whether or not you breastfeed or what sort of birth you have and what you teach your children. You just find your own way. It’s like being a Christian – everybody is shaped differently and you parent differently and that’s OK. There’s no one rule and there’s not a right or a wrong. And it’s OK to just do your best.

I think one of the best things that you can teach your kids is that you’re not perfect but that you are imperfect and you look to a perfect God. In the occasions when you muck up are opportunities for you to go ‘I’m sorry, that was really stupid. Isn’t it great that we have a God we can say sorry to as well? Let’s pray to Him.’ Parenting is not about making your kids think you’ve got all the answers in life. There’s a freedom there to be able to say that mummy makes mistakes too, but isn’t God amazing?

Emma Scrivener was born in Belfast, but now lives with her husband and daughter in the south east of England.  She is the author of several books, including ‘A New Name,’ and ‘A New Day,’ (IVP). She blogs about identity, faith and mental health at