A friend emailed me today about something she’d done that resulted in her feeling as though she needed to binge-eat and “beat myself up and be mean to myself.” She was ashamed that she’d communicated in anger and said things she felt were more than the other person really needed to hear (Eph. 4:29).
Like many women, my friend overeats as a form of self-punishment. There is a not-fully-conscious line of thinking that underlies this behavior: If I punish myself enough for what I’ve just done, then I won’t do it again. But punishment is not a good deterrent, especially for the Christian, who is best motivated by grace, not law (Rom. 6:14; Tit. 2:11-14).
When we punish ourselves, we are ignoring the Gospel, the good news about how Jesus has taken upon himself absolutely all of the punishment that was due to us. The fear is, however, that if we believe in the Gospel, there will be nothing to hem us in, to keep us from “sinning our heads off.” The Apostle Paul anticipated this concern when he asked, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” He quickly answered his own question with, “By no means!” (Rom. 6:1-2a, NIV) He went on to explain that continuing in sin just isn’t natural to believers in Christ: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:2b, NIV)
The Gospel does not only involve Jesus taking the punishment for our sins, but also it means we are changed by sharing in his death. Sin cannot control a dead person who has been raised into a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:2-4). The very fact that you are appalled by your sins indicates that you no longer desire to sin! You will not continue in sin because you have the ability and desire to no longer submit to it (Phil. 2:13).
When I sin, I do get very, very angry with myself, but I no longer try to punish myself by overeating or engaging in any other self-destructive behaviors. Instead, I admit to God (and sometimes to others as well) what I’ve done, accept that I am not condemned (even though I certainly deserve to be—Rom. 8:1), and exercise (usually not easily) faith and trust in the fact that God has promised to turn even my sin into part of his good plans for me and even those I sinned against (Rom. 8:28). Punishing myself (which I used to do regularly) never stopped me from sinning, but turning my eyes upon Jesus and his good news has had great fruit in my life (2 Cor. 3:18). When you truly embrace the Gospel, the need to punish yourself by overeating diminishes and fades away.