What Anorexia Taught Me About Control: How Control Promises More than it Can Deliver

Reading Time: 6 minutes


Across the wide cab of my 1970 Ford pickup, Bruce plucked his banjo. The rain had stopped. We had driven from Montana through Idaho and into Utah. We were only sixteen. It was 2 a.m. I had been driving since about 8 p.m. and was beat. The speedometer needle vibrated at 80. We swung around an outside corner on the two lane road, hit a patch of water and hydroplaned, suddenly spinning out of control.  

“Get control of the wheel!” Bruce ordered. 

My truck became a red and white pinwheel. Controlling the steering wheel was like grabbing a tornado. We bounced off the guardrail again and were thrown across the road onto the opposite shoulder, facing the way we’d come.   

Control. We use it as an active verb describing our belief we can prevent any danger or fix any disaster. It’s a deceptive word, though, promising what it can’t deliver. We use it mechanically as if life could reflect the famous story about a piece of duct tape saving the Apollo 13 space crew. 

Control is our default coping mechanism. Despite that it’s a myth and there is no such thing as absolute, mechanical control of life. Somehow that does not stop us from believing in it, hoping for it, and abusing it.

My Battle for Control

While in her early teens, my oldest daughter was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, the strange disease where a person thinks the only thing she or he can control is food intake and begins to self-starve. 

It was as if she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer, a cancer of the soul. We were shattered and terrified. Still we mobilized. We took control. We prayed and recruited friends to pray. We found counselors, doctors, dieticians. We read books. We searched for the culprit. Gymnastics, our culture’s focus on being thin, poor parenting, physiology, psychology. What? It was too complex to blame any one thing. 

My daughter and I had—and still have—a close relationship. I’ve always believed words hold healing power (read more here). We talked until she was blue in the face. But she continued to waste away. Eventually we admitted her to a treatment center, Remuda Ranch.     

I believed if we just did the right things God would fix her. 

“God, I know you have the power to heal her. So heal her!” 

God seemed silent.

Months later, I heard these words in my soul: “If I have the power to heal her, I also have the power to walk with you, if I don’t.” My heart broke. I wept. I stormed at God. “I’m a better father than you are! If I had the power you do, I would never allow a child of mine to go through what she has gone through!”

“That’s blasphemy,” God said kindly. 

“If I was in control—” 

“You don’t know what I know and you don’t love her the way I do,” God interrupted in a whisper. 

I couldn’t answer that. It sounded Jobish and Job couldn’t answer God either.     

This was my first argument with God over my reliance on control. That I could, by my behavior and beliefs, control life and God. And if that failed, that God should take control.

Control Is a Dangerous Cultural Myth

I’m not alone in thinking of control in this way. We believe there is a candidate who can save America, a law that can stop violence, a job that can make us happy, a diet that can change our twisted self-images, and a God who can take away all danger, pain, and fear. Or heal my daughter. This is coercion not faith. 

I use no faith when I push the starter button on my car (though I know some do), or sit down on a chair, or wait for the sun to rise. With this mechanical view of life, prayer is a mere button we push after inserting the correct coins in the Big Vending Machine in the Sky. 

Control cannot deliver what we ask of it. Worse, author James Bryan Smith writes, “What you try to control will end in disaster. What you try to keep will spoil (manna). What you release will be blessed.”

This is true because the absolute control we ask God for can only be wrought through force. In the treatment center, my daughter was fed intravenously and she was only alone when she slept. The facility chose her diet, music, activities, and reading material. But this kind of dictated treatment only lasted until she chose to eat and live on her own. It was an intervention. Her long, slow healing only came as she chose to live.

It’s ironic how my battle for control to save my daughter’s life versus her battle to remain in control of her own life was met by God releasing all control. Control does this. Pits against but solves nothing.

I was sure God would use Remuda to completely heal her. But her progress was sporadic. She was no longer on death’s door but it still hung open. I was angry. Depressed. Sleepless. I’d meet her as she left for school and give her a pep talk about eating and trusting God. The more I pressed for control the more distant she became. And I wasn’t trusting God.  

God’s words formed on my heart, “Trust me. Let her go.”

“But if I trust you, she’ll die.”

In his silence God made no promises. Reluctantly I loosed my hands from the wheel.

Control versus Freedom and Love

God made no promises because in the name of love God relinquished the power of control. God is sovereign but did not control Adam and Eve. God could have stopped them from eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead God granted them the option to eat or not eat. Live or die! So too with my daughter.

Eugene H. Peterson asserts that this was God’s creation of human freedom. Freedom fosters love. Control disables love.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, the Incarnate Jesus faced the same choice God whispered to me that day. Trust me. 

Jesus chose to release control of his life.

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension reflect that God is not a Controller, but a Redeemer! God does not control our decisions but redeems them.

True Freedom is Dangerous

This tension between love and control is the truth behind the story of Pinocchio. Without strings he is free. His nose grows as evil multiplies. But also without strings he eventually comes back to Geppetto in love and becomes a real boy. This is our story too. Our belief in ultimate control is nothing more than a cry for God to restring us as puppets.

Bruce and I climbed out of my battered truck shaken but unharmed. 

And after a long battle, in which God did walk with us: three treatment centers, a myriad of counselors, and a million prayers—my daughter is healthy, though the shadow remains. She walks with Jesus, has a beautiful marriage, five wild and unique children, and is one of the deepest, wisest, most compassionate humans I know. If I have a question about life that requires a complex, faith-related conversation, I call her. She never tells me to just get control of my life. Or that God is in control.

She knows control is a myth and that there’s more to it than that.  

My 1970 Ford truck

10 thoughts on “What Anorexia Taught Me About Control: How Control Promises More than it Can Deliver”

  1. Georgie Ann KETTIG

    leading into very deep territory!,… I feel that in my youth, this was more generally “realized”, as far as one’s “faith”, in general, was concerned,… perhaps “hope” was a bigger ingredient in our “faith, hope and love” God-inspired outlook, because the effects of science and medical cures and space travel, etc, were in a much less developed (or as yet, non-existent) state,… “life” itself was more precarious, and more fragile, and maybe more “special”,… we didn’t look for presumed guarantees,… we didn’t have tv,…

    but then as an adult, at the time of the widespread “faith movements”, “name it and claim it”, etc, and along with the complicated technical and cultural developments that engulfed us, the significance of the initial simplicity was “lost”,… “life” became more about how to strategically figure out how to put forth “the best winning decision making process(es)”, and of course, “always come out on top”!,… well, I guess it “sounded good” to many,… but what does always desiring to be a “winner” actually tell us about our “heart” for losers, or even for our own personal reality, whatever it might be, at any given moment?,…

    when we desire to “take the place of God”, ourselves, what is then left for us to “trust”?,… only ourselves and the chaos around us, and we are mortal,… God loves us enough to let us “learn this lesson”,…

  2. Georgie Ann KETTIG

    I think I would like to add to the above ~ “the chaos that we have created around us”

  3. Georgie Ann KETTIG

    maybe I’ll add this too: “we didn’t have the “false hopes” created by tv and the myriad illusions of visual technologies,… “

    1. Deep indeed. You always go deep. Thank you. It is a complex issue as you say. But, as you also hint at, the belief in control and loss of faith and hope has grown as we have moved away from the soil and into technology. We have just enough success–like Pavlov’s Dogs–with controlling life with technology, slogans, and pills that we have given ourselves over to it in totality. Hope you are well.

  4. Philip Whitcraft

    Eugene thank you for your blog on control. Very helpful and comforting. I miss you at Wellspring and pray you and your bride are better than well.
    I will be sharing your piece with my family

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