“Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them.” — 1 Samuel 17:38–39
Like a record groove worn deep by thousands of plays, the story of David and Goliath is worn deeply into our popular consciousness. The story – which appears in the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday – is depicted in art, referenced in pop culture, and often serves as a metaphor for the “little guy” standing up against the “big guy.”
But as I re-encounter the text this week, pondering it from the perspective of a person with mental health struggles, my attention is caught by the two verses above, an encounter not between David and Goliath but rather between David and Saul.
Saul – the king and experienced warrior – tries to send David into battle with Saul’s armor and sword. David, responding to the guidance of a man he looks up to as mentor and leader, goes along with this at first, but eventually rejects Saul’s attempt to protect him. He can’t move in Saul’s unfamiliar armor.
These verses have me thinking about the armor we wear, and the armor that we end up passing down from generation to generation. In particular, as I think about my own story of first denying and then finally seeking help for my mental illness, I’m thinking about the forms of armor I wore – armor which I thought could protect me but which really restricted my movement, my freedom, my ability to be the most whole and healthy version of myself.
When I give talks about my journey with mental illness – I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011, after a series of hospitalizations following my first year of seminary – people often ask me how I was able to reach out for help when others seem unable to. It is a difficult question to answer – like many questions, the most truthful answer I can offer is, “I don’t know.” What I do know is there are a series of things that can help more people reach out and find help: challenging stigma by breaking the silence around mental illness; advocating for more just access to care; providing a nonjudgmental presence for those struggling.
But all of these efforts can be so easily undermined by a culture of “armoring up.” Men, in particular, are often taught that asking for help is weakness and showing weakness is “unmanly.” As a consequence of these toxic messages about masculinity, men often suffer in silence – which helps explain why, in the U.S., 7 out of 10 people who die by suicide are men.
What would it look like for our congregations to be safe places for vulnerability – places where it was ok to take the armor off? And what would it look like to model what David shows Saul – that the armor that we pass on to younger generations, trying to protect them, often restricts their movement and growth into wholeness?
As someone with a mental illness, I know that mental health struggles can make everyday tasks seem like an unbeatable Goliath. The temptation is to put on the heaviest armor I can find. But paradoxically, the path to victory might just lie in taking the armor off; in stepping into what feels like dangerous vulnerability and finding there a truer version of ourselves.
Loving God, we confess that we often wear armor made of shame and remembered pain. We wear this armor to protect ourselves from hurt; but we find it also prevents us from truly opening ourselves to You and to others. Show us, O God of compassion, how to let go. Reveal to us Your way of vulnerability and of caring. Help us to recognize Your presence as a place of safety where we can take off our armor and truly experience your grace. Amen.
David Finnegan-Hosey is the author of Christ on the Psych Ward and Grace is a Pre-Existing Condition: Faith, Systems, and Mental Healthcare. He serves as College Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministries at Barton College. He holds an M.Div from Wesley Theological Seminary and a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. He is certified by Mental Health First Aid USA to provide initial help to people experiencing depression, anxiety, psychosis, and substance use disorders. In 2011, David was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a series of psychiatric hospitalizations. He now speaks and writes about the intersections among mental illness, mental health, and faith. David lives in Wilson, NC with his wife Leigh, their daughter Laila, and their dog Penny Lane.