Scripture has a funny way of reading us.
My first post for the Journey blog was called “Taking the Armor Off,” a reference to the ill-fitting armor Saul tried to get David to wear before his battle with Goliath, and to the different types of ill-fitting armor that we wear in order to try to make ourselves invulnerable.
So I had to chuckle when I looked at the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday and saw the familiar words from the epistle to the Ephesians: “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
Take the armor off. Put the armor on. Which is it?
One of the wonderful things about the ancient and diverse library of texts that make up our scriptures is the way scripture’s different voices speak to each other, create tension with each other, and sometimes even argue with each other.
To me, the text from Ephesians speaks to me about a tension in mental health between taking the armor off – being able to step into spaces of vulnerability in order to ask for help and experience the connection and wholeness that can only come with vulnerability – and learning to put the right kind of armor on, so that I am not constantly a painfully exposed nerve of anxieties and emotions. That right kind of armor is made up of many parts – medication for those of us who need it, counseling, friendship, community, self-care, emotional skills, the willingness to ask for help.
The armor to which the author of Ephesians refers is exactly a contrast to the type of armor, the type of strength, that the world often holds up, with its false promises of invulnerability and freedom from pain. This armor of God consists not of thick metal or of thick skin but instead of things like truth, justice, faith, peace, and prayer. It is this sort of armor, the author contends, that allows one to remain standing in the midst of turbulence and adversity.
Of course, it is dangerous to cite a verse about “the wiles of the devil” in a post about mental health. For too long and far too often, people with mental health struggles have been told by the church that they are in need, not of medical care or counseling, but instead of an exorcism. This demonization (in a rather literal sense) of mental illness is one aspect of stigma that we must challenge and eliminate.
I have no interest in blaming mental illness on a supernatural evil force, a bearded creature with a tail and a pitchfork. I am interested, however, in the roots of the concept of “the devil” in the Hebrew Bible, a character named “The Accuser” – the literal translation of the Hebrew ha-satan.
Originally the lawyer for the prosecution of the heavenly council, this figure increasingly took on sinister and evil overtones as time went on, but maintained some of the original sense of prosecuting, accusing, or “testing” God’s faithful.
Mental illness isn’t caused by the devil. And yet, I am very familiar with an internal, accusing, prosecutory voice. One that says things like, “You’re not good enough. You don’t belong here. You’re a burden on people. You’re failing now and you always will. You might as well not even be here.” This voice might not be supernatural, but it certainly is wily.
So my prayer for the church this week is that we can be a place where people can take off the ill-fitting armor that they have learned to wear to try to protect themselves from the world, and instead put on a different kind of armor, one made up of peace, of prayer, of love. This armor, rather than cutting us off from each other, will connect us to each other and to God, so that we can stand, not alone, but together. This armor, I imagine, is less like steel and iron, and more like a comfortable set of clothes – the type of clothing that the author of a different letter writes about: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:14). May we, the church, persevere in supplication, in prayer and in care, everywhere and all times, for all who are being made whole.
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.