There used to be a coffee shop in my town that had a bookshelf with used books for sale. A quarter for paperback and fifty cents for hardcover, all proceeds went to a charity. Over the years the bookshelf grew as more and more people donated and traded. There were classics, adventure novels, spy novels, unfortunate “love” stories with inappropriate covers, even the odd self-help book.
I loved the whole affair. I loved to read the titles and see what people in town were reading. I loved the fact that I could spend a dollar collecting books, read them for the week and take them back if I wasn’t that impressed. All without any guilt over spending ten dollars, or more, per book, since they were only a quarter. If I liked the book I could keep it. When I needed to clean out my books to make room for new books, I knew where I was taking them.
Right around this time I started experimenting with non-academic writing. Short stories, descriptions of my hometown, and various types of fiction. I grew up reading old books, and had no idea what was considered best-seller material in the present. So I spent a summer reading best-seller novels from the charity bookshelf at my coffee shop.
One of those best-sellers was The Nanny Diaries by, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. It is about a nanny working on the upper east side of Manhattan. There is a part where the main character’s grandma gives her a designer blazer and some accessories. She called it armor, to wear as protection while amongst the super-rich.
It was the first time I had heard of using something other than armor as armor. Over the years I started to recognize other things could be used as armor, ways of protecting that which feels vulnerable in life. Sometimes it is humor, sometimes it is clothes, like in The Nanny Diaries. Even behavior patterns can be used as a way to shield something inside from other people.
At first, I thought, “That’s a good idea. I don’t want others to know where I’m vulnerable. I don’t want them to know what hurts.” So I joined in with finding some figurative armor of my own, making myself hard and smooth, impervious to the others I feared so much.
The problem is my armor didn’t stay as armor outside of myself. It got to my heart and started to make my heart hard and smooth too, impervious to the people I loved and to God. Keeping that armor up became my identity, until I couldn’t distinguish between myself and the armor. I was the armor, and the armor was me. Who needed that weak, hurting person I left behind anyway?
God did. He made that person on purpose. My husband did, he fell in love with that person. My subsequent children did, God gave them to that person, not to the armor. It was somewhere between the second and third baby that I realized being the armor was a problem, and I needed to remember how to be me.
It took a long time to find the distinguishing line between armor, and me. Even once I recognized what was armor, I couldn’t seem to take it off. I felt like Eustace, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C.S. Lewis), who couldn’t get his dragon skin off. Eustace had to let Aslan, a character representing Jesus, take it off.
So I prayed and asked the real Jesus to take my armor off for me, because I tried and I couldn’t do it. It started with someone important to me dying. At the time I felt God saying to me that He was going to use this loss to pierce my heart. God knew He had to crack that smooth hard surface in order to begin taking it off.
Piece by piece God broke my heart in prayer or worship times in order to save my heart from the armor I had melded to it. Behaviors, ways of speaking, ways of thinking, even certain ways of dressing, it all had to be named false and removed.
God, in His grace, didn’t stop at the armor. He brought up the original wounds and lies I took in as a child and a teenager. The things that made me feel like I needed that armor in the first place. He went right to the heart of my heart and said, “Will you invite me into even this? Will you allow me to speak healing and restoration into this?” To which I had to answer, “Yes.” Even though it hurt in the moment to share those memories and messages with God in prayer.
Near the beginning of this journey of removing false armor, my small group at church went through Pricilla Shirer’s study, The Armor of God. As the name implies it is about Ephesians 6, when Paul lists out the armor of God. She goes verse by verse, thoroughly unpacking the meaning and application of each piece of armor. It is a wonderful study that I would recommend to anyone.
Over the course of the study God reminded me how I used to pray these verses over myself every day in college. That I used to run to Him when I needed armor in times of vulnerability. That the armor of God is life-giving because it is from Him, the life-giver. Unlike the armor I had fashioned for myself. That armor was stunting my life, stunting my ability to grow in my character.
In the end there was an afternoon when I thought about who I wished I was, and who I thought I was. God had removed just enough armor for my perspective to shift. Suddenly I was able to see that I already was who I wished I was. That was the person God created, the person my husband married, the mother my children needed. I realized who I thought I was, was really just the armor I put on. It wasn’t me at all. I was overjoyed and thankful.
That day I let go, and let God. I let go of the false identity of the armor. I embraced my true identity, the one lost so many years ago to hurt and insecurity. The one Jesus restored through His death and resurrection. I felt resurrected too. Like I had a second chance to be who God needed me to be where He placed me, in the time of history He placed me.
Sometimes it is still tempting to go back to the old armor, its familiarity and predictability. But I work to remember what came along with it: utter loneliness, disconnect, and insatiable boredom. In every new time of vulnerability and discomfort I run to Jesus. I hold onto His Word. I look at everything around me that is unfamiliar, unpredictable, and I use it to sing a new song unto the Lord. One that affirms His unchanging character, to remind myself He is familiar and His character is predictable, and He is with me. And that is enough to get me through the battle at hand.