There’s no substitute for imagination. Without good images to provide us with vision, the world overpowers us and leaves us feeling small and helpless. Unless our symbols are working, fate can never be turned into destiny.
This is especially true regarding how we, as persons of faith, stand before a world that can often be cold, loveless, unjust, and hard. If you’re a sensitive person it‘s easy to feel overwhelmed by your own powerlessness and seeming insignificance. What can you do? The powers of the world are so huge and universal while you are so small and limited.
Whenever we feel discouraged in this way, a helpful image can be the biblical picture of David standing before Goliath. It‘s an archetypal image of how, invariably, good stands before evil, justice before violence, sensitivity before brute indifference, and tenderness before iron David standing before Goliath is the perennial image for how good and evil face off with each other in the struggle for life and death and how, in that struggle, what is good, just, and tender always looks hopelessly overmatched.
Here’s the image:
At one point in her history, Israel, who here represents God’s cause, is in battle against the Philistines who (as the word “philistine” still connotes) represent brutality, lack of justice, lack of feeling, lack of goodness, and lack of God. Their champion is a giant, Goliath, a brute of unparalleled strength who, in the picture presented, has no feelings, no sensitivity, no goodness. He walks onto the battlefield clothed in iron, seemingly inanimate, sneering, arrogant, disdainful of all opposition. Beside him stands his armour-bearer, also clothed in iron.
On the other side, stands Israel, intimidated in the face of this brute strength, knowing that, among them, nobody who can fight Goliath on his own terms.
So they change the terms! Instead of taking their strongest man, clothing him in iron, and sending him out against Goliath, they send a young boy, David, with no armour at all. He goes out barefoot, with only a slingshot, more a boy’s toy than a weapon of war.
And he cuts a pathetic figure. He walks onto the battlefield as a naive child, unsophisticated in war, someone not to be taken seriously. That is also how Goliath sees him – “Am I a dog that you come out against me with sticks? You’re not an opponent even worth fighting. This is a joke! Come over here and I will cut off your head and feed it to the birds!” Godless forces do not exactly cower when truth marches out to do battle against them.
But we know the outcome. David reaches into his shepherd’s pouch, takes out his slingshot, inserts a smooth pebble, and his first shot penetrates the skull of the giant. He then cuts off Goliath’s head with his own sword. A boy fells a giant; the toy of a child overpowers the weapons of war; what’s naive defeats what’s sophisticated; and sensitivity proves more powerful than iron.
There’s a lesson in this:
That image, David before Goliath, the child before the giant, depicts how anyone who is a true defender of God’s cause invariably stands before the world – hopelessly overmatched, looking naive, a child before an adult, bare skin against iron, a joke, someone not to be taken seriously. But victory belongs to the child. It’s the giant that’s vulnerable, it’s iron that won’t hold up, providing of course that the child has some smooth pebbles inside his or her shepherd’s pouch.
What’s a shepherd’s pouch and what’s inside of it that can fell a giant?
When David reached into his shepherd’s pouch and took out a slingshot and a pebble, you can be sure that this was not the first time he had done this. As a shepherd, in the fields by himself, he would have spent countless lonely hours practising with his slingshot, searching for just the right pebbles, and then palming those pebbles to know their exact feel, to give them the feel of his hand, to really make them his own. When he walked out to face Goliath his weapons may have looked pathetic in comparison to his opponent’s steel and iron, but he knew their exact feel, they were an extension of himself. And in that is the lesson.
Long before we walk onto any battlefield to confront what opposes God, love, truth, and feeling, we too need to spend countless lonely hours palming and polishing what’s in our shepherd’s pouch – prayer, sacraments, our traditions, and especially our charity and respect. These are David’s pebbles, our weapons against Goliath. We need, through many lonely hours, to palm them, press them, and give them the smell and feel of our own skin. Then, when we fling them at the giant, they will penetrate the iron and hardness that stand in the way of God.
We won’t always have spectacular results, like David. We won’t always save the world or our own nation, but at least we will save our own sanity.