1 Samuel 16:14-17:11. I’m struck less by the story of David & Goliath in this section than that of Saul and David. We are told Saul had an “evil spirit” that came from time to time to afflict him, which led him to be angry, upset, depressed, and violent. My understanding is that most
of the times when the Bible uses that language of an evil spirit filling someone in this way, it is not (as in some rare accounts of possession in the Bible) talking about someone whose soul has been turned over to evil. I think it is generally a medical description: most of what we now call mental illness, as well as a number of neurological conditions people face that were called “having a foul spirit” by the wise men who filled the role of doctors in the ancient world. So I think we have an account of Saul in the throws of mental illness. A couple of interesting things come to me through this story as I face into the reality of mental illness in Saul’s life. David has compassion for Saul. Before I realized Saul had a mental illness, I always wondered why David did so. I mean after all, Saul tries to hurt and at times kill David. Then Saul will switch up and act like David’s a buddy. David treats Saul throughout like a father he loves, even though he has to hide from and defend himself from Saul’s behavior. I think David was able to understand on some level that Saul was not an evil man, but a very very sick man. I think David was able to see through Saul’s illness to see the same man that God had originally called to be king. I believe the fact that David could see this about Saul is why David could still love him like a father. This compassion may be a part of why David is called elsewhere in the Bible a “man after God’s own heart”. These elements of this story are instructive to me. The model it shows is of continuing to love and be there in what ways are safe for you for someone with such neurological and mental health concerns, while also not putting yourself in danger and clearly setting boundaries about what behaviors are hurtful for you and don’t work. Boy howdy, that’s hard! Boy howdy, that’s not straightforward! But I think it’s what compassion in such situations looks like. In truth, did Saul choose to be sick? Though the witness in Scripture is pretty ambiguous about it, from having known so many with mental illnesses my whole life, I can say: no, they don’t choose illness. Saul didn’t either. The person in your life with either a neurological condition or mental illness — or really any illness that causes them to have trouble acting in safe ways with others — has not chosen to be sick. Because of that, though you can’t allow yourself to be in a situation with them where you will be used, hurt, or abused, and there is a sense that you need to have compassion and realize this is a sickness they cannot control. They are suffering just as you are.
Another aspect of this story that speaks to me is David playing music to help soothe Saul’s mental health symptoms. This action of David’s is the first example I see in recorded literature of music therapy! There is something about music which is healing to our souls, helping us step out of our stress, our anxiety. This is true when our anxiety and stress are not symptoms of an illness and so much more so when they are connected with illness. To me, this is part of why I make listening to centering music a part of my spiritual practice. I’d be curious to hear how any of you deal with loving someone whose health condition makes it hard for them to chose safe behaviors for themselves and those around them; and also how you use music for emotional, mental, or spiritual health.