When God teaches us to spiritually protect ourselves by following Him and keeping His commandments, He doesn’t liken His protection to the shell of an animal, but He likens the protection to armor.
Even though shells and armor are both used for protection against harm, the key difference between them is choice. A shell is something an animal is born with; they don’t choose to have a shell. Armor isn’t something we are born with; we choose it. We willingly put it on, piece by piece, when we know that danger is imminent.
The shell is simply a natural defense against predators and the elements. The sea turtle hatches from the protective shell of its egg, and makes a mad dash to the ocean with yet another protective shell upon its back. The turtle will live its entire existence in this shell; to remove it would kill the poor creature. There is no wisdom or intelligence involved in having a shell; there is no courage or sacrifice involved either. Although a shell is form of natural armor, most shelled animals are still very easy prey. Perhaps this is why the shell isn’t commonly used as a metaphor for strength or protection.
Shells are usually descriptive of something that we need to come out of or that needs to be shed. It is something standing in the way of growth. It comes between us and the Lord. President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of how moving away from God allows a “a film of worldliness” to cover us like a shell, but “when we pierce the shell and penetrate the covering and humble ourselves with naked soul and sincere supplication and cleansed life, our prayers are answered.” When we are covered with a shell of worldliness, it can be pierced by sincere prayer and clean living.
Should we continue on a path away from the Lord, we risk losing our integrity. That shell we refuse to give up becomes empty, as President Kimball taught: “Integrity is a state or quality of being complete, undivided, or unbroken. It is wholeness and unimpaired. It is purity and moral soundness. It is unadulterated genuineness and deep sincerity. It is courage, a human virtue of incalculable value. It is honesty, uprightness, and righteousness. Take these away and there is left but an empty shell.”
We can protect ourselves from becoming an empty shell by going to the House of the Lord. President Gordon B. Hinckley taught that regular temple attendance “will refine your natures. It will peel off the selfish shell in which most of us live. It will literally bring a sanctifying element into our lives and make us better men and better women.” Sometimes, we as ward members can help our shell-bound friends. President Monson taught that every ward has members “who seem to have a special skill and aptitude to penetrate the outer shell and reach the heart.”
Shells are something to be penetrated, to be pierced, to be peeled off. When we become children of the Lord, we leave our selfish shells behind. It might feel awkward or difficult at first, because that worldly shell gave us the illusion of safety. We might feel vulnerable as we leave the natural man behind, but God has a better protection in mind for us. He offers us the opportunity to don the full armor of the Lord.
The shell is part of the natural man, while armor is a spiritual protection that we craft together with our Heavenly Father. Still, one might wonder, if both shells and armor protect us, why not use both? Must we leave behind the comfy shell of the natural man? Can’t we have the both the protection of both our human shell and the protection of God? Isn’t that just more protection from harm? According to Elder Neal A. Maxwell, we can’t. The armor of God doesn’t fit when applied over the natural man—
“As sovereigns, choosing to yield to the Highest Sovereign is our highest act of choice. It is the only surrender which is also a victory! The putting off of the natural man makes possible the putting on of the whole armor of God, which would not fully fit before” —Neal A. Maxwell
The Apostle Paul wisely advised, “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” The Lord similarly instructs us to “lift up your hearts and rejoice … and take upon you my whole armor.” We choose to cast off the natural man by choosing to shed our selfish shells. We likewise choose to put on armor. We do this by learning of Him, and keeping all of His commandments.
Frequently we know when we are refusing to shed our shell and put on the full armor of God. We procrastinate repentance. We avoid thoughtful prayer and quiet reflection. We cling to bad habits that limit us. We turn down callings that would have required us to step out of our comfort zone. We distract ourselves with busyness or entertainment so that we don’t have to think about it.
Of course there are times when we don’t feel sure if we are wearing the full armor of God or a shell of our own making. It’s good to periodically ask the Lord. Elder Larry R. Lawrence taught that “if we are humble and teachable, the Holy Ghost will prompt us to improve and lead us home, but we need to ask the Lord for directions along the way.” Elder Lawrence spoke of how the rich young ruler, upon meeting the Savior, asked, “What lack I yet?” While the rich young ruler spurned the Lord’s counsel, his question was still noteworthy and wise. We can ask the same question of the Lord, and exercise further wisdom by following the instruction we receive.
Shells are a part of the natural man. Shells keep God and others out of our lives, and away from our hearts. Shells give us with a false sense of security that we are somehow safe within them, when we actually are quite vulnerable. Shells are something to be peeled off and discarded. Let us not seek protection from shells. Let us cast the supposed protection of shells of away, and rely instead on the whole armor of God for our true protection.
This is an expanded version of an old post from my first (short-lived) LDS blog.