Since I was a boy, I’ve had an aversion to dental work. I have avoided dentists as much as possible—probably why I need to see them more than I do. My last couple visits were beyond my control: one was to replace a twenty-year-old crown that broke, and the most recent was to repair a tooth that had chipped.
As the doctor explored that great chasm that is my mouth, his light, mirror, and pick inspecting each stalactite and stalagmite of my upper and lower jaws, he would occasionally stop to tug at some sharp edge. Sometimes the tugging was so fierce I thought he might pull loose an old crown or filling. Other times I figured he’d found some natural jag—like the nooks and crannies in a cave’s walls—that I would need to remember to floss better.
But those weren’t jags weren’t natural, and they weren’t rough edges left by some previous oral explorer. No, they were deposits of calcium or plaque that had attached since my last cleaning—”like barnacles,” my dentist said, graphically. And they needed to be removed.
Some of my barnacles broke off easily. Some needed more coaxing and a bit of filing. But some took a lot more work, more care, more powerful tools, and that dreaded whirring noise.
This morning I was praying a dangerous prayer: that God would transform me; that he would conform me into the image of Christ. As I prayed, I thought about my time in the dentist’s chair as a lesson for my spiritual life.
God and dentists do two types of work: they transform us and they conform us.
Spiritually, God transforms us by cleaning our lives, renewing our minds (to borrow Paul’s words from Romans 12:2). He picks off the plaque and files down or grinds off the rough edges – the barnacles, as my dentist called them. He finds the cavities, then cleans and fills them. (Let’s not even get into root canals here!)
Conforming is different. It’s a reshaping of our lives; it’s the process of molding, shaping, sanding, and polishing – like the dentist did when he had to build up and shape the enamel he used to repair my chipped tooth. Just as our teeth were once new and beautifully formed, so our lives were once an exquisite “image of God.” And just as years of eating and drinking not always healthy foods wears down, discolors, and damages our teeth, so our sin nature and the unhealthy choices we make mar that original holy image. God wants to restore it.
When I was looking for an image to accompany this post, I noticed that all the patients in the dentists’ chairs had beautiful looking teeth! I would love to have such a perfect mouth, I’m just not as excited about the work it would take to get there.
I also want to look like Jesus, but that, too, takes hard, slow, sometimes painful, work as God patiently conforms us to the image of Christ. The results will be worth every moment.