I am dreading my next trip to the dentist. There’s this tooth that my dentist has poked and wiggled every 6 months for the past four years. “Any sensitivity on this one?” he asks. “It looks like it should be hurting you…It’s just a matter of time before it needs a crown.” I know it’s probably my imagination, but I can sense some anticipative joy in his proclamation. You’ve probably guessed why I dread the next dental check up. Sure enough, after four years of tugging at that ancient filling, I have developed some sensitivity to cold in that tooth.
All this reminds me of a metaphor C.S. Lewis uses in his classic, Mere Christianity. He tells of experiencing toothaches as a child. He would delay telling his mother until the pain became unbearable. He would inform her in the evening when unable to fall asleep because of the pain. She would then place an aspirin on the tooth to quell the pain. Lewis says his release from pain was temporary for he knew that in the morning his mother would call the dentist. Lewis dreaded the dentist because he knew that the dentist would not stop with that one tooth. Indeed, the dentist would examine and any and all problems found in Lewis’ mouth. Lewis complained that dentists, “given an inch, would take an ell” (a term used by tailors, 45 inches).
In true C.S. Lewis style, he then compares this experience to our experience of God in Christ. Often times, we defer our prayers until those times in which our pain is so great we simply can no longer function. It is then we call upon God to address that one “bad tooth” that is causing our suffering; perhaps a habit, an addiction or a troubled relationship. However, Lewis reminds us, God is not unlike that dentist and, “given an inch, would take an ell” as well. Truly encountering God means God will not only address the point of pain, but will also poke, wiggle and tug at the remaining areas of our lives. All the while, God will ask, “It looks like this should be hurting you, as well…are you sure there’s not some sensitivity here, too??”
This process is identified in scripture as sanctification: a lifelong journey to perfection following one’s acceptance of God’s grace in Christ through faith. As one influenced by the teaching/preaching of John Wesley, I understand sanctification, or “scriptural holiness” as Wesley referred to it, is not a process that limits itself to only certain parts of our lives which we choose. Instead, it is an all consuming encounter with a God who not only seeks to drill out the decay that I can feel and acknowledge, but also the decay of which I’m not yet aware or to which I’m unwilling to admit. This God is not above yanking out whole behaviors, attitudes and impulses that are capable of spreading decay throughout my entire life. Better to go through life with a few teeth missing than to....you know where I'm going with this.
I guess what I find most refreshing in this metaphor (which I’ve both paraphrased and expanded) is that it reminds us that not everything about surrendering to God in Christ is pleasant. There is, indeed, a cost to discipleship. Beginning with an insistent invitation to “open wide” so Dr. God can not only see the obvious problems but the hidden ones as well, discipleship is a process which may actually introduce more pain, inconvenience or loss before it seems to improve our quality of life. In a church/society so influenced by consumerism, this kind of process just doesn’t seem to “sell” to a “customer base” who have been convinced that the Christian faith can consistently be reduced to 4 or 5 feel-good points whose first letters, ideally, are an acrostic for a positive, memorable word. I have a feeling if Lewis were here today he would not be nearly as impressed with the contemporary church's quest for "purpose" as we seem to be. For seeking one's purpose without an all consuming commitment to the process of sanctification is nothing more than attempting to baptize one's own desires.
All this being said, I am still dreading my next visit to the dentist.