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Happy or Healthy?

Is it more important to be happy or healthy? Some people would wonder if it was too much to ask for both. I am a dentist and I find it interesting how many spiritual parallels there are between dentistry and Christianity. It is often very hard to convince people that they have a problem when they can’t feel that there is anything wrong. That’s why I love digital x-rays. I find it much easier to convince people of their problems when I can “show” them what is happening.

I did a lot of dental exams in my previous role. Many times there are patients that come in with calculus between their teeth. Often times you can even see the calculus on the x-rays. It is a very teachable moment when they can see the results
of their own poor hygiene. The plaque has sat on the teeth for so long that is has absorbed ions from the saliva and has hardened. At this stage, we call it calculus which literally means “stone.”

I find it interesting that many of these patients vow that they will start flossing to remove this calculus. Unfortunately, I have to inform them that at this stage, flossing is incapable of removing the calculus as it is often tenaciously adhering to the teeth.

Hardened, Harmful, Hidden

The calculus is a mass of hardened plaque. The plaque contains bacteria. These bacteria can cause the breakdown of the surrounding bone that supports the teeth. This loss of supporting bone is what we call periodontal disease. Periodontal therapy is often a hard sell as periodontal disease (even when it goes untreated) seldom causes any pain.

Treatment for acute pain is much easier to sell. If someone didn’t sleep at all the night before, I can usually convince them that they need root canal therapy to alleviate pain in a tooth. Sin, like periodontal disease, sometimes does not cause obvious acute pain. Many people wander through life happy even though they are unaware of the destruction that is happening/has happened.

It scares me to know that I am often the first person to ever show a patient their x-rays or to record in their chart that there is bone loss (periodontal disease). Many patients pass through year after year feeling fine and never being told that there is a problem.

Sin is often like a chronic, low grade infection that we are totally unaware of. It is slowly killing us, but we don’t know any better.

The Painful Process of Renewal

So how do we treat periodontal disease? The first place we start is scaling and root planning. This is where the hygienist removes the calculus that the patient is unable to remove on their own. Sometimes, the gum tissue has to be reflected to get better access.

Often times the gum tissue is repositioned in order to reduce the pocket depth of the gum tissue surrounding the teeth. When this is done, the root surfaces of the teeth are exposed after the surgery. These exposed roots can often be a source of sensitivity.

After periodontal surgery patients often complain that they had no issues beforehand but that now their teeth are sensitive. They often question whether or not the procedure was worthwhile. It goes back to the original question: is it better to be happy or healthy? Does dentistry exist for your self esteem (to make you feel better) or to remove oral disease?

While the teeth may be more sensitive after periodontal surgery, the goal is oral health. If the pocketing around the teeth has been eliminated, then oral health can be maintained by the patient. The pockets around the teeth (that have just been made shallower) can be kept clean. This prevents the bacteria from congregating in the deep pockets of gum tissue and destroying the supporting bone. The teeth can be saved, even if they are more sensitive afterwards.

Acknowledging Sin and Savior

So, what is the spiritual parallel here? All of us have sin, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. If you’re not convinced, start with the Ten Commandments: Have you ever lied, ever stolen anything, ever dishonored your parents? And that’s just three of the Ten. Or what about the good that you haven’t done? James tells us that “Anyone,then,who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it,sins”(James 4:17). As the old liturgy says, “We have sinned against Thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

Whether we are happy or unhappy, we still have sin. And this acknowledgement of our sin is the first step in being treated for our disease.

The second is to acknowledge our need for a Savior. We need to stop appealing to our own efforts to save ourselves. It is patient neglect that causes (allows for) the accumulation of calculus. However, at this stage the patient must acknowledge their need for help. They can’t floss away the calculus, they need the help of the hygienist or the periodontist.

Man is always attempting to dig himself out of his predicament by his own effort/religion. The Gospel is designed to break us of this. When we try to offset our sins by our good deeds, we are no different than the felon who stands before the judge and appeals to all of the community service he has done since he committed the crime. Isaiah says it quite bluntly, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags . . .” (Isaiah 64:6a).

In the New Testament, Paul reminds us: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins . . . All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1-5).

We are in need of a Savior. He wants to restore us to health.

Rather than being the Percocet that makes you happy, Jesus is the penicillin to treat your infection.

I used to preach the fulfillment “gospel.” I used to tell people that they needed Jesus because they were empty inside. I was basically preaching Him as a higher means of fulfillment. But the older I get, I meet many people who seem quite happy without Jesus. Unless they are lying to me, they seem fulfilled.

So, I no longer tell people that they need Jesus to be happy, I tell them that they need Jesus to be healthy. When the patient understands that periodontal surgery will allow them to save their teeth, it makes it easier for them to tolerate the sensitivity that may follow the procedure.

Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow Him.

At times, following Jesus will make us unhappy. But He will make us healthy. And if we understand where we were/where we were headed, we will gladly embrace the temporary pain of following Him.

Peter describes it like this: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:6-9).