Lessons from the dentist’s chair


Sometimes perspective comes from the strangest places. This New Year’s Eve, God brought me a lesson from one of my least favorite places (and you’ll soon see why!) – the dentist’s chair.

What spiritual lessons can be gained from the dentist’s drill? Let me give you a hint. It has to do with our reactions to suffering and a process I’ve seen happen in my life. It goes something like this…

Discomfort creates self-focus. Continued hurts turn to bitterness. Control masquerades as conviction.

Yet, embedded in our suffering, both large and small, is a path to beautiful, priceless redemption of our God—a redemption that brings healing, hope and perspective.

 Discomfort creates self-focus

One week ago today, I was in my dentist’s office on New Year’s Eve. The plan was for me to get my teeth cleaned, and then follow that with changing out an old silver filling to a new white one.

Although I needed the work (my tooth had been hurting), I had a bad case of the dreads, magnified by the fact that my husband made the last-minute appointment without asking me. I had less than 24 hours to prepare my heart.

When I sat down in the chair, Jenny (the hygienist) started chatting warmly. It was obvious from all she knew about me that my extrovert, ministry-leader husband had shared deeply with her. She seemed genuinely excited to have me in her chair.

After my short answers to her many questions while she was setting up, she asked me if I was okay. Without thinking, the words flew out,  “I wish I wasn’t in here today for all this dental work.”

“Robin, I don’t want you in here doing something you don’t want to do,” Jenny exclaimed kindly. “Do you want to move the second appointment?”

After we talked through all my options (and it became painfully aware I would putting off the inevitable), I asked, “Could you just give me a small break between the two appointments?”

Jenny worked quietly, asking me again and again, “Are you okay?” Then she added, “I’ve come to peace that although people don’t like coming here, I do a good thing.”

I sighed a little on the inside knowing I was the “people” she was referring to.

At the end of the appointment, the best I could do as I walked out was to mumble my thanks, rubbing my now sore gums.

The hurt turns to bitterness

As soon as Dr. John took one glance in my mouth, I knew I was in trouble.  “How would you feel about getting a crown today,” he said with a smile. “I can already see some cracks in the tooth underneath the filling.”

Fear pressed on my chest. My two hours at the dentist’s office was turning into three hours…and a much more invasive procedure.

Picking up on my angst, Dr. John went to great lengths to prepare me. While he and his assistant were holding my mouth wide open, keeping my tongue to the side and drilling all at the same time (causing considerable pinching) he explained…

”This drill is very sharp. Several times, I’ve nearly cut off someone’s tongue and had to stitch it back. Your small mouth concerns me.” (After that I focused single-mindedly on keeping my tongue pinned to the side of my mouth!)

When they gave me a break, I took off to the safety of the bathroom. Pulling out my phone, I called Dave to let him know I’d be late. When he asked if he was okay, emotion bubbled up my throat. Everything in me wanted to weep.

I put on my best strong face for the rest of the procedure, but bitterness had been born.  Distrust of a dentist who split tongues. Fear that five shots of novocaine would make it where I couldn’t swallow. Blaming my husband that my New Year’s Eve plans were evaporating.

Bitterness births control

My last words to the dentist and his assistant were, “Man, that was one tough little procedure. When Dr. John told me I might need two more crowns, I said firmly, “One in 2014 and one in 2015. I will not do two of them in one year.”

He crossed his arms and sighed, saying with some sadness, “Well I guess that will be up to you then. We’ll just see how your teeth hold up.”

I walked out of the office with only a mumbled thank you to Dr. John and his assistant. The severe amount of numbness had moved up over my cheekbone, down to my chin, around my ear…and now was moving into my soul.

The next morning I woke up feeling better. When I ate breakfast, it occurred to me that I hadn’t chewed on the right side of my mouth for over a year. What a strange new freedom! I felt almost gleeful at having my new crown! Now, it somehow seemed symbolic of a new year.  No more pain on the right side!

But then my self-focused visit to the dentist’s office began rushing back. Conviction washed over me. How I wished I could have risen above my fear.

Looking Deeper

I googled “dental phobia” and found a concept called “learned helplessness.” This is when “a person believes that they have no means of influencing a negative event.  A perception of a lack of control leads to fear.”

Closely related, “stimulus generalization” is when a previous traumatic event (totally unrelated to the current situation) triggers feelings of trauma and helplessness.

I sat by my computer amazed (and convicted). This explained not only this dentist’s appointment but years of interactions with other doctors as well. Under each of my reactions were past traumas. For instance…

Dental appointment — While attending college, a wisdom tooth extraction led to a serious infection right after the man (I was sure I would marry) dropped me for a woman he had been seeing behind my back. The doctor told me I was within 30 minutes of rupture of a pocket of infection and possible death.

My small mouth — After wisdom teeth surgery, I needed my inverted upper jaw expanded before I could get braces, meaning a major surgery, and having a gap wider than my thumb between my two front teeth for an entire summer.

Novocaine — When married with three young children, an allergy shot caused a full anaphylaxis reaction and another brush with death involving two shots of adrenaline, hives on every surface of my body and the inability to breathe.

But the concept makes even more sense when applied to deeper trials.

  • Discomfort creates self-focus — We pull back and shut down, forgetting that God’s providence is at work.
  • Bitterness takes root — We distance ourselves from the very people trying to help us, not realizing that we’re being triggered by past pain and losses.
  • Control masquerades as conviction — We shortcut God’s good plans, by implementing our own plan, convincing ourselves it is the only way.

The scary thing is that our attempts to be in control can seem spiritual. “I am protecting myself because I can’t handle any more pain.” And when that happens, as I can attest, we can become shortsighted; losing sight of loving others, and the character and knowledge of God we receive through the fires of trial (1 Peter 1:1-9 AMP).

Perspective-giving redemption

How do we overcome this in our lives? For me the answer is twofold…to take a deeper look at where my response comes from and then open my eyes to all God is doing.

For instance with my dentist’s visit, there were so many evidences of God’s working: Jenny’s sincere interest, Dr. John and his assistant staying a full hour after the office closed (on New Year’s Eve) to help me, a perfect fit the first time on the crown, a $200 discount since I mentioned a coupon that came in the mail the day before.

God brought the pain and timing of that crown for my good and graciously made a way for it to happen through my husband’s love for me.

So when it feels like God has a big drill going in your life or that other people are making it difficult for you, it’s time to seek God’s answers. By opening our Bibles, we can gain some much-needed perspective, like I gained this New Year’s Eve….

My limited perspective

God’s unlimited healing

Suffering can take me to a self-focused, ungrateful place where I begin to lose sight of other people, and all the ways they love and support me. Job 9:27-29. God is more concerned about my long-term righteousness than my short-term suffering.  What seems long, drawn-out and unbearable is often rich with his mercy.  Isaiah 32:16-18; 54:14; 61:1-3.
My reactions to current suffering are nearly always magnified by past losses.  My main fear is losing control.  Psalm 116.  God sometimes allows events in my life that trigger into my past losses so that he can heal me.  What seems like destruction (grinding away an old tooth) precedes new creation.
2 Cor. 5:16-18; Hebrews 12:11.
I can choose to live with “disabilities” (only being able to chew with one side of my mouth) to avoid dealing with painful realities. The goal of His discipline is to heal me, not to disable me. Hebrews 12:13.
Taking control seems like a logical choice (even a spiritual protection) when pain seems more than I can bear. Suffering offers me a spiritual perspective that it is hard to find anywhere else. Isaiah 38:16-18; 2 Timothy 1:12; Job 36:15

Personally, I think I need to apply these lessons to the challenges of leading a women’s ministry.  Watch for more!

Now it’s your turn

Make a list of your most painful experiences of 2013. What treasures of insight and healing might God be offering?

Where do you see learned helplessness or stimulus generalization in your life?  How does it come out?  What are some ways that you numb your soul?

What simplistic solutions fall short in helping others struggling with deeply rooted responses to pain?  How can we gently lead others towards growth in these areas?

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6 thoughts on “Lessons from the dentist’s chair

  1. Robin, God is so good to me…and more than a few times THROUGH YOU and your relentless pursuit of God and His ability to love us like none other and to heal us like we could never have imagined. YOU are a powerful reminder that God is greater than our wounds and so much higher than the greatest hope we can muster in the midst of our very real pain. I am so grateful for your love for us that repeatedly compels you to reach out and help your sisters. You have my respect and love, Sis. Keep it comin’!!

  2. The same analogy was used with me when I didn’t want to face my bitterness. A sister sat me down and lovingly explained to me that the pain I was about to go back through in order to heal was actually good for me. I did not want to face the past but God was continually calling me back. I had let bitterness take root and God needed to give me a Spiritual root canal so I could love my husband again and love others. Its been painful and I let numbness rule my heart for too long. On the outside I was numb..the minute anyone tried to go deep, the infection of bitterness would rage out. I’m grateful for my root canal and my check ups. God is always there continuing to clean me and take me to a better place spiritually because he cares for me. Thank you.

  3. I can’t help but wonder how frequently I might cut myself off from an opportunity to grow because I’m overprotective with my personal “boundaries.” Certainly we need boundaries (this has also been a valuable lesson for me), but sometimes it’s just easier to establish my own instead of prayerfully searching for God’s. Hmmm…if I were to identify that area of pain for me, hands-down it’s relationships, of every variety. Something to ponder in this new year!

    • I so agree Gina. Sometimes, my boundaries can look more like walls of protection! And I agree that the most tempting place to set these is in relationships. Thank for the nudge to pray about this.

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