Monday, March 21, 2011

White Smiles and X-Rays

I've been flossing in public lately. Don't worry, although it's very tempting, I refrain from checking the floss to see what treasures I find. I used to only floss on the day I was going to the dentist but now it's become a routine performed at least 7 times a day. No, I'm not OCD. It's the Invisalign. I've gotten totally used to them. So used to them, in fact, that I regularly pull them out during class which is admittedly a little weird since this process involves me slurping up some major drool. I'm supposed to brush and floss after every time I eat, which, if you know me, is quite often. I got sick of searching for sinks and brushing my teeth all the time, so now I've resorted to removing the chunks of food in my newly formed gaps by flossing.

After wearing these clear trays for 22 hours a day for the past 16 weeks, I've realized there are many life lessons to be learned by wearing braces. Several of my friends are getting into gardening and learning lessons about growth and God from their gardens. I'm not adult enough to garden- heck, I'm proud of myself if I eat vegetables twice a week, so I'm learning lessons from my teeth instead. Here's the first lesson I've learned:

You can have a boatload of cavities and root canals and still fool people into thinking you have nice teeth.

I've sat in the dentist chair more often than most. I've had so many root canals that I've fallen asleep during the process. Twice.

"Umm...Katie, you're going to need to stay awake for this. We need your mouth to stay open."

"Oh. Sorry."

Then maybe you should turn off the Celine Dion, pal. How can you expect me to keep my eyes open listening to My Heart Will Go On?

The only person I know with more frequent visits to the dreaded dentist is my brother Trent. We both have a pretty demanding sweet tooth but we blame our crumbling teeth on our genes rather than our lack of self-control. Looking at our smiles though, you'd never guess the thousands of dollars our parents' insurance company has forked over on our behalf. On the outside our smiles look fine.

I've tried to solve my weak teeth problem with Crest Whitening Strips. I figured people would assume I had nice teeth if they were white. So I used to fall asleep with them on at night even though they are only supposed to be worn for 20 minutes. I'd wake up with the strips stuck in my hair or plastered to my cheek and my teeth would be so sensitive it hurt to breath. But it was okay because my teeth were magically a shade whiter. These strips have helped me deceive many, even my orthodontist. When I first went to the "ortho", as those of us cool kids with braces call him, he had no idea of my dental history. He looked at my pearly white smile and assumed I had healthy teeth.

Then he looked at the x-rays.

I wish I had a picture of his face when he looked at those oh-so-revealing x-rays. He said, "" Pause. "Seems you've had some work done."

I couldn't contain my laughter.

What he hadn't seen, what my whitened smile had successfully hidden, is the numerous filled-cavities, crowns, and root canals dotting nearly every single tooth in my mouth. He only saw white teeth on the outside. He had no clue what a rotten mess was lurking behind the white; nor did he notice the gianormous gap in the back of my mouth where a gargantuan size molar was pulled last year.

I laughed because my smile had fooled an orthodontist. I laughed at the irony.

Then I realized that I use that same smile to fool most people I encounter, not just orthodontists. On the outside, I am a "good" Christian. Few would guess the secret sins of my heart; few would guess the rotten mess lurking behind the white.

I've been talking to my freshmen girls a lot about this. Being raised in a Christian environment, we all face similar trials- fighting complacency, learning to rely on God, and realizing our need for grace. Because when we're being blatantly honest, a lot of "good Christian girls" don't understand grace.

We sing about it.

We thank God for it.

We call it amazing.

But we don't really get it.

Because in our transparent moments, we'll admit that we don't often see our need for grace.

At least I don't. Maybe other "good Christian girls" do so I'll speak for myself. I have a pretty white smile- a pretty "white" life. And I'm not referring to my lack of rhythm. On the outside, I appear "pure." I don't drink or smoke or have sex. Sure, I said "shit" today during church but I was quoting Paul. Really. Our pastor mentioned the word "skubala" which the NIV translates to mean rubbish, and he alluded to the fact that skubala actually means shit. He didn't say it though so I had to ask my roommate just to be sure I wasn't getting excited over nothing. I wasn't. Here's the verse:

But indeed I also consider everything to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I forfeited all things; and I consider them shit so that I may gain Christ... (Philippians 3:8)

Yet another reason I love Paul; he wrote "shit" in the Bible. (sidenote: I found THIS POST about skubala when I googled how to spell it; it's awesome food for thought and also mentions Isaiah's reference to used tampons. Just what you wanted. Check it out.)

My point is this: on the outside, I know that I seem "good." I don't commit the sins that raise eyebrows. I'm a "nice" girl. I do "nice" things. But my sins are often the secret, hidden sins that only X-Rays reveal. These can be more dangerous than the "eye-brow raising" sins. Here's why:

First, I may fool others but I don't fool God. He knows my heart and He judges my heart. God doesn't just see my white smile; He sees the X-Ray version of my smile. There is no hiding it from him. He sees all my fillings and knows about every root that has been infected. So too, He sees all of my judgmental thoughts and knows all about the sin infecting my heart. And the thing is, my orthodontist won't be sitting on the throne on judgment day. God will. My outside "smile" won't matter when I come face to face with the King. He'll be looking at the X-Rays so I suppose I should care more about the X-Ray version of my teeth, rather than the fake, white smile I flash at everyone else.

Another danger in harboring these "X-Ray sins" is that when others don't see my sins, I forget they are there. Or, since no one else notices them, I trivialize these sins and assume they aren't a big deal. When I do this, not only do I fail to see how they are rotting my life, I fail to recognize my need for God. I fail to see my need for grace.

Jesus talked a lot about people who use Crest Whitening Strips. Not exactly- but sorta. He got pretty pissed at people who used them- at those who presented themselves as white and pure on the outside but had rotten teeth.

When speaking to the Pharisees, to the people with beautifully white smiles, he said the following:

Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)

Then again:

Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. (Luke 11: 39-42)

Passages like that freak me out sometimes. They freak me out because I worry that if I had lived in Jesus times, that I would have been a Pharisee. And the Pharisees received a lot of, "Woe to you's." They freak me out because when I'm completely honest, I often clean the outside of my smile, the outside of my cup, the outside of my life really well and tend to totally ignore the crud inside my mouth, inside the cup, inside my heart.

I used to wonder why Jesus got so pissed at the Pharisees. Why didn't he have harsh words for the murderers and rapists? It seems He saved his most volatile language for the hypocrites- for those who pretended to have it all together. Knowing my own hypocrisy, I cringed reading about Jesus' hatred for it.

But his anger makes more sense as I've gotten older and begun to have a tiny grasp on the concept of grace. The Pharisees were discounting any need for a savior, for any grace. They were making people think they could get to heaven by "being good" by doing the right things, by being like them. Why then would Jesus need to come and die if people could get to heaven by being good?

I think Jesus used such strong language and despised them so much because they were leading people astray by teaching them that they could earn salvation- that their outward acts would save them. People needed to know that they couldn't save themselves and that no matter how "good" they were, they would still be stuck in sin and in desperate need of a savior.

In order to understand my desperate need for Jesus, I must see my sin for what it is.

In order to gain freedom from entangling sin, I have to see what it is that entangles.

In order to appreciate His "amazing grace" and forgiveness, I need to see what I've been forgiven of; I need to see what I've been saved from.

In college I started praying for God to "cast a searchlight on my heart." I knew I had sin in my heart but didn't know where it was. It was a scary prayer. It continues to be a scary prayer. It's like praying for patience. Note: never pray for patience. It's scary because when God answers it, and He always does, the results aren't pretty. The X-Rays are always pretty nasty.

But it's cool because when He lets me peek at the X-Rays and I am thoroughly grossed out by what I see in my own heart, I get a tiny taste of the grace that's been showered on me. It is only then, when I see how undeserving I am- how sinful I actually am, that I sort of understand grace. It is only then that I weep with thanksgiving for what Christ did for me.

But when I ignore the X-Rays, my teeth look pretty good- especially compared to the rest of the world, especially compared to the British. I fool the world and even myself and it's then that I forget that I am broken. I forget that I need forgiveness and grace. And that is a dangerous thing to forget.

I don't need to broadcast my secret sins of the heart to the world but I do need to acknowledge that they are there, repent of them, and ask for His help to remove them. Because it is only with His help that I can rid myself of the gunk in my heart.

I don't want a white smile with rotten teeth. I don't want to be a "whitewashed tomb" that Jesus says, "Woe to" to. And so I'm praying that dangerous prayer again. I'm asking for a peek at the X-Rays. I'm asking for a taste of His grace.


  1. I remember praying that searchlight prayer in college too. I needed to be reminded of that...this was very convicting (in a very entertaining way). You seriously have to floss 7 times a day with invisalign? That's insane!

  2. Hey Eek- was it Kathy Noling? And yes, at least seven. I offer floss to people like it's gum. Only a few people accept it.

  3. Oi! British teeth are great.

  4. Funny, and convicting! I was a "good" girl! Then later in life, not so much. The best thing that ever happened to me was seeing my need for mercy and grace. It really was. Ignatius, my journaling buddy, makes reference to the great gain of desolation ( as well as Christ's consolation) in our life.

    I was always in terrible need. The inside always bent away in all manner of thought and attitude and motivation. But, only when It came to light, in a way I could not excuse or deny or justify, was I set free to lean totally upon God's great mercy and grace.

    I really identify with what you share here.

    Thank you.

  5. Tom- when I made that jab at the Brits I literally thought, "Will Tom be offended if I put this? Nah- he's got good teeth and makes fun of Americans so he'll be fine with it." :)

    Kim- I love how you use words.