Tomorrow, I get my braces off. I will drive to my orthodontist’s office, where the friendly staff will greet me and be excited for me (big shout out to Todd and his great staff team!). But I will likely try to look cool and collected. I’ll thank them and make a few dry humor remarks. No big deal. I do this every day.
But the truth is that I am very excited. Excited in a middle-school-this-is-going-to-be-great kind of way. I’ve been counting the days – I even got a countdown app that has been constantly running for the past 13 months. I am even taking the day off to celebrate and reflect about the whole process.
But I almost didn’t do it, the whole braces thing, I mean. Over a year ago, I sat in the consultation, with my particular dental problems projected on the wall. I heard about how orthodontics actually works, and then I read the treatment length and cost. “You have a choice here,” he told me, “this isn’t life-saving surgery. It’s elective. So, tell, me, why do you want to straighten your teeth?”
“I don’t smile in the family photos,” I said.
It’s true. When I look back through the family photos, there I am, standing in the back with a tortured, grimaced expression, looking more constipated than joyful.
“That isn’t the way I’d like my grandkids to remember me,” I added.
“Well, there you go, then,” my orthodontist said. He seemed convinced.
But I wasn’t. I walked out that day, weighing the decision. On one side was the possible benefit of smiling more, and on the other side was a very real fear. What would people say about a 60-year old man getting braces? Would they think me vain? Would they be right? Would they find it humorous or sad that I cared about my appearance? In fact, one teen asked curiously, “Why now?” He paused before clarifying, “I mean, it doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”
I eventually decided that it did matter and got the braces. Here’s why: I want to smile more. Now, I don’t know if I actually will smile more afterwards. But I do know that I want to. I want to find out: is there a cumulative good that comes from regular smiling? That is a more profound question than it appears. I’ll put the question another way: Does a spiritual good occur when you regularly open up to enjoyment? Or, what happens to your soul when you habitually accept grace?
I have been living the opposite. I repress enjoyment – and in so doing, I forfeit God’s love. Embarrassed by crooked teeth (vain or not, I felt shame), I repressed the grace that came my way. Real grace is offered me, in the form of a family vacation, holding a new grandchild, or looking into the face of someone who loves me. For a long time now, I have been regularly diminishing grace by not opening up to it. Withholding my smile is just one of the forms that my resistance takes.
God gives me all sorts of grace and I try my best to be nonchalant. I am so full of shame about how I appear, so fearful about how I will be perceived that I forfeit the gifts all round me. I wouldn’t want to appear needy, now would I? Even though I am. I wouldn’t want to reveal my hunger, now would I? Even though it is ravenous. I wouldn’t want to show how much I long for acceptance, forgiveness and restoration, now would I? Even though I do.
All this stiff-arming adds up to a long-term refusal of grace. Which is to say, a long-term refusal of God. Incredibly, I try to self-solve my shame and fear by stiff-arming God’s love, instead of openly embracing it. Refusal of grace is sin.
For me, getting braces is repentance. Now, of course, it isn’t pure repentance – there are other motives mixed in (vanity, etc.). But straightening my teeth removes one of my excuses for not opening up to the gifts of God.
Now on to the more crucial test; will I now allow myself to smile? Will I open up to the manifold ways that God loves me? Will I, with my smile, confess my need/acceptance of God’s smile on me?
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both with individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean and they have seven children and nine grandchildren.