My idealistic, focused, ministry-working, 70-hour-a-week self constantly ignored the reality of the dentist. Don’t tell anyone, but for over ten years, you would have never found me inside a dentist’s office or sitting in a hygienist’s chair for that all-important bi-yearly cleaning.

At first, I was just too busy serving. That’s what I told myself. Then, it was simply procrastination—”I’ll do that next month.” But then it became something that I just couldn’t do because I had put it off for so long.

Finally I drug myself, chagrined and chastened, to the dentist. After a thorough cleaning and—yes—an identification of the problem areas that needed addressed, the wonderful hygienist told me something rather surprising: she told me that, while my overall hygiene was good, I was actually brushing my teeth too hard.

Wait. It is possible to apply too much zeal to brushing your teeth?

She explained that you actually only need a bit of pressure on a toothbrush, gently and consistently applied, to get the job done. With the nagging knowledge that I should be going to the dentist, I had overcompensated with gusto on my choice of harder bristles and pressure. I was actually harming my teeth rather than helping, causing enamel wear and receding gums. Ironically, this causes bacteria and plaque to build up, the very things I was ardently seeking to avoid in the first place.

I discovered something else once I started paying attention. I tend to transfer the frenetic pace of my life to the force I use while brushing my teeth. Even now, I have to stop and intentionally pause before the simple act of daily brushing, because I’m prone to push too hard and too fast (even if I would never deviate from the recommended time of two minutes).

After returning from the dentist with my diagnosis of seven cavities (sorry, Mom and Dad), I swapped toothpaste brands, bought an electric toothbrush, and began to focus on using gentle consistency rather than driven force.

As my gracious hygienist explained, an electric toothbrush does a much better job in my type of mouth. I could simply “walk” my toothbrush down my row of teeth, letting the electric toothbrush do the needed work.

Isn’t that just like life? I put so much effort into brushing, flossing, doing, all to compensate for the fact that I was intentionally overlooking the important things—spending time in the hygienist’s chair and gently and daily cleaning.

When I applied excessive pressure through a toothbrush, nothing got cleaner. Things just got worn and etched and cavity-filled. But an electric toothbrush, with its internal motor and soft bristles, applies just the right amount of pressure for just the right amount of time.

Am I trying to do things right now in my own strength? Am I pressing and pressuring through things that are actually the Holy Spirit’s responsibility and realm?

Historically, I have viewed the fruit of the Spirit, found in Galatians 5:22-25, as a task list.  Here it is, all laid out as a To Do list for the beginning of the day:

      • Love
      • Joy
      • Peace
      • Patience
      • Kindness
      • Goodness
      • Faithfulness
      • Gentleness
      • Self-Control

It is a rare day when we get to the end of it with all those things checked off, isn’t it?

But here is the life-changing truth: The Fruit of the Spirit is not a To Do list.

Go ahead. Read it again. This one is worth reading twice: The Fruit of the Spirit is not a To Do List.

It’s not something I must do, not something I must check off, not something that I can even achieve by myself. The Fruit of the Spirit is just that—fruit. It is the result of being indwelt by the very Spirit of God, the effect of “Christ in me, the hope of glory.”

And that is the secret. Once I realize that the fruit of the Spirit is something to be, not something to do, then I can focus on the one command that actually is in Galatians 5: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Isn’t this such a better list at the beginning of the day?

        • Serve one another humbly in love (Galatians 5:13)

Never forget that we have to pick up the toothbrush. Never forget that it is the toothbrush that does the work. And yes, that interaction between picking up the toothbrush and the toothbrush doing all the work, between faith and works, is something that we, er, work at understanding our whole lives.

May the simple act of brushing our teeth remind us of this beautiful truth: it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit—with love.


P.S. Go to the dentist. The hygienist is on your team.