I Am a Flossing Legalist

I really need to start remembering that most people are normal. That way, I’d avoid a lot of strange looks.

I got one of those looks at the dentist last week. He asked the predictable litany of slightly-nosy questions: “Any medications? Allergies? Do you brush regularly?”

And then he got to the one I was dreading, “How about flossing? Do you floss on a regular basis?”Floss

“Well,” I confessed, “not this time.”

(Because dentist know, guys. Don’t you try to fool them. Not gonna work. It’s like telling you mom you didn’t sneak a cookie when you have chocolate smeared on your face and a trail of crumbs at your feet forming an arrow that points right at you.)

I could have just stopped there. But, feeling the oppressive shame of poor hygiene, I needed to justify myself. “See, the reason I didn’t floss often this time is because I didn’t tell anyone I would.”

One eyebrow raised. “Oh?” (I think dentists take lessons from the one-word responses their patients give them while attempting the awkward chat-while-scraping-plaque thing.)

“Whenever I tell my dentist or hygienist that I’ll floss, I do,” I continued. “Every single day. Otherwise I feel like I’m breaking my word. Like a pledge of honor or something.”

The mask covers up most of the you-are-so-strange look, but I’ve seen it so many times before that I can fill it in. I’m sure he was smirking. But all he said was, “Really?”

“Yep. So, anyway, here goes: I’ll floss every day. That should do it for this year.”

I am not going to be this person.

I am not going to be this person.

And, sure enough, that night, instead of skipping floss because I was tired and darn it, I could spend that 1.2 minutes sleeping, I flossed. It works, guys.

And you know why? Because I am a flossing legalist. There’s a fine line between being motivated to take good care of yourself and an obsessive dedication to honor about something that doesn’t really matter at all. If I shut the medicine cabinet immediately after brushing my teeth, I feel an absurd sense of guilt. I made a promise, and by the Tooth Fairy, I shall keep it, no exceptions. The Fluoride Vow has made its demands of me, and I will submit.

(Thank everything that is sane and socially aware, I did not say that last paragraph to my dentist.)

As I flossed a few nights ago, all of this made me think of a few questions: what does Flossing Legalism look like when it comes to spiritual growth? Or, to put it another way, how do you set high standards but still give yourself grace when you fail? It’s good to ask someone to hold you accountable for something, but is it bad if your main motivation is not letting that person down?

By the time I rinsed and spit, I had an answer: live life with God instead of for God.

WithThat one is stolen straight out of Skye Jethani’s book With. It covers several different ways people relate to God. One that sounded familiar to me was “Life For God.”

About people trapped in this way of thinking, Jethani says, “They fixate, and sometimes obsess, about ‘making a difference in the world.’ They fear living lives of insignificance. They worry about not achieving the right things—or not enough of the right things. Behind all this is the ‘Life for God’ belief that their value is determined by what they achieve.”

Have you seen these people? They’re the rule-followers. The overcommitted “inspirations to us all.” The ones who hate seeing that one blank spot on their Sunday School sticker chart where they missed saying their memory verse.

The ones who feel a compulsion to floss every. Single. Night. No exceptions.

“Be holy, as I am holy,” is a significantly steeper challenge than “Floss every day.” And it’s one we should be striving for…but the motivation is important. A person living life for God is bound by pressures and obligations and guilt and the deep, nagging fear that they might let someone down or realize that they are not significant after all.

A person living life with God loves God, because the focus is on their relationship. That’s why they do the right thing. Because of love.

To be honest, strange looks from the dentist aside, there’s nothing wrong with legalism when it comes to dental hygiene. If you take up the Fluoride Vow with me, I won’t try to stop you. But keep it there. Don’t take that same attitude to the rest of your life, and especially not to your relationship with God.

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