John Erickson spoke calmly while forcing air out of the syringe. The closer he drew, the more frantic the N’zao woman became. Beads of sweat grew on her brown forehead as she clutched the armrests of the yellowing, vinyl dentist chair. Long needles will do that to the best of us.
I tried to act confident, but inside I was wincing. I was excited to put my medical training to use, but I don’t do well watching people in pain.
Her teeth looked like broken beer bottles jutting from her gums. The odor was worse. I can’t imagine the agonizing pain that forced her into a mud-walled dental clinic in the forest regions of West Africa. Relief was coming soon, but that didn’t make the needle seem any smaller.
She wanted to swat John’s hands away and run as he started the numbing process. I must have looked concerned. John reassured me by saying, “I’ve got enough anesthetic in her for a root canal, at least. We’ll give it a few minutes to take full effect and make sure, but mostly just to let her calm down a bit. She won’t feel a thing.”
John and his patient spoke until her lips got sloppy under the effects of the drugs. I don’t speak N’zoa, but it struck us all as funny. She opened her mouth and let John put spacers in. After a deep sigh through her nostrils, the woman dropped her shoulders and her fingers returned to their mahogany color as she relaxed her grip on the chair.
We got to work removing the rot and infections that were plaguing her night and day. Somewhere in the process, a quiet voice in my mind recited Jeremiah 29:11: “The plans I have for you are good. Not to harm you, but to help you.”
I’ve seen that verse quoted on tulip-covered bookmarks, but this gritty context seemed suddenly more appropriate. God made that promise to Israel as He was sending His people into exile in Babylon. They had already suffered deeply, and it wasn’t over yet. Not very bookmarky.
The story from that passage reveals an aspect of God’s character I rely on: that He knows what He’s doing and will continue the work of removing the rot in the hearts and lives of those who will let Him.
So often I want to swat His hands away. Because of my pain and desperate need, however, I finally resign myself to His sometimes frightening, always loving way. In pain, I find the resolve to just sit and let Him work. In pain, I don’t avoid the healing process anymore.
The Great Physician knows the problem, course of action, and the outcome He’s after. He is gentle and kind. Sometimes it’s best if I don’t move a muscle.