Toothbrushes and Dragon Tales
Allow me to be embarrassingly honest: In middle school I didn’t know that you were supposed to brush your tongue when you brushed your teeth. Every morning before school I would get up, brush my teeth, put my hand in front of my mouth, blow, and smell my Colgate-freshened chompers. Yet, by my fourth period English class, the aroma of Colgate would quickly vanish in place of middle school boy breath.
I know that my breath had broken through by my fourth period English class because that was my first class of the day with Shaniah. Shaniah was also a straight shooter; she didn’t pull punches. There were several occasions where Shaniah and I would be in the middle of a conversation before she begin to sing the Dragon Tales theme song aloud. “Dragon Tales, Dragon Tales…” as she bobbed her head left and right while I looked on dumbfounded thinking, “Why is this girl singing the Dragon Tales theme song?” At one point I decided to finally ask her and, without missing a beat, Shaniah replied, “Cuz boy you got that dragon breath, your breath be hot!”
What does my bad breath in middle school have to do with spiritual disciplines? Well, a lot actually.
In middle school I brushed my teeth but neglected the most important part of the equation for good breath: brushing my tongue. It wouldn’t have mattered if I brushed my teeth until my gums bled, for, apart from brushing my tongue, my breath would still smell like trash just in time for Shaniah to sing her daily hymn to me. I was missing the most critical component for good breath: brushing my tongue.
Likewise, it may be for many of us that we are pursuing spiritual disciplines while neglecting the most critical component: the gospel. However, the negligence of this component is far worse than simply not brushing your tongue in its allegorical connection. No, when we forget to pursue spiritual disciplines through and in the gospel, it is like trying to brush your teeth without toothpaste.
When you brush your teeth without toothpaste, you remove the exterior junk from your teeth, but you do nothing to stop the plaque from ravaging your teeth and gums. You clean what is visible but completely miss what is invisible. The toothbrush holds no power to actually clean your teeth, it is merely the tool by which the cleaning agent – toothpaste – is actually applied.
Likewise our spiritual disciplines carry no intrinsic power to clean our hearts and our souls of their indwelling sin if they are disconnected from the gospel. That was worded carefully for a reason. I am not trying to pit spiritual disciplines against the gospel, or vice versa. Spiritual disciplines, like a toothbrush, are the tool(s) by which we apply that which actually does the cleaning. The two are complementary; they are married together. You need a toothbrush and you need spiritual disciplines, but these are both means to an end. They are the means by which we apply toothpaste and the gospel to our teeth and hearts, respectively.
You may be asking or perhaps wondering how one can disconnect spiritual disciplines from the gospel.
Undergirding this claim of mine is 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 where Paul reminds the church in Corinth that the gospel is not a past reality that is isolated to the event of our salvation. We do not enter the Christian life by faith and then progress in sanctification by works at the alienation of faith. No, the gospel, as Paul reminds us, is that which we receive at salvation, that in which we currently stand in, and that which we are being saved by. The gospel is our past, present, and future. We don’t graduate from the gospel. The gospel is not baby formula; faith is not the apple sauce of the Christian life. We live the Christian life – in its entirety – by faith. Faith that Christ has cleansed us of every stain of sin by substituting himself in our place: the Righteous for the unrighteous. Faith that we are made righteous not by our works, but by the finished work of Christ and his perfect fulfillment of the law which we receive by faith. It is this faith which empowers and enables us to grow in killing sin in our lives as we grow in holiness.
Thus, we must be careful to pursue spiritual disciplines out of faith, not works. For it is God who uses his Word to cleanse and sanctify us as we read and submerge ourselves in it by faith. It is God who reorients our heart, will, and desires to his own as we pray in faith that he alone can change our nature.
Spiritual disciplines are a balm to our souls when we see them as the means by which we meditate on the beauty of the gospel, rather than works we have to put our minds to in order to fix our sinful desires.
To put it simply, toothpaste is to a toothbrush what the gospel is to our spiritual disciplines. To neglect toothpaste is to neglect that which actually cleanses the teeth; to neglect the gospel in spiritual disciplines is to neglect that which actually sanctifies the heart.
Putting the Toothpaste to the Toothbrush
Jesus describes the Pharisees as white-washed tombs: beautiful on the outside, but dead and decaying on the inside (Matthew 23:27). These were the most disciplined men in the world: observing over 600 spiritual laws they had manufactured outside of Scripture and memorizing the entirety of the Torah by the time they were twelve. Yet they pursued their righteousness and sanctification not by faith, but by works. They were moral people, but they were still dead and alienated from God.
Are you a white-washed tomb? Have you been scrubbing your soul with a brush yet forgetting the balm which actually heals? The cleansing power of faith in the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected.
So we pursue our Scripture reading, our prayer, our fasting, our evangelism, our journaling, and other disciplines in faith – in the gospel. We pursue these not with an attitude of trying to take a toothbrush to our soul, but we pursue these disciplines as tools which help us to apply the cleansing and sanctifying work of the gospel upon our lives.
In perceiving spiritual disciplines as a toothbrush and the gospel as toothpaste, we are free from a works-based system of sanctification where we rely on white-knuckled self-discipline to grow in holiness. We confess to God that we cannot fix our hearts, and that we are reliant upon him to do so through these disciplines.
When we realize that sanctification is by faith, not works, we are free from relying on our own strength as we come to rely on the Lord in faith and take hold of his promise that he will finish the good work that he has started in us.
So let’s put the toothpaste on the toothbrush; let’s put the gospel in our spiritual disciplines.