250745I was chatting with a dentist over the weekend. We were at a church camp where I was one of the speakers.

I guess it’s not everyday that you discover that your camp speaker is also a dentist, albeit one who last touched a pair of forceps in 1981. She asked me how she was to bring her faith into her dental practice. “How does one become a marketplace Christian?” was how she phrased it, I think.

I was touched by her question because I did practice dentistry before, though it feels as though it was in a previous lifetime. But I am a champion of sorts for “marketplace” Christianity, the conviction that Christianity is not merely something that one practices within the walls of the church. Rather, living out one?s faith is a 24/7 matter and that surely includes our life at our workplace since work occupies such a large proportion of our lives.

Reflecting my present work more than my previous profession, I immediately thought of three words beginning with the letter “C”: Compassion, Competence and Conversations. Although my reflections are directed to the world of dentistry, I suspect the principles involved are applicable to other vocations as well.

It seemed obvious that the first Christian trait that a Christian dentist should bring to his or her work is compassion (1John 4:16b). For one thing many seek out a dentist?s help in times of pain and distress. For another, compassion presupposes that the dentist understands that the patient is a fellow human being.

I have said on a number of occasions that I always understood that as I dentist, I was not treating teeth. I was treating people. And people have feelings; they have questions; they have fears; they have hopes. My interaction with the patient must always bear these dimensions in mind.

It means I must always treat the patient with respect, seeing him or her as of infinite value, value beyond the confines of the treatment rendered. Therefore a desire for this person?s well being must be the mainspring for my treatment, irrespective of what other motives may be operative.

I know that the amount of interaction possible in any visit to the dentist is limited. But I suspect that people can intuitively sense if they are the objects of genuine care.

Compassion is the starting point for any Christian approach to dental treatment but it cannot end there. True compassion means I must do my best in rendering whatever treatment is necessary. True compassion must lead to a commitment to competence, indeed to pursue excellence in my work (Colossians 3:23,24). A compassionate dentist who does a lousy crown or bridge damages a patient and brings no glory to God.

Indeed I have often advised folks that if they had to choose between a dentist who is a fervent Christian but who practices poor dentistry, and a non-Christian practitioner who does good dental work, choose the latter. Ditto if one had to make a similar choice when looking for a heart surgeon, lawyer, etc. Indeed the last two examples illustrate the logic of my advice more clearly.

I have known of Christian professionals in various disciplines who were very committed to evangelism and prayer but who were shoddy in their professional practices.

Now I believe that all Christians should take seriously their callings to share the gospel to all creatures and to pray for those in need. Indeed I can?t see how one can be a follower of Jesus and not be committed to evangelism and prayer. But evangelism and prayer are no substitute for one’s commitment to practice one’s profession with integrity.

Sometimes I have been confronted with the opposite argument. If I need a surgeon, I should look for the one who is most competent. Who cares if he or she is compassionate? If the person’s surgical technique is good, who cares if he or she treats me like dirt the rest of the time?

My answer to challenges like these is, “Why do we have to settle for one or the other?” “Why can’t I have a surgeon who is both technically good and who relates to me with respect and compassion?” Having to choose between technical competence and compassionate care seems like choosing between air and water. We need both.

As the writings of Paul Tournier and others have shown, many physical ailments are rooted in ailments of the human spirit. As John Stott reminds us, we are all body-spirit-in community. On one level, a person needs a surgical operation. On another level, this same person is a person who is also desperately in need of emotional and spiritual healing, and whose community is in turmoil.

I maintain that a Christian surgeon will reach out with both Christian compassion and professional competence. I am not implying that any single person can meet all a patient?s needs. But we should at least be aware of them.

And what about conversations? I am betting that a person who encounters a professional who consistently reaches out with compassion and competence will be intrigued enough to engage such a professional in meaningful conversations (1 Peter 3:15). Indeed they may end up as friends.

And meaningful conversations between friends are the places where we talk about life, about values, about the things we hold dear. Meaningful conversations are the occasions when we talk about Jesus.

Indeed, I am hoping that a patient intrigued by a competent professional who humbly cares for her, will be curious as to the roots of her dentist?s behaviour and values. She will ask the questions for which the answer is Jesus Christ.

How should a Christian practice dentistry? With compassion, and competence, with the hope that good conversations will emerge where Christ is shared.

Teachers, nurses, accountants, lawyers, secretaries, fund managers, stockbrokers, designers, mechanics, musicians etc., how does compassion and competence feature in your work? What does it mean to be a Christian in your vocation?

In an increasingly urban world, most human interaction will occur in the marketplace, in the context of work. Therefore, it is imperative that we know how to bring Christ into the marketplace. We need to know how Jesus is at work in our work.

Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan