I was having dinner with some friends I had known since primary school. I hadn’t seen some of them for decades. We had this dinner partly to encourage one of them whose wife was fighting cancer. While we were eating, one of them turned to me and said: “Do you know what was the biggest mistake you made?” Well, I have made a number of major mistakes in my life so I was curious as to which one he was referring to. “You gave up dentistry.” What he was saying was that I would have been financially set if I had continued to practice dentistry. (I think the comment was provoked by the fact that he had just gone to see a dentist and had been charged a bomb.) Confession time: The comment hit home, at least for a while.
In the normal course of events, at midlife, you reap the fruit of what you have sowed earlier in life. And I thought, here I am at fifty-five struggling to improve the cash flow of our company, hoping we will break even before Jesus returns. No, I do not want to be rich to buy more toys and I have a standard of living which is comfortable by any standard. But just a little more means more provision for our aging parents. Just a bit more would be helpful to get a few more key staff to bring our work to another level, just a little bit more would mean we need not sweat so much when we view our annual accounts. Just a little bit more.
Last Sunday I preached on Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them (NET).” Again I was confronted by God’s preferential treatment for the poor. When Jesus announces the commencement of His public ministry, He quotes Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (NET)
Good news for the poor. Blessed (how fortunate) are the poor in spirit. Seems like I shouldn’t be too disturbed about not being able to have a “little bit more.” In fact it seems like being poor is an advantage. What gives? Anyone who romanticises poverty probably has never been poor before. So how can the poor be fortunate? Well we need to understand how the bible understands the term “poor.” Here is D.A. Carson’s helpful explanation about who are the “poor” that the bible refers to.
(The poor) are those who because of sustained economic privation and social distress have confidence only in God. . . . Far from conferring spiritual advantage, wealth and privilege entail great spiritual peril . . . Yet, though poverty is neither a blessing nor a guarantee of spiritual rewards, it can be turned to advantage if it fosters humility before God. (“Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984, 131.)
The “poor” then are those who “have confidence only in God.” The issue is not material poverty per se. The issue is to have confidence only in God. However the bible is also clear that those who are materially poor are better placed to have this type of confidence. When you are rich you have many options. There is a great temptation to put your confidence in money and the things money can buy. The poor have no options. They can only trust in God. Yet it is this complete trust in God that qualifies them to be members of God?s perfect Kingdom and heirs to all that God wants to give. That means that if I do not have all that I want, I have more room to trust the Lord, and see God at work.
Was it a mistake for me to have given up dentistry? No, for two reasons at least. One, if the only reason I should have continued to practice dentistry was for the money, that would be no reason at all. One benefit of growing older is that you have much more life to look back on. Looking back, it is clear that the Lord has never failed to come through in providing the finances I needed. I recall that when I first decided to give up dentistry to pursue theological studies in Vancouver, I only had the proverbial “one way ticket.” I only had enough money for the ticket to Vancouver. I didn’t even have enough to buy a return ticket. Yet the Lord provided for all our needs and more in the four years we were in Vancouver. And He has provided for my needs ever since. I have no reason to doubt Him now.
The second reason why it wasn’t a mistake to give up dentistry to go into a church related vocation was that dentistry just wasn’t my calling. In the movie The Chariots of Fire (1981), the Eric Liddell character is quoted as saying: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” When I run I get stomach cramps. (Brisk walking is all I can manage). Dental school was really rough for me. But after I graduated and started practice, I grew in confidence and competence and began to enjoy the practice of dentistry. But when I have the opportunity to encourage people with the Word of God, either through preaching, teaching, or mentoring, I do feel His pleasure. I don’t consider dentistry any less spiritual than preaching the Word, and I learnt so much in my sojourn through dentistry. But I am called to encourage people through the Word and the joy of doing what you have been called to do is something no amount of money can buy. So, was giving up dentistry my greatest mistake? I don’t think it was a mistake at all.