There is a meme that features the picture of tin cans and the line ‘success comes in cans, not cannots.’ It’s meant to encourage a change in atittude, from the negative ‘I can’t’ to the positive ‘I can.’

The Bible has a similar verse, but one which is anchored in God and reality rather than in our own ability: ‘I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.’ (Phl 4:13) The context of the ‘all things’, the ‘all this‘, is contentment in God – learning to trust Him whether we are in plenty or in need, learning to be content whatever the circumstances because God’s presence with us makes all the difference to how we live.

Yesterday I had to go to the dentist’s to have a broken wisdom tooth extracted. I don’t know where my fear of the dentist originated, but anyone who knows me knows that this is an irrational phobia. I have actually been blessed to have had wonderful dentists in my life, and my current one is both kind and understanding. This does not, however, reduce the fear I feel when entering his surgery. I am that patient who is so tense even during routine check-ups that my nail marks remain on the chair arm after I am gone. So you can imagine how I felt at the prospecct of a tooth being extracted, especially since I had had to have an X-ray beforehand and he had warned me that I might need to go to hospital if the X-ray showed potential complications.

He patiently explained all the risks associated with the procedure (the tooth breaking, leaving roots which would necessitate hospital treatment, sinus infections, bleeding problems), something I understood rationally that he had to do but which actually only succeeded in accelerating my heart rate still further. He told me I must give informed consent for the procedure as the child in me yelled, ‘Just do it!’, the war between what I wanted (to be miles away) and what I needed (to have the procedure) raging as hard as any military conflict.

I gripped the chair arm for dear life, closed my eyes and endeavoured to keep my mouth open while he prodded and poked other teeth to test them, anaesthetised me twice (gum and roof of mouth) and then began.

I could feel fear coursing through me, but focussed on repeating Philippians 4:13 silently in my head. ‘I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. I can do this. I can bear it.‘ Occasionally I would flinch (‘that’s my finger, please don’t bite it,’ he intoned.) The dentist, well used to my paranoia, kept a running commentary going throughout (‘open a little more,’ ‘now close’, ‘that’s just my finger’, ‘nearly done’), whilst at the same time my own internal dialogue (think Smeagol and Gollum) was running (‘hurry up; I can’t stand this’, ‘yes, you can, I can do all things through Christ; you can do this.’)

It’s taken longer to write this than the procedure did, and in the end the tooth was taken out cleanly (‘I’d give that a 10 out of 10’, the satisfied dentist said as I bit down on gauze to stop the bleeding, nearly gagging as I did so.) Slowly my heart rate returned to normal, and I left a few minutes later, poorer by £70.70 but strangely exhilarated. That which I had feared and dreaded for months was over; still numbed by the anaesthetic, I felt exuberant. It was done! The agony of toothache solved!

Sometimes in life we have to go through experiences we wish we didn’t have to experience. My dental trip was nothing compared to the difficulties some people have to face day after day, year after year. The truth remains that we have to focus on the cans, not the cannots, and most of all on the God who gives us strength. A positive attitude in God’s ability (not ours) will see us through difficult, even desperate, days.