If there is one thing I’ve come to understand in the process of growing old, it’s that life can be extremely unfair. Not so much now, but when I was much younger, it was—as some put it—the pits. What really made it much worse was all the advice older people would dish out at the very time when I was at my lowest—advice such as suggesting that what and how I felt was not all that earth-shaking or painful. “Just wait until the going really gets tough…”
Does this all sound familiar?
The fact remains, “stuff” happens to all of us, and if we do not take charge, it will overwhelm us. Now that I have reached this more ancient point in my own life, I find myself enormously qualified to assume the role of dispensing some of that sage advice, too.
When we look back over some of the dire aspects of our past and recent lives, we can easily conclude that life really isn’t fair, with a growing awareness that this doesn’t appear to be diminishing in intensity. In fact, it may appear, at times, to be careening out of control. How do we face this? How do we survive when life hammers us over and over?
The answer is in one of the most galling bits of advice people gave me, repeatedly, which I felt trivialized my horrendous experience of the moment. Their advice? “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” It was even more galling in view of my dislike of lemonade. Interestingly, that bit of advice can be found in the Bible—not exactly in those words, but in concept. And, it is great advice when you understand the principles involved. We will look at this principle in this article and, hopefully, help you “squeeze the lemon” when it’s handed to you.
Lemonade in Prison
The Apostle Paul understood this issue:
But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel (Philippians 1:12–17).
Paul was in prison at this point, but he kept the big picture in mind: the Gospel. In every circumstance in which he found himself, proclaiming the Gospel was foremost in his mind, especially if he could inspire others to do the same. Paul was jailed—a big lemon. Preaching the Gospel meant going to prison—a big fear. Reality was simple for him: “Preach the Gospel, go to jail!” But this did not cause him to develop fear or a negative attitude. The threat of jail produced the opposite reaction; such persecution, in his mind, should breed even more boldness.
There is a tremendous lesson in this for us. Paul faced many such traumas, and he survived them by converting them to good. “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philippians 4:11–12).
These key words of advice to us from Paul are the key words of this article. Paul’s use of the word “content” implies a strength in self-sufficiency—not feeling as though one is in dire need. But how did he do it? Verse 13 explains: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Trials and Persecution Will Come
The Church has always understood that preaching the Gospel will produce persecutions and trials. Bad times will come, not only on our leaders, but on God’s people in general. Jesus said it would happen:
Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matthew 10:21–23).
This doesn’t mean that evil is all we can expect, or that we might as well quit. Paul tells us to take heart in 2 Corinthians 1:6–10 (cf. Colossians 1:23–26; 1 Thessalonians 3:1–7).
In each case, Paul is saying Christian trials result in good things, such as faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. This is the process of growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
The Philippians were aware of Paul’s plight. Yet he did not want them to be overly concerned, because he had “good news,” not bad news, to report: the Gospel was still being spread. This was “lemonade-time” for him:
What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice. For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:18–21).
Paul could have looked at the bad side of his situation—his own imprisonment, his restriction in travel, his physical suffering—but he looked at life from the viewpoint of the Gospel. If the Gospel was spreading, it was “good news”—lemonade. And his imprisonment and trials were increasing the advancement of the Gospel.
The Bible explains why this was happening, and the book of Acts tells the story.
Now when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him. And it came to pass after three days that Paul called the leaders of the Jews together. So when they had come together, he said to them: “Men and brethren, though I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans…” (Acts 28:16–17).
He was under “house arrest”—under constant guard. “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (vv. 30–31).
Scripture clearly shows that Paul repeatedly referred those who visited him to the matter of Jesus Christ. Most likely the emperor’s own guards were also under the continual influence of Paul and the Gospel he was preaching. It is almost certain Paul would have tried to teach his “captive audience”—the soldiers who may have occasionally been chained to him. So, it is possible that some of them were converted: “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ” (Philippians 1:12–13). His example and effect were widespread: “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:21–22).
Joy that the Gospel Is Preached
Even more amazing about Paul’s attitude is that some, at the time of his imprisonment, were preaching their version of the Gospel to deliberately hurt Paul:
Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice (Philippians 1:15–18).
Paul did not fall into the trap of self-pity and despair. He could see those seeking to persecute him were inadvertently spreading the Gospel!
But, whether in pretense, envy or strife, in Paul’s mind, Christ was still being preached! To “rejoice” means to be cheerful and glad about something. Whatever it was going to take, whether he was to live or die, even caused by others seeking to condemn him while he was in chains, Paul was determined to support the preaching of the Gospel. This is how you can explain 1 Corinthians 9:16, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” As a minister of the Gospel, he felt compelled to follow through, whatever the cost.
One of the most graphic examples of lemon-squeezing in the Bible is Paul’s stoning. “Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (Acts 14:19). It was all over. Paul, a bloody mess of torn, smashed, crushed flesh, was dead. Surely, no one ever survived a stoning! It was the end of the story.
But, wait! Paul moved!
However, when the disciples gathered around him, he rose up and went into the city. And the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (vv. 20–22).
A 1940s Tune with Lessons for Today!
What about us, today—Christians facing 21st century realities? What can life’s hard knocks teach us about making lemonade? At times in past sermons, the late Presiding Evangelist, Roderick C. Meredith, would sing the lyrics to a 1940s melody which provide the key to making lemonade: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative.”
A Christian must make the choice to “accentuate the positive.” That means controlling our attitudes, our thoughts, our moods. For example, we can choose to be positive, even rejoice, when difficulties arise. “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2–4). This certainly is lemonade!
A real, positive choice is remembering that God is always with us in every aspect of any trial we face, if we ask Him for help. With a proper understanding, we maintain a positive attitude despite external circumstances (cf. Romans 5:3–4; Romans 12:12; Philippians 2:17–18).
The Christian then must make the choice to “eliminate the negative.” When trials come, we tend to talk ourselves into negativity, dredging up negative phrases—“I can’t do it,” “It’s too hard,” “Why me?”—and by constantly reminding ourselves of such things. As we read earlier, the Apostle Paul suggests a better way in Philippians 4:11–13, knowing that in all his negative circumstances he can be content, reassured that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (v. 13).
The more lemon-squeezing efforts you make, the more results you will see: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:7–9). You can start by choosing your friends carefully (1 Corinthians 15:33).
And a Christian must stay away from “negative” people—those whose constant pessimism poisons their efforts to cope with the reality of their lives. With the right self-encouragement and by picking the right companionship, we can avoid becoming hardened by what Paul describes as the deception of sin, which is always negative: “…but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
A Christian must then make the choice to “latch on to the affirmative.” One of the most disastrous mistakes Christians can make is to dwell on the past. Yes, we all have sinned and fallen short, but God says that, upon repentance, He has put away those sins from us. Christians need to live in the present, not the past. Paul was a prime example of this concept: “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:12–15).
The Prize of the Upward Call
Paul’s solution was simply, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12–14). God is telling us to live in the present, but look to the future.
It was the future glory inherent in all Christians that enabled Paul—and will enable us—to endure the present trials we face. This mature approach is what helped Paul to maintain a positive attitude, even in the most difficult of times:
But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. Also I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen! (2 Timothy 4:17–18).
While God can provide the lemons—or, at the least, allow them to come into our lives—He also, through His Spirit, gives us the means to make lemonade.