From the archives



Squeezing Good Out of Bad

James N. Watkins
XarisCom 2009
Trade size (6x9) 112 pages
ISBN: 978-0-578-01006-9

Chapter 5

When life gives you lemons use as an all-natural, organic astringent:
Grow from the problem

Pop quiz! Take out a clean sheet of paper and a number-2 pencil for this multiple-choice test.

    1. Which of these fruits has more vitamin C?
    a) Orange
    b) Lemon
    c) Passion Fruit

    2. A single lemon tree can produce how many lemons per year?
    a) 100
    b) 3,000
    c) a number equal to the national bailout for U.S. banks

    3. A lemon will yield twice as much juice if you
    a) Put it in a 200-degree oven for a few minutes
    b) Freeze it before squeezing
    c) Run over it with a truck

    4. Putting salt on a lemon half . . .
    a) Takes away the sour taste
    b) Cleans the lime build up off sinks and faucets, shines copper bottom pans
    c) Makes great lemon pepper chicken

    5. Ancient cultures used lemons to . . .
    a) Poison their enemy's water supply
    b) Lighten, exfoliate, and tone skin
    c) Play croquet

Okay, exchange with your neighbor to grade your papers. B is the answer for all the questions.

Yep, putting salt on a lemon half cleans the lime build up right off sinks and faucets, as well as shining copper bottom pans.

And, ancient Avon ladies were offering, as a monthly special, lemons to lighten, exfoliate, and tone skin. (Guys, I had to look that up. "Exfoliate" is to scrub off dead and dry skin. And "astringent" is a facial cleanser.)

In fact, Patty Moosbrugger has written a book, Lemon Magic: 200 Beauty and Household Uses for Lemons and Lemon Juice. The lowly lemon is an amazing little fruit.

And, the lemon of pain in our lives also produces some amazing results.

Now, before we go on, let the record show, I do not like pain. Instead of "No pain, no gain," my philosophy is "No pain, no ow-ies."

And I'd really rather listen to that TV evangelist with the comb-over hair who is always casting out "foul spirits" of asthma, blindness (but obviously not baldness), cancer, diabetes, eczema, and the rest of the anatomical alphabet, than author Henri Nouwen who writes:

    In this crazy world, there's an enormous distinction between good times and bad, between sorrow and joy. But in the eyes of God, they're never separated. Where there is pain, there is healing. Where there is mourning, there is dancing. Where there is poverty, there is the kingdom.

Even the children's classic book, The Velveteen Rabbit, pokes holes in my "no pain, no ow-ies" idealism:

    "Does [becoming real] hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

    "Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

    "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

    "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

    "I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

Philip Yancey, in his wonderful book, In His Image, documents the work of leprosy doctor Paul Brandt. The reason for the destruction of flesh and muscle is that the victims feel no pain. So, if a leprosy patient gashes the bottom of his foot while walking barefoot, he won't notice a problem until it is infected to the point of losing his foot.

Pain then, Yancey argues, is a gift from God. Without it, we wouldn't have clue we were sitting on a hot stove or a rat was gnawing on our leg until severe damage had been inflicted.

I received such a "gift" several years ago. As I mentioned briefly in the Introduction, I had just settled into my warm waterbed after a long day, when suddenly it felt as if a semi tractor-trailer with snow chains and a load of rolled steel had parked on my lower back.

As my wife drove me to the hospital, I tried Lamaze breathing as I dug my fingernails into the van's armrests. All the focusing on the hood ornament and the pattern-pant breathing of "Hee, hee, hee, ho�" we had learned in childbirth classes were summed up in a limerick I had written after the birth of our first child:

    A woman named Lois Elaine,
    in Lamaze did faithfully train,
    Despite patterned breathing with huffing and heaving,
    screamed, "This isn't �pressure,' it's PAIN!"

During the twenty-minute drive, I probably called out the name of "Jeeeee-sus" more times than any televangelist. I prayed that Jesus would return—right then and there—as I writhed on the cold x-ray table wearing nothing but a sheet and what little remained of my dignity after losing my dinner all over the examining room.

Finally, the ER staff—that must have been on a union-guaranteed break—returned and announced that I had a kidney stone. And every woman I've talked to who has had a baby and a kidney stone would choose forty-eight hours of back labor over a kidney stone.

While tapping away at my IV pump's game-show-type clicker ("I'll take PAIN KILLERS for 1,000 cc, Alex"), I began to appreciate morphine . . . and pain.

My kidney would have failed within a few days if God hadn't put half of our pain and pleasure receptors in our plumbing. Normally, it takes arterial bleeding or a compound fracture to send me to the doctor, but within half an hour, I was out of our warm bed, out into the November cold night, dashing through the snow, and peeing into a paper cup at the ER.

And since I was tethered to an IV pole, I had a lot of time to think and journal about pain. I still don't like it, but like straight lemon juice, it's good for me.

Pain produces perspective

Although I had a deadline for my weekly newspaper column that next day and was finishing up a book (I had almost all the pages colored), those things were suddenly at the bottom of my "to do" list.

It wasn't even important that I was unshaved, un-showered and wearing my grubbiest sweats when I stumbled into the ER. And though I'm the type who always locks the bathroom door—even when no one is home—I checked my modesty at the hospital's front desk.

After three surgeries in three hospitals in two months, doctors were finally able to pry the stubborn stone loose. The experience provided a whole new way of looking at life.

Every morning that I don't wake up in a hospital bed is a great day. Every day I can avoid stitches, IV needles, or dry heaves is terrific. And after having "Delhi Belly" in India (you don't want to know the details, trust me), just living in a country where you can drink the water and breathe the air is wonderful!

Lemons teach us to be grateful for the many things in life we do enjoy. (See Appendix C for top ten things for which you can be thankful right where you are. Even if you're reading this in an Intensive Care Unit or the back seat of a Mumbai taxi.)

Pain produces perseverance

The New Testament reports that the apostle Paul was given the power to heal the sick and raise the dead. Pretty impressive pain relief! But somehow God chose not to heal Paul's "thorn in the flesh." Commentators and speculators suggest he was suffering from malaria, poor vision, an especially powerful libido, or all three. Now if I were Paul, I'd be pretty discouraged. "Here I am working 24/7 healing lepers and paralytics, as well as raising Eutychus from the dead after he dozed off and fell out the window during one of my long-winded sermons—and I can't even get relief for my own pain!"

But Paul wrote: "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Rom. 5:1-4).

The apostle James, who was eventually stoned for his faith writes:

    Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything (James 1:2-4 NLT).

Helen Keller, blind and deaf, became an inspiration to millions of disabled people. Corrie ten Boom sat by her sister's side as she died in a Nazi concentration camp, yet went on to write and speak internationally about forgiveness. Joni Eareckson Tada, paralyzed from the neck down, paints watercolors, hosts a nationwide radio show, and speaks at conferences throughout the world—all from the confines of her motorized wheelchair.

The most positive, loving people I know have histories of great emotional or physical pain and yet they have persevered. As my dad used to remind me, "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."

One of the things that keeps me going besides Tylenol (for arthritis in my neck), Lipitor (for the cholesterol level of Jack Sprat's wife), Claritin (for living in the pollen capital of North America), and Cymbalta (for being a freelance writer), is the assurance of Romans 8:28:

    And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Pain produces purpose

Okay, Mister Smarty Pants Author, you may be thinking. So what is God's role in pain? Does He cause our pain much like a dentist or personal trainer does to bring a greater good? Or does He allow tragedies so He can come and pick up the bloodied pieces and make something good? Or is He simply vacationing in Cancun and hasn't checked His voice mail recently?

I can say with the utmost confidence—and I have a degree in theology and an ordination certificate—I don't have a clue! I really don't. I do know, however, that whether God causes, allows, or simply takes a "hands off" approach to pain, He does somehow personally, actively, miraculously work it for our good.

I've spent a lot of spiritual perspiration trying to answer the questions of "why" in my life, but I've come to the conclusion that's a fruitless effort.

I probably will never understand the reason why my second-grade Sunday school teacher taught us the ditty "Happiness Is The Lord" one Sunday and committed suicide the following Saturday. Or why I was laid off from the perfect job in publishing. (Maybe so I'd have time to write this book.) And particularly, why bad things happen to such nice people as you and me.

But I think God is more than willing to answer "how" we can use these tragedies to conform us into the people he desires us to be. (We'll talk more about that in later chapters.)

He has used physical pain to move me past annoyance with old people's complaints ("Come on, Gramps, stop obsessing about your colon!), to a real empathy for anyone in pain. Yep, God even works together for good stubborn kidney stones, double-hernia surgery, flexible sigmoid exams, and central serous retinopathy (which simply is a $200-an-hour ophthalmologist's term for looking at life just a bit differently than normal people). Now, I even get false labor pains whenever I visit the maternity ward.

But more than physical pain, God has used emotional pain to make me a more loving, understanding person. When I started out in youth work during the Polyester Era, my counseling philosophy was simply, "Get over it!"

And now that I'm diagnosed with clinical depression, I have much more empathy for people whom I used to think didn't have any willpower or control over their thinking processes. "Just watch Robert Schuller and quit your stinkin' thinkin'!" I might as well tell a diabetic, "You don't need insulin, just a better attitude toward your blood-sugar level!"

I even have a better understanding of how God feels. After an estranged relationship, I found myself crying my eyes out feeling so sorry for God. He didn't have just one person from whom He was estranged, but was heartbroken over five billion broken relationships!

I don't credit (or blame) God for any of this pain or planned obsolescence. (I've noticed my face is sliding off my head and collecting under my chin. And, if it weren't for my belt, my chest would be around my ankles.) But I do praise Him that He has used times of physical, mental, and emotional pain to chip away at my sharp edges. And it has allowed me to provide real comfort for others losing their looks, their jobs, or their health.

And so when life gives us lemons, don't ask why, but ask God how He can use them to cleanse and exfoliate you of the oily, greasy buildup in your life.

Some things to think about

We'll probably never know the answer to "why?" but, we can know the answer to related questions:

What can I learn from this problem? How can it make me a better person?

How can I help others going through the same thing? (A whole chapter on that later.)


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