I could hear my husband reading the horrific details out loud to my teenage son, as Corrie ten Boom described the unimaginable conditions she endured with her sister Betsie in the barracks of a Jewish concentration camp. She chronicles her story in her riveting memoir “The Hiding Place”.
I could barely stomach the agony of their hardships, or wrap my brain around how God could ever allow such a cruel atrocity.
But then my husband got to the part about the fleas…
Right there, in the midst of my repulsion to suffering and my cowardly faith, Corrie reached in and captivated me. Because at that point in the story, Corrie’s own faith was faltering. And it was the unwavering faith of her little sister, who clinging to the words of scripture, summoned Corrie to live out its truth in the boldest of ways.
“Fleas!” I cried. “Betsie, the place is swarming with them!
“Here! And here another one!” I wailed. “Betsie, how can we live in such a place!”
“Show us. Show us how.” It was said so matter of factly it took me a second to realize she was praying. More and more the distinction between prayer and the rest of life seemed to be vanishing for Betsie.
“Corrie!” she said excitedly. “He’s given us the answer!”
Immediately Betsie reminded Corrie of the scripture they had read that morning, from the tiny New Testament they had managed to hide in their clothes. The Holy Word of God they fearlessly read aloud to lift the spirits and hearts of the others in the barracks.
Corrie remembered the scripture,
“Oh yes: … ‘Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.”
“That’s it, Corrie! That’s His answer. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!” I stared at her; then around me at the dark, foul-aired room.
“Such as?” I said.
Bestie proceeded to name every single thing she could think of that they could thank God for: the fact that they were assigned together in the same room, the Bible they’d successfully smuggled in, the packed prisoners crammed in their barracks which meant more women could hear God’s Word. And then, Betsie audaciously thanked God - for the fleas.
The fleas! This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way God can make me grateful for a flea.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” she quoted. It doesn’t say, “in pleasant circumstances.” Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.
And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
I love that scripture, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thes. 5:18) I also love to decorate my home for the seasons, and Fall is my favorite. For the past several years, in preparation for Thanksgiving, I’ve set that very scripture on my kitchen counter.
But after listening to my husband read Corrie’s story about the fleas, I felt Betsie summoning me too - to live the truth of that scripture in the boldest of ways. To truly give thanks - in ALL circumstances.
Let’s face it. Life can be hard. Sometimes the circumstances feel unbearable. The “barracks” of our own life may not be infested with fleas, but the invasion of other hardships, like fear, anxiety, depression, loss, loneliness, sickness, conflict or turmoil.
Are we really supposed to thank God for those things?
In her book “On the Other Side of Fear”, Hallie Lord writes that in the midst of the gripping fear that had infested her life, she felt the Lord say to her,
“Gratitude, my girl. Fight fear with gratitude.”
So often, our struggles - whether with fear or something else - taunt us with what we lack; what we don’t have. Gratitude reminds us of what we do. So we can forge and fight through the hard - with gratitude.
In my own life, I have discovered this - that thanking God even for our struggles - is a calling He gives us based on a promise He gives us...
The reason we can thank God for all things, is because of His promise that He can work all things for our GOOD.
Corrie ten Boom saw that promise fulfilled in the most surprising way:
In the weeks that followed, the conditions in the barracks worsened as more and more women were packed in. The stench of overflowing toilets tormented them, along with lice and flea infestation. Desperate for relief, some of the women started praying more frequently and more powerfully. And despite the rousing force of their prayers, they marveled at how the guards never caught them worshipping.
One day after Corrie returned to the barracks from a work shift, she found Betsie bursting with delight,
“You know, we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,” she said. “Well - I’ve found out.”
That afternoon, she said, there’d been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they’d asked the supervisor to come and settle it.
But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?
Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: “Because of the fleas! That’s what she said, ‘That place is crawling with fleas!’”
My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie’s bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.”
With the holidays approaching, many of us look forward to life-giving moments of joy and celebration. But others of us may dread challenging moments of conflict or sadness. For some, the holidays are painful reminders of past joys and loves they’ve lost.
We may find ourselves in circumstances we simply see no use for. But in those moments, I hope we can rise to the summons of Betsie’s unswerving confidence. I hope we can humbly “bow our head” and find the courage to pray, “Show us how, Lord. Show us how.”
… And then - to boldly say thank you, even for fleas. Because the “fleas” that might infest our holiday season, even they can be a gift from the Lord.
If we have the faith to give thanks for all things, even the hard things, God will fulfill His promise for us just as He did for those daring sisters. He will show us that He truly can work all things for our good.
I pray that we can all have the eyes to see our personal “fleas” as surprising blessings in disguise.
And as our eyes are opened, we can cry out out with Betsie, “He’s given us the answer!” And just like Corrie, our minds will rush back and remember that moment when we gave thanks for something we could see no use for.
“O Jesus, I thank You for everything.”
I have known persons for whom this prayer
has become the breathing of their souls.
(“I Believe in Love” by D’Elbee)
(Author’s Note: All indented quotes taken from “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom)