In 1944 Germany, Corrie ten Boom and her sister, Betsie, were transferred into the Ravensbrück concentration camp, Barracks 28, which would sadly become the last “home” one of the sisters ever knew.
It was the second week in October when the starved, mistreated Dutch girls shuffled into the building, disgusted.
“Because of the broken windows, the vast room was in semi-twilight. Our noses told us, first, that the place was filthy: somewhere, plumbing had backed up, the bedding was soiled and rancid.”
The beds, made with room for four, were stuffed with nine a piece. The aisles were so small, the girls had to walk single-file. One could barely lift a finger without disturbing another broken woman from her much-needed rest. Corrie was just climbing into what would be her and Betsie’s bed, when she sat up suddenly, knocking her head on the ceiling.
“‘Fleas!’ I cried. ‘Betsie, the place is swarming with them!'”
Betsie, always rational, always bringing the exuberant Corrie back to the Lord, instructed her little sister to pull out the little Bible the girls had miraculously smuggled into the camp and read:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (Thessalonians 5:16-18, ESV)
“‘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.
“‘Such as being assigned here together.’
“I bit my lip. ‘Oh yes, Lord Jesus!’
“‘Such as what you’re holding in your hands.’ I looked down at the Bible.
“‘Yes! Thank You, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all these women, here in this room, who will meet You in these pages.’
“‘Yes,’ said Betsie, ‘Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!’ She looked at me expectantly. ‘Corrie!’ she prodded.
“‘Oh, all right. Thank You for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed suffocating crowds.’
“‘Thank You,’ Betsie went on serenely, ‘for the fleas and for–‘
“The fleas! This was too much. ‘Betsie, there’s no way even 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.”
When tragedy strikes, it can be hard to remember that God is good. Yet so often during times of sorrow or pain, I hear God’s voice calling me to worship.
I respond by getting on my knees, thanking him for the blessings he’s given me, the obviously good things in life. Then I pray for his grace to get me through the obviously bad. But Bestie is right, and God has reminded me of this ever since my 8th grade self first read this amazing story.
“Thank me for the fleas.”
I had thought I’d reached this point. I thought I was a “mature Christian.” I had learned to thank God for everything, even the tragedies–but only when he opened my eyes enough to see the benefits of bad situations.
“Of course,” I would say to myself. “God caused this to happen so that his goodness would be shown in this specific way. That makes me happy. Therefore I shall thank Him.”
There’s a fatal flaw in that kind of thinking.
I’m not going to say that God never allows bad things to happen in order to capitalize on the good that comes from them. Of course he does that. Take a look at the stories of Noah, Joshua, Jesus!
I also won’t go so far as to say “everything happens for a reason.” Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. To relate the words a dear friend of a dear friend said in a recent interview discussing the death of his 10-year-old daughter, “It was a fluke in a freakish sense… but it didn’t catch God off guard.”
Barracks 28 was an unbearable place to live. Not only because of the filth and the overpopulation. No one can expect so many people in that kind of tragic situation to be kind to one another. In the middle of the night, disputes and arguments would echo through the hall. Very few of the women even shared a common language, which made life even more unbearable.
But Corrie and Betsie pressed on. They began to hold meetings after their evening meal. Sitting in the back of the barracks, where a single light shone just bright enough to read from their little Dutch Bible, the girls studied, prayed, and shared the love of Jesus with their new bunk mates. The love and hope flowing from these meetings attracted the attention of more and more girls from Barracks 28. Eventually the meetings were moved to the main area of the barracks, where there was more room, but also a constant fear discovery.
But the guards never entered the bunk.
Time after time the girls held this service, praying and worshiping the Lord. Time after time the guards looked away. Peace filled the barracks.
“After a while, the yelling, slapping, crying, and words of anger changed to “Sorry!”, “Excuse me,” and “No harm done.”
But know one knew why they had not yet been caught, meeting together so noticeably.
“One evening I got back to the barracks late from a wood-gathering foray outside the walls. A light snow lay on the ground and it was hard to find the sticks and twigs with which a small stove was kept going in each room. Betsie was waiting for me, as always, so that we could wait through the food line together. Her eyes were twinkling.
“‘You’re looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself,’ I told her.
“‘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.”
The Bible tells us to “enter His [God’s] gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.” (Ps. 100:4 ESV) But how can a mistreated prisoner truly thank God for a dirty insect? How can a father truly thank God for taking his 10-year-old daughter away?
No one said it was easy.
Even Jesus struggled:
“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
We won’t always get to see the fruit of our suffering in our lifetime. Corrie could have easily died before seeing the benefit of the flea. Though we are promised that God works everything together for the good (Romans 8:28), to echo my previous post, “Why” doesn’t matter. What matters is that our sights are set on Christ Jesus.
Thanksgiving brings us into a place of humility and opens a connection to the Spirit one cannot experience with his eyes focused on himself. It keeps us from thinking about “my plan” and “my life,” but melds our hearts and minds with the Lord’s, often giving us the perspective needed to see His bigger picture.
Today I’m giving you an Action Step: Think of that thing in your life that you hate. Maybe it’s a painful event, maybe it’s a disagreeable co-worker, maybe it’s a zit on your forehead… Whatever it is, bring that negative thing before the Lord and thank Him for it. Can you?
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t—you’ve just found a way to grow in your faith. Talk about it with God. Tell Him your woes. Tell Him why you don’t want to thank him. Ask Him to change your heart and attitude. Then thank Him in faith.
Don’t wait until you feel different. Thank Him even if it hurts to say the words.
Most importantly, keep coming back. Thank God every day for your situation—every part of it. Thank Him for your life. Thank Him for his blessings. Thank Him for the fleas.
References: ten Boom, Corrie, John Sherrill, and Elizabeth Sherrill. The Hiding Place. Reprint edition ed. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Bantam Books, 1984. Print.