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One of my “heroes of the faith” is Dutch Holocaust survivor, Corrie ten Boom. She wrote about her experiences with the Nazis during World War II in her autobiography, “The Hiding Place.” This book literally changed my life. Though it is not very “manly” to admit, I wept as I read page after page of not only God miraculously intervening to preserve the lives of Corrie and her sister Betsie but also of love overcoming evil. If you need an example of the Christian faith applied to real life, look no further than Corrie ten Boom.
One part of the book that has remained with me over the years is the one that describes Corrie’s and Betsie’s encounter with fleas. They had just been moved to Ravensbruck concentration camp where the living conditions were inhumane. Corrie was given a top bunk and soon after she laid down, she immediately sat up. Something had pinched her leg.
It was the conversation that followed that I find to be so remarkable and memorable. Corrie describes what happened in her book:
“Fleas!” Corrie cried. “Betsie, the place is swarming with fleas! Here! Here’s another one! How can we live in such a place?”
“Show us. Show us how.” It was said so matter of fact that it took Corrie a second to realize that Betsie was praying.
“Corrie! God has given us the answer. Before we asked, as He always does! In the Bible this morning. Read that part again.”
Corrie glanced down the long dim aisle to make sure no guard was in sight, then drew the Bible from its pouch. “It was in 1 Thessalonians,” she said. “Here it is: Comfort the frightened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another…”
“Go on,” said Betsie. “That wasn’t all.”
“Oh yes: Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.”
“That’s it Corrie! That’s His answer. Give thanks in all circumstances! That’s what we can do. We can start right now and thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!”
Corrie stared at her, then around at the dark, foul-aired room.
“Such as?” she asked.
“Such as being assigned here together.”
Corrie bit her lip. “Oh yes, thank you Lord Jesus!”
“Such as what you are holding in your hand.”
Corrie looked down at her Bible. “Yes, thank you dear Lord Jesus.”
Betsie went on: “Thank you for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear! Thank you for the fleas and for…”
“The fleas! Betsie, there’s no way even God can be grateful for a flea.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” Betsie quoted. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.”
So as they stood between the bunks they gave thanks for the fleas.
Sadly, when I read this story I find myself identifying with Corrie and not Betsie. I’m not sure that I could thank God for fleas. It’s not that Betsie is wrong to apply the verse she did to her situation. In fact, her theology and biblical interpretation is exactly right. There is no getting around what 1 Thessalonians 5:18 says: Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. I believe that it is the “all” that we have trouble with. It is easy to thank God when circumstances are favorable. But should we not also look for reasons to thank God when there are fleas in our bed? Or when we lose our job? Or when we are criticized? Or when our children rebel? According to Paul, I think we know the answer.
As it turns out, Betsie was not wrong to thank God for the fleas. A few months later Corrie noticed that Betsie was looking pleased with herself. Betsie smiled and said, “You know we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in our barracks to have Bible studies and prayer meetings. Well, I’ve found out.” She then told Corrie that that afternoon there had been some confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they’d asked the supervisor to come and settle it.
“But she wouldn’t come,” Betsie said. “She wouldn’t step through the door and neither would the guard. And you know why?”
Betsie could not keep the triumph out of her voice: “Because of the fleas! That’s what the guard said, ‘That place is crawling with fleas!’”
Corrie then wrote “her mind went back to the first hour in that horrible place. She remembered Betsie’s bowed head, remembered Betsie’s thanks to God for creatures that she herself could see no use for.”
The Rev. Steven Scherer is pastor of Worthville Baptist Church.