Thanking God for the Fleas

There’s a famous episode in Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place that has been on my mind this week as I’ve been thinking about thankfulness.

Corrie and her sister Betsie have just been transferred to the Nazi concentration camp Ravensbrück. They find themselves in horrific living conditions, trying to sleep in overcrowded bunks lined with rotting, flea-infested straw.

Betsie prods Corrie to reread their Scripture passage from the morning. It was 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you 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.

“‘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.”

I have to admit, I’m with Corrie on this one. Giving thanks for fleas? I can thank God for being present in spite of the fleas, but thanks for the fleas themselves - you’ve got to be crazy.

Perhaps I recoil because I’ve seen this spiritual approach abused. It swoops in when others are broken open by life’s tragedies and cheerily insists “Give thanks.” Give thanks for this cancer. Give thanks that your husband died. Give thanks that your heart has shattered, your life is in ruins, your dreams have been ground to dust.

And yet I have Betsie ten Boom’s sweet voice in my head: “Thank you for the fleas.”

I do not have the audacity to tell others to do this. If I’m honest, I don’t have the audacity to do this myself most of the time.

I can thank God for his presence and faithfulness in the midst of my suffering. I can thank him for his character, which reaches above my own circumstances. I can thank him for the strength to endure, for the gracious gift of faith. I can thank him that his nature is to be at work even in the darkest moments, that he is the One who redeems and restores.

But thanking him for the source of that pain makes me pause. Can I thank him for that too? Thank him as an audacious act of faith that even this pain can be become something meaningful in his hands?

I’m not there yet. But when I see again and again God’s ability to redeem pain in ways that defy logic and comprehension, I wonder if I should be. I see it in my life, in the lives of those I love. I see it in a story like Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, two sisters in Christ who suffered far more than I ever have.

heart-2945403_1280.jpg

As Corrie and Betsie settled into their live at Ravensbrück, they held worship services in the barracks. They were shocked to find no interference from the guards. It was the one place they were not under oppressive supervision. So many women packed in around where they stood under a dim light bulb that they had to add a second “service” after the evening roll call. They marveled over the freedom they had to read the Bible and pray in this way in such a place.

I’ll let Corrie finish the story:

“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.”

I’m still learning this one. I’m still learning what it means to “give thanks in all circumstances,” what it means to give thanks in pain, what it means to give thanks, perhaps, even for my pain. But I’m pulled towards thanksgiving by a God who is always faithful, who does not cease to work in the valley of the shadow, by a God whose own pain burst open into our greatest hope.

The Secret of Contentment

Paul sits imprisoned. Paul, the extremist murderer turned church planter. Paul, who in only a few years would be killed for the Christ he once raged against. 

He writes to his beloved church in Philippi, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

In plenty—Christ is His strength. In need—Christ is His strength. 
In all things, content. In all things, dependent.

pexels-photo-265315.jpeg

It is this attitude that frees our hearts to overflow with gratitude and find thanksgiving and contentment in all circumstances. We give thanks—in better and in worse, whether rich or poor, sick or healthy. We give thanks—when our tables are full or empty, when we are laughing or crying, when we face triumph or tragedy. 

In plenty, we give thanks. We thank God for loving families, warm homes, good jobs,and supportive friends. But we look to Him as the giver of these good gifts and refuse to settle into self-sufficiency and pride. We seek His strength to reject the consumerism that turns material possessions into gods and to deny the never-satisfied cravings of greed. We overflow with generosity, using abundance as an opportunity for blessing others.

In lack, we give thanks. We thank Him for seasons to see the true extent of His strength in weakness, of the peace that passes understanding, and for the bedrock of joy. We thank Him for the ways suffering reshapes our priorities and reminds us of our dependence on Him. We rest in His goodness and faithfulness. We look to Him as our sure hope and as the One who can work all things for His glory and our good. 

Contentment brings us to a place of “peaceful satisfaction” and “freedom from worry and restlessness” (thanks, Merriam-Webster). We find ourselves in a place free from both anxiety and complacency. We are at rest and dependent. We give thanks.

When "Gratitude" Makes You Skeptical

As I write this, I'm watching the last of our golden leaves slip to the ground. It seems I blinked only to find myself soundly in November and beginning our plans for the holidays. Today, I'm thinking about gratitude. It is the season, after all.  

I must confess that when people start talking about joy and gratitude, my gut-level reaction is typically skepticism. I think we've all seen joy and gratitude reduced to Hallmark sentiment and insipid happiness.

For those who are facing loss and life-shattering pain, this twisted picture of joy and thanksgiving can become a weapon of guilt and cold comfort. We can be left asking if joy requires us to live in denial of life's pain. If gratitude asks us to plug up our ears, rip out our aching hearts, or turn a blind eye to suffering.

pexels-photo-268660.jpeg

Is this what Scripture means when it says to give thanks in all circumstances or "count it all joy"? 

Thankfully, no. 

Biblical joy is a steady anchor when we're thrashed about by tempests of sorrow. Biblical gratitude keeps our vision fixed on our Lord, walking to us on the waves.

Our joy and our thanksgiving are deep and sure - because they are grounded not in our circumstances but in God's character, in who He is, what He has done, in what He is doing. 

We give thanks because God is good when others are not, because He is faithful even when we don't understand His ways. We give thanks because His love is sure when others disappoint us, because He is just when evil seems to prosper. We give thanks because He has promised to bring redemption to its completion, to make all things new. 

If you're finding thanksgiving to be challenging this year, if gratitude is making you skeptical, turn your heart and mind to the One who is faithful and true. And in His presence, may you find joy.


Gratitude: Spiritual Disciplines

This post is a part of an ongoing series on spiritual disciplines, which are tools that bring us into contact with the Lord so that His presence can shape our lives. Learn more here.

* * *

It’s nearly impossible to not think about thanks-giving during this season of the year. How could you not, as we anticipate and plan for a holiday by the same name? Tomorrow, many of us will gather with family and friends around food-laden tables to celebrate Thanksgiving. Some families will set aside time during the day to reflect on the year and speak their thanks for the blessings within it.

While it’s helpful to mark seasons for thanksgiving into our year, Thanksgiving is more than a holiday, as I’m sure most of you would agree. It is appropriate all year round, in all seasons. But while we know thanksgiving and gratitude should be continuous threads weaving through our lives, how often do we think of gratitude as a spiritual discipline?

Read More

Giving Thanks When Your Heart is Aching

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20)

Give thanks always, we read. This is a command more readily fulfilled when life is smooth and all is well. Our list of blessings runs long, and our thanksgiving is free flowing.

But how do we give thanks when our hearts are aching? How do we give thanks when reality is grim and our world is crumbling?

Read More