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.

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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.

How Books Can Change Your Life

This post originally appeared at the Mudroom, as "The Books that Helps Us Story Well."


“You see these spots?” my dad would ask, pointing at my nose. “They aren’t freckles. They’re print that’s rubbed off from having your nose stuck in a book.”

He wasn’t far from the truth. I read voraciously as a child. I took a book along with me everywhere—just in case. Just in case I got bored, just in case I wanted to slip away and retreat back into its pages.

“You need to socialize,” my parents would say, forcing me to put down my latest book and talk to people. But I was deeply engrossed in another world, and it was hard to pull myself away. The characters became my friends, and their stories fueled my imagination. Worlds and times otherwise inaccessible to me became my mind’s playground.

As I got older, the books became thicker, the stories more complex. I learned to be less of a social recluse, but I sometimes read late into the night, “just one more chapter” stretching into five or ten.

Now, my eyes scan the names of titles and authors emblazoned on the spines stacked and standing on my shelves. I remember the worlds they beckoned me into, the lessons they taught.

The golden-haired scrawny girl I was learned something along the way, in between the creases and typescript: I did not want to use books to retreat from my own story. Vicarious escape and distraction at the expense of the plot and characters in my own life was a false promise. My own story was an adventure and worth fully inhabiting.

I held onto the delight of getting lost in a story—but learned not to stay there indefinitely. I learned to come back to my own story with more vigor and insight. I returned from my imaginative escapades with pictures of love and courage, sorrow and redemption. Instead of escape, I found the stories shaping me.

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I remember the time I first came to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I was a sophomore in my undergrad English program, and we were studying a segment of Russian literature. I wish I remembered more of the class, the professor, my classmates. Instead what I remember is a story.

One of the Karamazov brothers, Ivan, tells the story of the Grand Inquisitor. It has haunted me from the first time I read it. In it, Jesus returns during the time of the Inquisition. He is arrested by order of the Grand Inquisitor who visits him in secret.  The Inquisitor tells Jesus to leave, for the church doesn’t need him anymore. He claims Jesus got things wrong; clearly he didn’t know what the people wanted. They didn’t want freedom—freedom is too much for them. They preferred ignorance; they preferred being told what to do. The Church had fixed Jesus’ mistake, though, and Jesus must leave before he spoils her work.

Because of this tale, I think often of what we would tell Christ if he returned. Would we repeat the words of the Grand Inquisitor? Would we claim Jesus got things wrong and we need to correct him? Would we say the freedom he offers is too much? Do we say this implicitly through our actions?

This story shaped me. It shaped my thinking and my vision, influencing the way I see the world, my faith, the church.  It offers a warning to the tendency I see in my own heart to turn freedom and grace into rule and law. It gives me the language to grasp and explain my world.

All the best stories, I think, do this. They put a slice of our humanity on the page, reflecting our human condition in the broken beauty of the world. They are powerful not because they are factual but because they are true to the human experience.  We see characters not so different from us at heart, and say, “Ah yes, me too.”

For good or ill, the stories I absorb affect the story I’m living. The best stories invite me in, only to release me back to the real-life story I find myself in. The power of these books isn’t in overt morals or in heartwarming endings. The power is in the story—for the story itself shapes us.

These are the stories I’ll keep reading, and the ones my grandchildren will find someday on my dusty bookshelves. These will be the books that have changed my life.