Being Thankful for Fleas (Nov 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Roger Stewart

In 1944 Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie had been arrested for hiding Jews. In their home in the city of Haarlem, Netherlands, their family had constructed a small space between walls where they harbored fugitives from the Nazi occupation forces. In September of that year, they were finally taken to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, a large prison for women in Germany. While being transported to Ravensbruck, guards constantly watched them and put them through the indignity of several personal inspections. These were women of faith and through a combination of fortuitous events and providential circumstances, they were able to keep a small New Testament hidden from the guards.

As they were taken into the huge room at Ravensbruck, which would be their home/prison, they were dismayed as they surveyed their surroundings: filthy, soiled and rancid bedding, backed-up toilets, instead of individual beds there were square piers stacked 3 high, and wedged side-by-side and end-to-end with only an occasional narrow aisle slicing through. Corrie discovered the place was crawling with fleas. She cried, “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?” Her sister Betsie reminded her of a scripture they had been reading together earlier that day: 1 Thessalonians 5:18 “… give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Betsie exclaimed, “That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!”

They began to name things they could be thankful for: such as being assigned together instead of being separated, their having the tiny New Testament, and that there was no inspection upon their entering the room, which would have likely resulted in the loss of the Bible as contraband. Then Betsie prayed. “Thank You…for the fleas…”

This was more than Corrie’s mind could process. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”

“Give thanks in all circumstances,” Betsie answered. “it doesn’t say ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.” So, Corrie’s story continues, “…We stood between piers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.”

But in fact, the fleas actually were a blessing. The two learned later how the guards refused to inspect their bunks and possessions because of the flea infestation. Because of the fleas the guards left them alone – their Bible was not confiscated and their Bible studies with their fellow prisoners were permitted to continue uninterrupted. We can only imagine how much good came from those Bible studies between two devout Christians and the barracks full of predominantly Jewish women who didn’t even believe in Jesus.

Every time I read this story I think about my own fleas. No, not the wingless blood-sucking critters from the order Siphonaptera, the other ones: the things life sends my way that deal me misery—the trials and difficulties that come with living life in a fallen world. Sometimes they are petty and sometimes just seem petty in retrospect; but they never feel small or insignificant while they are happening. When I find myself in a “flea”-infested circumstance, my attitude is often more like Corrie’s than Betsie’s. It is hard for me to see any good in them at the moment.

Let me offer my two heart surgeries as examples. In 1999, I had my aortic valve replaced and then in 2004 a triple bypass. In the case of the first surgery, it would be several months before it would be done. In the second, I only had about a month’s prior notice. I knew what I was facing and simply began to count down the days and hours until it happened.

There was nothing I could do about it but wait and prepare. I tried to stay busy at work, and in my personal life, I updated my will, did the best I could to set my house in order and waited. I was not afraid, but it truly was hard to think about anything else. Everything had to be dealt with in the context of the upcoming surgeries; I had to get that done before the surgery, or this would have to wait until afterwards. But now in retrospect, I can look back at them, and say truthfully; they really weren’t all that bad. My recovery was full and complete, and while I remember there being some pain, I don’t remember it being too severe. In fact, I can recall dental appointments that were worse.

Being grateful for trials, comes no easier for me than being grateful for fleas did to Corrie. But, I get the message. I understand the principle. I can even appreciate the concept, but the reality for me is that it is hard to be thankful for something that hurts.

James was suggesting an approach similar to Betsie’s when he wrote in James 1:2, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

Friedrich Nietzsche suggested a positive result from a similarly stoic approach to suffering and trial when he wrote, “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” While the quote was likely NOT a commentary on James 1, it approximates the concept.

We can’t help wondering how this approach is supposed to work. Should we welcome the pain in the way an athlete seems to welcome the exhaustion immediately following a good physical workout? Or should we just expect our understanding of the principle to make the pain bearable and put it in its proper emotional perspective? Is it realistic to think that a person could actually rejoice and be grateful while he is being stoned by an angry mob or trying to sleep in a flea-infested bed? The way we answer that question likely depends upon our own strength of character, and depth of our faith.

Were Paul’s injuries from his stonings and beatings actually made less painful because he realized he was suffering for Christ—his faith acting like a spiritual painkiller–or did his understanding just make the pain bearable? I think the latter. It was his knowledge that got him through it all with his faith in tact. It was his faith that constantly reminded him of God’s great purpose for his life.

Or possibly, it could have been more like my retrospective look on my surgeries: I faced them in full faith that God was in control and his will would be done, regardless of the outcome. Was that what kept me from the terror of the moment? Still, I hated the prospect of having to go through them. I didn’t like the prep work prior to them. I didn’t like the rehabilitation after them. I only became thankful for them after I had survived them and was well on the road to recovery.

Does anyone really think Paul smiled as he knelt before the angry mob with a heart filled with gratitude and knowing that those rocks were going to hurt? I can’t image the stones hurting any less, nor can I imagine Paul giving thanks at that moment for the blessing of being able to suffer for Christ. I am not able to conjure up the image of Paul shouting like a fraternity pledge as each rock found its target, “Thank you sir! May I have another?”

Even Jesus cried out “Why?” when it seemed God had forsaken him. Betsie’s faith told her there would be blessings of some sort attached to the presence of the fleas. While she expressed thanksgiving for the fleas, her gratitude was not really for them, but for whatever blessing God had in store for them having to put up with the fleas. Scripture tells us that Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before him. We too must learn to look beyond the moment, beyond the pain – physical or emotional – and know that as Paul tells us in Romans 8:28, God is working in it. Somehow. Some way.

In Romans 8, Paul also uses the example of a woman in childbirth. The moment she holds the tiny, new human in her arms, she forgets the hours of pain and agony she had just been through.

As we go through the darkness of our own swarms of fleas we must learn to look to whatever blessing will be waiting for us as we emerge on the other side. Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

I suspect while the hurt is going on we all, like Jesus and the ten Boom sisters, hurt just like an infidel. But we do not sorrow nor receive the pain like the infidel or as one who has no hope. We find peace knowing that God will not allow us to suffer more than we can bear.

May God help us to learn to be like Paul who must have told himself constantly while he was feeling genuine, body-wrenching pain and agony, that God was sovereign and in control. May God help us to learn to be like Jesus whose knowledge certainly made him understand that not only would there be an end to it, but incredible joy was waiting on the other side. May God help us also to learn to be like Betsie ten Boom and in the face of the toughest things the Devil can throw at us, realize that God is working in it, and somehow learn to be thankful for the fleas.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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