Thank God for the Fleas: Learning to Turn Tragedy into Triumph

Thank God for the Fleas: Learning to Turn Tragedy into Triumph

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Can you imagine circumstances that might convince you to thank God for the fleas? Read how two sisters in the Ravensbrück concentration camp found themselves in such a situation.


Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom worked as a watchmaker in a shop she inherited from her father in Haarlem, a city near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Her profoundly religious family helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II by hiding them in their home above the watchmaker’s shop.

The Hiding Place

When the German blitzkrieg invaded the Netherlands, the ten Boom family home became a hiding place for Jews and resistance fighters hunted by the Nazis. Corrie conceived the idea of building a secret chamber in her bedroom with the entrance hidden behind a wardrobe. The small space accommodated a maximum of six persons when danger lurked outside the home.

Even when the Gestapo arrested the family, they did not find the refuge that hid four Jews and two resistance fighters.

Arrest and Imprisonment

The hideout worked for nearly four years until a betrayal led to the family’s arrest on February 28, 1944. The Germans imprisoned the entire family. Corrie and her sister Betsie spent time in two different prisons until being remanded to the infamous Ravensbrück extermination camp for women near Berlin.

Barracks 28

The guard instructed prisoners 66729 and 66730, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, to step out of the long line of prisoners. A prisoner-guide led them into their new home, a filthy dormitory with windows broken out and stuffed with rags. The putrefying smell, the soiled and rancid bedding, and general squalidness of the place overwhelmed the sisters.

The guide showed them to their bed, a second-tier platform designed for four but shared by nine inmates. When Corrie and Betsie lay down, they became nauseous from the stench of the reeking straw. But the worst still awaited them.

Something pinched Corrie’s leg. She shot up, striking her head on the cross-slats on the platform above. “Fleas!” she cried. “Betsy, this place is swarming with them.”

Corrie and Betsie struggled down to the narrow aisle and edged to a patch of light. “Here! And here’s another one!” Corrie wailed. “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?”

Thank God for the Fleas

Corrie heard her sister whispering over and over a short prayer. “Show us. Show us how.” Then Betsie burst out with, “Corrie, He’s already given the answer! Before we asked, as He always does.”

Betsie explained to her sister that only that morning in their private devotions, the Scripture contained God’s answer to how they should live with the fleas. “Read it again, Corrie,” Betsie said.

Corrie looked around to make sure no guard was in sight. Then she pulled out the little Bible, that they had somehow slipped by all the inspectors, and read from First Thessalonians. “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.” Corrie looked up, puzzled. “Go on,” Betsie said. “That’s not all.” “Oh yes,” Corrie said. “Here’s the rest.”

“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God 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 our new barracks.” Doubtfully, Corrie asked, “Such as?”

Betsie enumerated several things as she looked around, including how the sisters remained together, and the little Bible, and the opportunity to share God’s Word with all the women crowded together in the room. Corrie reluctantly went along. “But the fleas,” Corrie interjected, “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me thankful for a flea.” Betsie must be wrong about this, Corrie thought. But in just a few days, an unexpected encounter vindicated Betsie’s thankfulness for the fleas.

Giving Thanks in All Circumstances

Paul wrote a letter to the church at Thessalonica that instructed them to “give thanks in all circumstances” (2 Thessalonians 5:18). This exhortation offered quite a challenge for Christians in a Roman province at a time of increased persecution.

But Paul didn’t ask believers to do that which he didn’t practice himself. On another occasion, he wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am in to be content” (Philippians 4:11). This testimony comes from a man who suffered the persecutions of beatings, stoning, shipwreck, and imprisonment, to mention only a few of his troubles.

What drove Paul to give thanks in all circumstances, and to be content in every situation? Paul shares his secret with the world in Romans 8:28. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Paul could be thankful for all things because he had God’s promise that all things ultimately worked for his good. The phrase “all things” comprehends pleasant things but also the hurtful things.

Amid suffering, one cannot know the eventual good that God ordains. But faith lays hold on God’s promise. God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to a people suffering exile and said, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” We may not know the plan, but God knows. Betsie ten Boom’s faith looked beyond the flea bites and believed that somehow the little critters served a higher purpose.

A Little Preview of Heaven

During the ten Boom sisters’ incarceration at Ravensbrück, they held worship services in the rear of their dormitory. A small light bulb cast just enough pale yellow light to read the Bible. “They were a little preview of Heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb,” Corrie writes in “The Hiding Place.”

As the worshippers grew in number, the sisters became afraid they would attract the attention of the guards patrolling the camp. “Yet,” Corrie writes, “in the large dormitory room, there was almost no supervision at all. We didn’t understand it.”

Then one evening the answer came.

The Mystery Solved and Faith Vindicated

Corrie returned to the barracks from a wood-gathering foray and found Betsie waiting for her. Her eyes twinkled, and she wore a grin, a rarity in Ravensbrück. “What is it, Betsie?” Corrie asked.

Buoyantly, Betsie replied, “You know we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room. Well, I’ve found out.” She explained that in the afternoon, while the group went about their work knitting socks for the Germans, a question arose about sock sizes. So, they asked the supervisor to come and settle the confusion.

“But she wouldn’t come,” Betsie continued. “She wouldn’t step through the door into the dormitory, and neither would the guards. You know why?” Betsie couldn’t keep the triumph from her voice as she exclaimed, “Because of the fleas! That’s what the supervisor said, ‘That place is crawling with fleas!’”

Corrie’s mind rushed back to their first night in the barracks. She remembered Betsie bowing her head and thanking God for the fleas for which Corrie saw no use.

When Fleas Invade our Lives

Metaphorically, fleas do invade our lives and trouble us. But not without the Lord. Our fleas might be illness, infirmity, conflict, loss, guilt, sorrow, or grief. Whatever the intruder, we can learn to live victoriously despite the pain it brings. And this begins by saying to the source of our trouble, as did Joseph to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

Wise King Solomon said, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose” (Proverbs 16:4). Yes, even the fleas. Yes, even the difficulties humans must endure from time to time. God’s “way is in the whirlwind and storm” (Nahum 1:3) and also in the soft southerly winds of prosperity.

Not even a sparrow “falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will” (Matthew 10:29). God does not offer us a life without the storm and flood, but promises, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:2).

So, “Count it all joy, my brothers,” James advocates, “when you meet trials of various kind” (James 1:2). The fleas that trouble us are but instruments in the hands of God that ultimately work for our good, not our harm. Thank God for the fleas.

Betsie’s Last Words

Betsie ten Boom died that December of starvation and lack of medical care. Her last words to Corrie provided strength and an overwhelming motive to survive and carry on what began in the worship services in Barracks 28.

(We) must tell them what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.

Corrie carried her sister’s words with her when only two weeks later, in what we can only explained as an act of God, the camp administrator released her to go home. Shortly after leaving the camp, the Germans executed all the women in her age group.

Corrie traveled to over 60 countries preaching the Word of God and carrying Betsie’s message to the world. She even encountered a few fleas along the way, but never forgot to thank God for the fleas.