But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord, and admonish you; esteem them very highly because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. I Thessalonians 5:12-18, NRSV
During the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War 2, Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie had been arrested and imprisoned for hiding Jews in their home, and for participating in a network in the Dutch Resistance that attempted to rescue Jews from the Nazis, provide them with ration cards, hide them, and in some cases, attempt to get them out of the country to safety. Initially kept in a former Dutch prison in the Hague, they were sent into the German concentration camp system when the Allied invasion appeared to be imminent.
First sent to a camp near Vught, in the Netherlands, the Germans evacuated camps into Germany after the Allied invasion in June of 1944. Corrie and Betsie wound up at Ravensbruck, a large camp north of Berlin, exclusively for women.
They managed to smuggle a small, leather-bound Bible that had been given to them while they were still in prison in the Netherlands into the Ravensbruck camp. Under strict surveillance, other prisoners who saw them with the Bible had warned them that possessing a Bible was cause for strict punishment. But they kept it hidden, bringing it out when it was safe to read and to share its contents with other prisoners.
Holding clandestine prayer meetings and worship services with other women in the camp, they would read scripture, it would get translated into all of the various languages spoken in the camp, and then they would pray. One day, after reading I Thessalonians 5, Betsie led the prayer, thanking God for every blessing they could think of, in spite of being in a concentration camp, in danger, not cared for, sick, and filthy.
"And thank you, God, for the fleas..."
Corrie protested. She couldn't find the ability to be thankful for fleas, which were part of the misery of the camp, and were everywhere.
A few days later, when Corrie was returning from a work detail, Betsie met her at the door to their large, overcrowded dormitory.
"Do you remember when we thanked God for the fleas," she said? "Well, today, I found out why we have had so much freedom in this room to read scripture, worship together and pray, without ever being bothered by the guards."
Betsie went on to tell her sister that when some of the women on her knitting detail had a disagreement over sizes of the socks they were making, they asked one of the guards to come into the room and settle the issue. But the guard refused to enter the room, Betsie explained, because of the fleas.
"That place is crawling with fleas," said the guard.
So there was, after all, a reason to be thankful for a flea. Those fleas enabled Corrie and Betsie to continue to minister to women who were in one of the deepest, darkest times in history, and in their own lives, that they would ever experience. It is unknown how many women, in deep despair, were brought to the joy of knowing Christ, even in such horrific circumstances, because prison guards would not enter a room that was crawling with fleas.
Many times, the good that comes out of circumstances is unknown to us, or is not part of our own experience. We cannot always see everything there is to see. And sometimes, our own selfishness can blind us to the benefits which may be in something that God is doing in the lives of other people.
The circumstances that happened to Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom removed them from their home and family, from the comforts of their life and put them in a place where it was difficult to find anything for which to be thankful. Their lives, and everything that they had ever experienced, was turned upside down. But there was a bigger mission and purpose which God had planned for them which was slowly revealed to them, and which they understood. There was no guarantee that everything would ever be right again, and in fact, Betsie died in the prison hospital shortly before Corrie was released on Christmas day, 1944.
Compared to that, there are few circumstances which surround us that limit our ability to give thanks.