I read an incredible story several years ago about the life of Corrie ten Boom (the author of The Hiding Place). I didn’t know much about her before hearing this specific story, but her life is fascinating. Corrie, along with her family, was a devout follower of Jesus, who helped hide Jews during the Nazi regime of the Second World War. Corrie and her family were eventually imprisoned for their actions and found themselves in various concentration camps, with Corrie, and her sister Betsie, in the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp. Here, they were part of a brutal women’s labor force run by the Nazis.
At one point in time, Corrie and Betsie’s barracks were completely infested with fleas. Everyone in that room was covered, bitten, and crawling with these annoyances. It was at this time that Betsie encouraged her sister to obey the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” This is their dialogue:
Betsie: 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!...Thank You for the fleas.
Corrie: The fleas! Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea!
Betsie: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances.’ It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.
My skin is crawling at the mere thought of fleas in my house…how about you?! I definitely side with Corrie on this one. But get this: a while after the flea infestation, Corrie and Betsie realized that their barracks stopped having daily inspections. There were no guards even posted at their door. The fleas were enough to keep Nazi soldiers at bay- they wanted nothing to do with their barracks or the women inside them. It was because of the fleas that the women escaped tortuous punishment, humiliating inspections, and horrific abuse at the hands of these men. It was because of the fleas that Corrie and Betsie were able to lead a furtive Bible study within the confines of a concentration camp and share the love of Jesus with many of these imprisoned women. Obeying God’s command to give thanks for the fleas didn’t necessarily make them disappear, but it put Corrie and Betsie in a great place of blessing.
I have fleas in my life, too. Not literal fleas, thank goodness, but I do have pestilences of the heart. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by little annoyances, great challenges, or even horrible things that bring life to a screeching halt. I experience the little fleas here and there through things like my postpartum body woes, worry over my son’s napping and eating habits, and the attic roof leaking (again!). I also experience things that feel more like flea infestations…experiences that are so overwhelming with no easy “fix” in sight. These are less frequent but more difficult to deal with. These are experienced through things like the death of my brother, being in a car accident, and my grandma getting diagnosed with a terminal illness. It is safe to say, I believe, that we all can relate.
I feel like Corrie–horrified at the thought that God would ask me to be thankful for these fleas. And yet, He still commands gratitude. God is telling us, through the apostle Paul’s writing, to be thankful in all circumstances, for little fleas and great infestations alike. Why would God ask something so incredibly difficult of us? I believe there are two primary reasons.
The first reason why God commands obedience in thankfulness is because He knows that it will lead to great joy. The original word for “thanks” or “thanksgiving” in the Greek is eucharisteo. It’s a beautiful word with an abundance of meaning and significance for us! The root of the word eucharisteo is chara, which means “joy.” Joy is quite literally, hidden within thanksgiving. I don’t believe in coincidence- joy and thanksgiving have been so closely intertwined in practice, even from the beginning. We must believe that God knows what He is doing when He calls us to rejoice and give thanks no matter what we are dealing with. Even the linguistics shows us that joy is found via thanksgiving!
“Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name” (Ps. 100:4). Thanksgiving is the way in which we are to enter God’s presence. We are also told that in God’s presence, “there is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11). Thanksgiving naturally gives way to joy. As pastor John Piper puts it, “Somebody asked me one time: Should you pursue joy or should you pursue obedience? And I said, ‘That is like saying, ‘Should you pursue apples or should you pursue fruit,’ because if you obey the command [such as] — Delight yourself in the Lord — you are pursuing joy and so obedience and joy can’t be contrasted like that.” Obedience and joy go hand in hand. Therefore, obeying God by being thankful in all circumstances, will lead to greater joy.
We see this connection between obedience and joy in Hebrews through the perfect example of Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2b). Jesus’ perfect obedience of God’s plan for Him (to come to earth as a man, die a cruel death in our place, and defeat sin and death overall) led to great joy (for Him, seeing God glorified and many saved, and for us, being the ones He saved!). Jesus’ perfect obedience of God’s plan for Him to come to earth as a man, die a cruel death in our place, and defeat sin and death overall, led to great joy. For Jesus, the joy was in seeing God glorified. For us, the joy is in being saved!
The second reason why we are to obey through thanksgiving, is because it will lead to great blessings. God knows the great benefit of obedience contrasted with the harm that comes from disobeying Him. The positive consequences of thankfulness far outweigh the negative consequences that come from the opposite…grumbling, complaining, and the like. Many different people in the Old Testament–from wandering Hebrews to anointed Kings– were told over and over again how obeying God’s commands would lead to blessing.
“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (Deut. 28:1).
“Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in obedience to Him” (Ps. 128:1)
The blessings that accompany obedience are not foreign in the New Testament either.
“Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’” (John 14:23).
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:10-11).
I could continue on, but I think you get the picture! And what a wonderful picture it is. God promises rich blessing to those who obey Him! Obeying God’s commands leads us into rich communion with Him, it makes us prosper in the ways He desires, and it is even a way to confirm the power of His saving grace in our lives! It’s vital to note that our obedience to Jesus’ “rules” does not save us. It is HIS obedience to God and our obedience in accepting His gift in faith that is our salvation: “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9).
What Corrie ten Boom realized is that it’s our perspective that changes, not our situation, when we give thanks and this is exactly what God had in mind for us. When we follow Jesus’ command to be thankful and practice this habit over and over again, it becomes second nature. When we learn to obey his commands in the small things, it becomes much easier to obey Him when more difficult situations command the same actions. A thankful heart is good medicine (Prov. 17:22). Following God’s commands is not a practice He asks of us to control us or make our lives miserable. God sees the bigger picture because He designed it! He knows the benefits of obedience. He knows that following His commands leads us into a fulfilling relationship and life with Him. He desires for us to see the good gifts He has given His children, despite the difficult circumstances that may surround them. And God does know that our circumstances can be incredibly difficult; He sees the pain we are in and He knows we won’t be perfectly thankful all the time, yet He loves us still and graciously extends forgiveness to us. I have experienced this very paradox: knowing God’s commands to be thankful, yet certainly not feeling thankful in my pain, my problems, and more. It is a learning process, full of grieving, prayer, and grace, but giving thanks in the hardest of times allows us to see the good in them. So while it may be the most challenging thing we ever do, we are commanded to give thanks for the “fleas” and are invited to see the joy and blessing that follow when we do.