In my last piece of this column, I have tackled on the virtue of gratitude as a wellspring of blessings, underscoring that our gratefulness does not only please the one we are grateful to but it likewise benefits ourselves in the form of blessings and happiness.
But, in the practical scheme of things or experience-wise, it is but difficult to be grateful especially when we do not want what we have been given – like trials and struggles. Can we remain grateful even amid challenges?
In her famous book “The Hiding Place”, Corrie ten Boom (Dutch writer whose family helped many Jews hide from the Nazis during the Holocaust) narrates the scene when she and her sister, Betsie, thanked God for the fleas.
The two sisters were arrested for hiding Jews and confined to Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Shortly after arriving, Corrie is pestered by fleas and cries out to her sister, “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?” Ever the saint, Betsie prays to God, “Lord, please show us how”.
Corrie recalls, “It was said so matter-of-factly it took me a moment to realize she was praying. More and more the distinction between prayer and the rest of life seemed to be vanishing for Betsie.” Then Betsie excitedly rushes Corrie to re-read their Scripture passage from the morning.
Covertly, Corrie draws out her contraband Bible and reads from 1 Thessalonians 5:18 – “Give thanks in all circumstances”. Interrupting her, Betsie demands that they start a litany of thanks. Although skeptical, Corrie follows her lead. But when Betsie prays “Thank you for the fleas,” Corrie stops her: “This is too much. Betsie, there’s no way even God can make us grateful for a flea.”
But Betsie would emphatically insist, reminding her sister:
“Give thanks in all circumstances. It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances’. Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.”
After weeks residing at the camp, the sisters go unchecked in leading covert Bible studies. They are astonished that the guards never seemed to catch them.
In fact, they never entered their bunkhouse. Providentially, Betsie overhears a conversation between guards about the reason why they stayed away from the bunkhouse – it was because of the fleas.
This story provides us an example of practicing gratitude for what causes suffering or what is experienced as a trial. The sisters did not pray for God to remove the fleas, despite how bad the fleas are.
They did not pray that their hardship be mitigated, despite how atrocious the situation. They offered thanksgiving for the difficulties because they trusted in God’s sovereignty.
Then, there’s also the story of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Russian novelist, philosopher, historian, Nobel Prize winner, celebrated author of the famed “Gulag Archipelago”, and who was exiled to the Gulag prison camp for criticizing Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Readers are surprised when Solzhenitsyn exclaims, “Bless you, prison,” after his time in the Soviet camps. Solzhenitsyn is not recasting the prisons themselves as “good” or “blessed”.
He is, however, acknowledging that his time in the prison nourished his soul.
Before prison, Solzhenitsyn confesses, “In the surfeit of power, I was a murderer and an oppressor.” Because of his time in prison, Solzhenitsyn wrote, “It was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”
Solzhenitsyn realized he could have been easily as been a cruel prison guard as a prisoner. He became grateful for the way that God instrumentally used the prison to reveal to him the truth about human hearts and convert his own.
Verily, thus, we can deduce from the stories of Corrie ten Boom and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that the lofty virtue of gratitude can be practiced even under tough circumstances – because gratitude (from Latin gratia or grace) means both thanksgiving and grace.
In sum, we can be grateful for something bad: grateful for the affliction that awoke us about ourselves, that enabled us to confront it, to understand and overcome it. We are grateful to have learned that life is a gift, and that to receive it fully we must give in turn.
As William Law, 18th century Anglican priest, wrote:
“Whatever seeming calamity befalls you, if you can thank and praise God for it, you turn it into a blessing.”