Joel’s "Threefold Way"
Often on Ash Wednesday, we read a passage from the Old Testament book of Joel. As I read the full text of Prophet’s words recently, I heard echoes of an ancient well-travelled Threefold Way that Christians throughout the centuries have used as a practical means of pursuing growth in Christ. This way is particularly a popular one to traverse during Lent. (I recommend taking time to read through Joel—at only three chapters long, it’s easily read in a single setting.)
· STEP 1: Returning/Rending (Purgation)—Joel 2:12-14. Joel told a people who had wandered far from God to: rend their hearts… and return to God. Just as we return to the soil of a garden after the winter and work hard to turn the soil over to prepare it for planting, so too hearts that have laid fallow and wandered from God for a time must be “turned over” and purged of anything not conducive to cultivating Christ in us. This stage is often difficult and painful; it does seem natural at first; it requires hard work, sweat, and even tears.
· STEP 2: Receiving (Illumination)—Joel 2:28-29. Joel promised the people he spoke to that God was about to pour out his Spirit. Thus, the rending and purging of STEP 1 serve a purpose—namely preparation. Exerting effort to work up the soil makes it more receptive to life-giving nutrients that will come at this stage. Likewise, “roughing-up” our hearts makes them more open to the workings of God’s Spirit in our lives. The “seeds” are planted and begin to take root and grow in our hearts. Our eyes are opened and we “see” God with a level of clarity that we have not experienced before…
· STEP 3: Rejoicing (Contemplation/Union)—Joel 3:18. As did some other Prophets, Joel promised that though the present circumstances seemed very bleak (see Joel 1:11-12 for example), the day of the Lord would come. On that day, Joel promised that God would restore the physical and spiritual health of the land and the people. God’s presence would return to dwell with them, and wherever God’s presence is found, joy follows. Here, the work done during STEPS 1 & 2 begins to bear fruit. Like the people of Joel’s day, our joy returns to us and begins to deepen as we reconnect with God and experience increasingly more intimate fellowship with our Creator.
NOTE: This process isn’t meant to be something we do once and then we have “arrived at our destination”. No, this Threefold Way takes us on a spiral path toward God throughout our lives. As we progress, we move closer to God (but we never reach God in this life!) and Christ is formed in each of us. Each inward spiral reveals other debris and clutter in our hearts that must be removed (i.e., back to purgation) in order for us see even more clearly (illumination) and enjoy ever-deepening fellowship with our Maker (contemplation/union).