Contemplating the Trinity for Lent

[1] The chocolate shop nearby is encouraging people not to give up chocolate for Lent. “Just give up something like red meat,” they say, “or your negative attitudes.” Over the years, I’ve been using Lent as a time to get my life back on track. I’ve given up things like desserts, drinking, and dining out to practice discipline — with the side hope of saving money and losing weight while I was at it.

[2] This Lent, I’d like to propose we try something different. Let’s give up using God for our own purposes, let’s refrain from treating God as a means to an end; and instead, spend time contemplating the Trinity. Think of it as a combination of discipline and daydreaming. No more asking God for things or to do things for us (assuming that we’re not in need of the basics). Just close your eyes or stare into space and imagine what God must be like on the basis of what God does as Father, Son, and Spirit, as creator, healer, and peacemaker.

[3] Let me be clear: it’s not that using God is some kind of abomination or even the least bit inappropriate. Jesus himself teaches us to see God as a way to get our needs met. But here’s the problem: when we focus primarily on what God can do for us, we can forget to love God for who God is. The Holy One simply becomes a tool or instrument (however great, unique, or indispensible God is thought to be) we use to accomplish our goals. Thomas Aquinas once called this phenomenon mercenary love.1

[4] Exploiting God for our own purposes or as a means to an end is a form of utilitarian Christianity.2 Instead of seeking God first, we use God to go after what H. R. Niebuhr calls “secondary satisfactions” such as personal development (including spiritual growth and material prosperity) or social progress (including the spread of democracy and justice for the oppressed). Pretty soon, we lose sight of who God is. Leveraging the relationship to get the goods, Niebuhr concludes, is like doing “a bad kind of magic.”3
[5] So, instead of using God to fix our lives and the world around us, I suggest we relax for a moment and contemplate the Trinity for Lent. I realize that pondering God sounds difficult. After all, doesn’t the Trinity represent the mind-crashing truth that three are one and one is three? Since paradoxes can be challenging, I recommend we approach contemplating the Trinity like we do daydreaming. After praying for help (which is asking God to do something for us, but this is an exception), let’s just allow ourselves to drift into it and see what happens.

[6] To further help us along, the medieval mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg serves as a good guide. She provides an example of contemplating the Trinity in her peculiar book The Flowing Light of the Godhead.4 At one point, she recalls praying these words: “God, Father of mercies, I your unworthy one give thanks to your faithfulness by which you have led me outside myself into your wonders….”5 Soon after, Mechthild imagines eavesdropping on trinitarian conversation before the creation of the universe and the incarnation of the Son.

[7] She describes this extraordinary moment to God in prayer. “This was when you alone existed and none shared in your delights, you shone forth in the Son and Holy Spirit, and they likewise in you. The undivided unity of this Trinity existed as omnipotence in the Father, wisdom in the Son, and goodness in the Holy Spirit: and these things are adored in equal fashion in the three.”6 Below is an edited version of the remarkable things she overhears.
“The free generosity of the Holy Spirit at play in the delights of Trinity said to the Father: ‘I offer the counsel of charity from you and to you, venerable Father. To be without fruit is not fitting for us; we wish to have a created realm.'”7 “The Father answered: ‘You are one spirit with me, and therefore your advice and will are pleasing to me.'”8 “The Son who is co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit spoke in this manner in good order: ‘O Father, I do not want to be devoid of the glory of fruitfulness. Since we have agreed to begin to do wondrous things, let us make man to our image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). Even though I foresee the great miseries to come, I will still love man with everlasting love.'”9 “The Father answered: ‘The internal sweetness of your love, O Son, touches me; I will not hold back my feelings from you for the sake of love. Therefore, we will become fruitful by creating so that we can be loved in return and so that the greatness of our majesty may be acknowledged in some small way. I will prepare for myself a bride who will greet me with her mouth and overcome me with her beautiful face.'”10 “The Holy Spirit said: ‘For you I will deliver this bride to the bed in your bridal chamber.'”11 “And the Son added: “Father, you know that I finally will die for love, but still joyfully we wish to make this creature in great holiness.'”12

After God created the universe, we, the “glorious beings” made in conformity to the Son (“the Father’s image”), deformed ourselves. Rejecting “the divine beauty,” we were “made ugly and very contemptible.”13 After a “cry pierced the clouds and came to the ears of the Lord of Hosts,” the Father asked, “[W]ho will stoop to take such filthiness upon himself?”14 “The Only-Begotten Son of God, recognizing his image in man, bowing his majesty low in a fitting fashion before the Father, said: ‘With your blessing Father, I will freely take on human nature despite its pollution, and I will wash its wounds through my innocent blood, and I will heal its broken places with the bindings of the scorn of my exile, even unto death.”15 “When he heard these things, the sweet Spirit of both of them said: ‘Almighty God, our procession into the world will be beautiful and totally marvelous. Let us then go forth from here with great glory….”16 “Then the Father, bowed down in love by the appeal of both, said to the Holy Spirit: ‘You will be the one who bears my light before the Son into the hearts of all who will be devoutly moved to his fiery speech in a strong fashion. And you, Son, will take up your cross, ‘and go forth into Egypt and free my people’ (Ex. 4:14)…. ‘I will hold your right hand, I will lead you forth with my will and will lead you back to me with eternal glory’ (Ps. 72:24)”17

[8] As Mechthild shows, one way to ponder the Trinity is to read back into God’s identity descriptions of what God does, such as sweetness, generosity, and fieriness. We naturally do this every time we express our love for God in worship through song, prayer, and gesture. It’s the practice of projecting onto the Trinity attributes that characterize what we believe to be God’s work in the world. Mechthild presents one possible rendering. We will undoubtedly see other visions and dream other dreams. So give up using God for a season and try this way of contemplating the Holy Trinity, a practice perfect for Lent and beyond.


1. See Stephen J. Pope, “Overview of the Ethics of Thomas Aquinas,” p. 38, in The Ethics of Thomas Aquinas, ed. idem (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002).

2. H. Richard Niebuhr, “Utilitarian Christianity,” in Witness to a Generation, ed. Wayne H. Cowan (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1966) 240-245.

3. Ibid., 244

4. Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Life of the Godhead, tr. Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1998).

5. Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, ed. and tr. Bernard McGinn, in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. idem (New York: The Modern Library, 2006) 203.

6. Ibid., 203.

7. Ibid., 203

8. Ibid., 203

9. Ibid., 204

10. Ibid., 204

11. Ibid., 204

12. Ibid., 204

13. Ibid., 206

14. Ibid., 205f.

15. Ibid., 206

16. Ibid., 206

17. Ibid., 206.

Victor Thasiah

Vic Thasiah

Vic Thasiah is a California Naturalist and trail runner.  He is the founder and executive director of Runners for Public Lands, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit environmental organization, and an associate professor and the chair of the religion department at California Lutheran University.