The Fivefold Action Plan God Wants from Us

Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth … 13 Gird yourselves and lament, you priests; wail, you who minister before the altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth, you who minister to my God; for the grain offering and the drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. 14 Consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. (Joel 1:8, 13-14)

Lament in View of the Mounting Crisis

Lament like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the husband of her youth… 13 Gird yourselves and lament, you priests; wail, you who minister before the altar… (Joel 1:8, 13)

Joel called the nation to come before the Lord in wholeheartedness. He described the anguish to come in Joel 2.

Joel saw, by the Spirit of God, the severity of the coming devastation. It was a day so painful and so all-consuming that it would make business-as-usual literally impossible. A Day is coming when the nations of the earth will faint for fear (Lk. 21:26). Their strength and hope will be utterly broken.

Joel’s urgent call in this passage is that the people of God make it top priority to respond to God concerning the coming crisis.

If we respond to God with our whole heart today, we will not be novices in the deep things of God when calamity strikes. God wants His people to be carriers of His power in crisis.

Joel told them that no class of society would be exempt from the plague and its aftermath. Then Joel shocked his listeners into sobriety. Using a horrifying analogy, he likened the nation to a virgin mourning the death of her husband.

The coming crisis was so terrible that it could be likened to a bride in sackcloth on her wedding day. By using that picture, the nation had a graphic picture of the coming crisis. It is hard to imagine a greater tragedy than a bride losing her husband right after the ceremony. The picture is of a virgin bride whose groom dies before the marriage is consummated. They share their vows in the ceremony. However, on their way to the honeymoon, the one she loves suddenly dies. Thus, she puts off her wedding dress and clothes herself in sackcloth in anguish. She experiences great sorrow. This is the sorrow that Joel sees as appropriate in crying to God.

A bride is someone with future plans and high hopes. A bride in sackcloth is a contradiction of terms because a bride never wears sackcloth, or the garment of mourning, on her wedding day. Yet such will be the agony of those who do not heed Joel’s warning. If a bride was told on her wedding day that her new husband was about to die, she would immediately move out of the place of celebration and into the place of mourning. There would be nothing else on her mind, nothing of greater priority than the crisis before her.

After the four waves of locusts had passed, then they faced the aftermath of starvation, death, and disease. It was at this time that the crisis seemed to be in the past tense, yet Joel prophesied that the crisis was not nearly over. The crisis in Israel was mounting up to a new level of intensity. Something much more severe was coming. The first “day of the Lord” that Joel spoke about consisted of threefold crises that included a locust invasion (Joel 1:4-12), an accompanying drought (Joel 1:16-20), and raging fires (Joel 1:19 – 20). In light of these, Joel introduces his urgent burden of a situation far more severe than the agricultural conflict of Joel 1. It was the Babylonian military conflict of Joel 2, but ultimately, the end-time global conflict.

The Lord wanted His people to enter into the kind of mourning that is likened to a bride in sackcloth on her wedding day. In other words, He wanted this to be their top priority in view of what Joel was to prophesy (Joel 1:13-15). He was warning Israel about the next crisis to come, the Babylonian invasion that was approaching possibly within the next decade (Joel 2:1-9). The pagan power of Babylon was mounting up and getting stronger. The horrific analogy of a bride in sackcloth was given to describe the Babylonian invasion. The end-time Day will be even more severe than the Babylonian invasion! It is described in the book of Revelation.

We have a significant amount of information in the Scripture about the generation in which the Lord returns. Enoch, who lived before Abraham and Moses, received revelation of this future Day (Jude 14-15). From the Psalms to the Major and Minor Prophets, to the New Testament, including the book of Revelation, there is more information concerning this final generation than any other time frame in all of natural history.

There are over 150 chapters in the Bible that focus on the end times. Compare this to the four gospels which total 89 chapters. The gospels give us a record of Jesus’ ministry related to His first coming when He redeemed us from our sins. The 150 chapters on the end times reveal His ministry related to His second coming when He will rule all the nations. Many of God’s people neglect these 150 chapters without considering that they come from the same Bible, reveal the same Jesus, and manifest the same power of the Spirit as the four gospels.

What God Wants is Different than What Man Seeks

God asks things of His people that are so simple, yet many refuse to embrace them. The story of Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, who had leprosy is an example. Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great and honorable man in the eyes of his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was also a mighty man of valor, but a leper. (2 Kgs. 5:1)

The Syrian army made many raids on Israel and on one occasion they brought back a young Israelite girl who became the servant of Naaman’s wife. This young girl told Naaman about the prophet Elisha, who could heal him of leprosy. Desperate for his healing, Naaman went to Israel. Reaching Elisha’s house, he stood outside the door. Yet instead of coming out to greet Naaman himself, Elisha sent a servant with a message.

Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.” (2 Kgs. 5:10)

This infuriated Naaman who had anticipated a greeting from Elisha and an immediate display of healing power. He couldn’t imagine such an unusual way of getting healed as dipping seven times in a river that belonged to Israel, which was Syria’s enemy. The plan was so simple that it was offensive. Naaman’s pride was aroused when he was called to wash in the Jordan, a Jewish river. Naaman turned away in rage.

His servants came near and spoke to him, and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kgs. 5:13)

Naaman dipped in the Jordan River seven times and his leprosy was instantly healed.

God’s answer is often so simple that it is offensive, and this is true of God’s plan for how a nation is to respond to Him when in crisis. It is the only plan that works. Joel received this plan from Solomon who received it from the audible voice of God nearly 400 years earlier.

The LORD appeared to Solomon by night, and said to him: “I have heard your prayer … 13 when I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among My people, 14 if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chr. 7:12-14)

The fivefold plan given by God through Joel is so plain, yet it remains much neglected today.

This divine plan requires a radical new paradigm of life. This plan is foreign to the mindset of many. However, this is what God requires of us and we cannot improve it.

Joel prophesied that Israel could minimize the devastation by responding in the way God desired. They were still in the early days of the full crisis; starvation had not reached the level that it was going to and disease was not yet widespread.

God was giving the people the opportunity to minimize His judgments related to the locust plague as well as the next crisis that would be caused by the Babylonian military invasion.

Joel 1 is intended by God to show the model of how to respond to the Lord in calamity. Joel was teaching the people of his day how to minimize these disasters God’s way, which is actually the only way possible.

By responding correctly, they would develop a history in God and a corporate testimony to draw on in the coming day of military trouble, as described in Joel 2:1-9. They needed to cry out to God together. God was giving them opportunity with these smaller catastrophes to enter into a corporate pursuit of God before the bigger ones came.

God wants us to recognize this pattern of Joel 1-3 for our generation. We will see a progression of His judgments in the book of Joel. The same is true in the book of Revelation.

The earthquake or storm may suddenly happen. But there is a domino effect in society in the aftermath of the earthquake or storm that can seem to go on and on. When He is trying to get the attention of a nation, the progressive intensity of the disruption is not accidental, it is purposeful. Its purpose is to shake a nation out of rebellion and to cause the hearts of His people to arise to Him in prayer to cry for mercy. Though man’s sin and Satan’s rage are factors in these disruptions, God designs the dilemma to have no human solution other than receiving His favor.

What Joel is saying in essence is, “We can minimize the crisis and its domino effect by crying out to God. We can reduce or completely cancel out some of the destruction through wholeheartedness with fasting and prayer.” Some times the aftermath of a calamity is worse than the calamity itself, causing upheavals such as a shortage of food and water, electricity, money, and the food supply. The wave of increased pressure is a new invitation to seek the Lord

When we live through calamity, we should not imagine that the drama is all over because one wave has come and gone and we have survived it. The earthquake, or the plague, is not God’s ultimate aim—it is relationship with mankind and deliverance of the oppressed.

The only safety in such crises is in the place of wholeheartedness. Fasting and prayer is not a magic formula, like waving a magic wand at God. It is not the actual act of fasting and prayer that moves the heart of God. It is the wholeheartedness.

Fasting and prayer are expressions of wholeheartedness. Fasting tenderizes our hearts, moving us into a posture of hunger before God; then when our heart is moved, it touches God’s heart. Fasting and prayer intensifies abandonment to God and agreement with His heart. These expressions of wholeheartedness are about enriching our heart-connect with God’s heart.

Intimacy with His people is what God is after, and because He is a jealous God, He does not want only part of a people. He wants all of them.

The Five-Part Action Plan

Consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD. (Joel 1:14)

This is God’s five-step program on how to respond to Him in the midst of crisis. This God-given, fivefold action plan is one that everyone can do without regard to education, prestige, ministry platform, special talents, or economics. It is the required response God has given us in answer to the spirit of hopelessness and despair described in Joel 1:12. This action plan is how we posture ourselves together for the future—before, during, and after the crisis.

Step one: consecrate a fast. We must set apart specific periods of time for corporate fasting. There is nothing ambiguous about this part of the action plan.

This in essence is a part of walking in wholeheartedness (Joel 2:12-13). Yet it is often ignored. Fasting increases our capacity to live wholehearted before God. We do not fast to move God, we fast to move our own hearts in the grace of God. We do not earn a thing by fasting. Rather, we position ourselves to receive. It is about an increased capacity in our hearts to experience more of God. Fasting under the grace of God tenderizes our hearts and God is moved by that tenderizing.

When we fast, we refuse to pacify our souls with food or other comforts. We refuse to medicate the holy wound of longing for more of God. Thus, spiritual hunger and desperation grows within us. In this way, fasting increases our capacity to receive more from God and enhances our ability to give ourselves back to God in intimacy.

The essence of fasting is that we position ourselves before God in voluntary weakness in order to embrace God’s strength as our solution. We take our cold hearts and position them before God’s fire, asking Him to set us ablaze with love for Him and to consume all that stands in the way. Then we commit to separate our hearts from anything which God reveals as a hindrance.

Fasting is not optional if we want to experience the fullness of the grace of God. It is mandatory. We cannot face the coming crisis without the protection of wholeheartedness enhanced by fasting. Fasting is a strange message in the Western church, where self-indulgence is nearly esteemed as a virtue.

The grace for fasting is available to everyone. We begin by asking the Lord for this grace. We ask Him to help us desire it. We start off with the basics of fasting-prayer, which is “Lord, make me want to want to fast.” The Lord esteems this kind of prayer as valid and if we continue to pursue Him in it, we will desire to fast.

Step two: call a sacred assembly. The Lord wants whole communities to come together to pursue Him in prayer. Private devotion is essential, but it is not enough to answer the coming international crisis. God requires corporate gatherings for prayer.

“Assembly” – a gathering in one place together. In Joel’s day they were gathering into the temple, the house of the Lord. The Father has a family and the place in which He releases the fullness of His power is in the context of His family. We can only go so high in our individual consecration; there is a ceiling in the Spirit until we come together.

There are many reasons why we gather together. One practical reason is that the fire in our hearts dies out more easily when we lack the encouragement of others. The Lord knows we need the strength of others. We are strengthened by being with like-hearted people, people of like passion and like vision.

Corporate blessing occurs in the midst of the corporate people of God coming together in wholeheartedness. This is the place of God’s commanded blessing.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! For there the LORD commanded the blessing. (Ps. 133:1, 3)

It takes a corporate, unified response over a period of time to receive the highest levels of God’s intended blessing of a geographic area. The greatest measures of blessing and protection are released in the context of corporate, unified wholeheartedness. God the Father gives far more when His children come together as a family. One individual can surely release God’s power but more happens when His people dwell in unity (Ps. 133).

The most anointed intercessors in Israel’s history could not stop the coming judgment.

“Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness,” says the Lord GOD. (Ezek. 14:14)

Then the LORD said to me, “Even if Moses and Samuel stood before Me, My mind would not be favorable toward this people.” (Jer. 15:1)

The Holy Spirit is raising up groups of people all over the earth who are committed to wholeheartedness expressed in fasting with prayer and energized by intimacy with God.

The sacred or solemn assembly speaks of its weightiness before God. Sacred in this context means “dedicated” or “set apart” to God. God calls it sacred, and therefore it needs to be important to us. What is of high priority to God must not be casual or optional to us. When the assembly is sacred, there can be no excuses for neglecting it. Often we imagine that we will give ourselves to these kinds of things if our time permits or when we are in the right mood for it. However, this is the wrong position to take on something God calls sacred. God is going to awaken the Church to the revelation of the sacredness of these assemblies. Then they will no longer be treated casually.

It takes effort and courage to call and organize sacred assemblies. Lou Engle called thousands to Washington DC in Sept. 2000. Over 400,000 people showed up. He gave invested much effort traveling the nation and mobilizing leaders and rallying people.

God requires solemn assemblies regardless of how much they cost in staff salaries and revenue. Holding a solemn assembly is costly. In the church I pastored for some years, we had over a hundred people on the staff. Whenever we called a solemn assembly for three days, seven days, or twenty-one days, I usually had someone say something to the effect of, “Have you ever done the math on how much work we are not doing when a hundred people lay aside their work to pray for three weeks? Do you know how much it costs to pay their salaries while they do no work, how much lost revenue it costs?”

Step three: gather the elders or the governmental leadership in His purposes. God honors the governmental roles that He has commissioned people with. These are also the ones who are able to impact other leaders. Joel is saying, “Go cast the vision to other leaders.”

I have found that the most difficult people to gather and rally are those in positions of leadership because of how busy they are.

They have real burdens, responsibilities, and mandates with full schedules. It takes much persuasion, vision-casting and relational building—along with a lot of time, effort, and money—to gather the elders of a city or nation. God is aware of the implications of this plan and the difficulties and the amount of exertion it takes to gather leaders together.

The Lord told Joel to cast the vision and expend the energy necessary to convince them.

Step four: gather all of the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord. This comprehensive description leaves no one out.

Step five: cry out to God by lifting our voices to Him together. As simple as this is, it will not happen with a casual mindset; it is earnest and deliberate. It does not necessarily mean we cry out loudly. It is not about volume, but about engaged hearts. To cry out means that we come into agreement with what God has promised for our geographic area. God wants us to pray in the prayer meetings. Though that sounds odd to some, I have been to many prayer meetings where prayer was one of the least things done. There is much preaching, giving testimonies, ministry praise reports and just a lot of talking to one another that happens in some prayer meetings.

The Fourfold Preparation for God’s Action Plan

Preparation #1: the call to gird ourselves, to make preparation in practical areas. Gird yourselves and lament, you priests… (Joel 1:13).

Joel directs this to the priest, the spiritual leaders. The call to gird ourselves is a call to action to remove things that hinder prayer. He summons them to make things ready in the practical areas of their lives in order to do the necessary work of prayer. Joel was saying, “Change your schedule! Settle issues in your heart that hinder the life of prayer!” To gird one’s self in today’s language would be “Get out your schedule and rearrange your time. Rearrange the way that you spend time and money.” Many overlook this part of the call to a life of prayer.

To gird themselves is to make the necessary preparations. It is not enough to be caught in the romance of the calling to prayer without following through to do the work.

The decree to “gird ourselves” is to set new priorities. Without preparation, it is easy to only get excited at this novel, dynamic call. We prepare for long-term endurance in    prayer even if it means not seeing quick answers. Our initial excitement is not enough to sustain us in pursuing God in a lifestyle of prayer.

Jesus used this same language in His earthly ministry.    Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning… (Lk. 12:35)

We have to rearrange our lives in a sober way, to consider the cost. To do this we must    say no to many things. In my case, I refuse many conference speaking invitations. If I travel too much in ministry, my prayer life significantly suffers. I can travel a little. It takes time and energy for the spirit of prayer to be cultivated in my life. I cannot do it    effectively if I travel too much.

Girding ourselves, or establishing a lifestyle of preparation, is not something that is done automatically. We must intentionally change our schedules to make room for it.

Preparation #2: the call to lament, to have a heart-connect with God in the tragic situation Lament, you priests; wail, you who minister before the altar… (Joel 1:13)

Joel calls the people to lament and wail. This speaks of a heart-connect with God and the people who will suffer in the crisis. Joel wants us to feel the pain of the coming crisis before it comes. God wants us to feel the pain of the revelation of judgment from His point of view and to enter into compassion and identification with those under judgment.

The angel told John to digest the message. He warned John that it would have an element of sweetness to it, yet it would make his heart sick when he digested its full meaning and implications.

I took the little book out of the angel’s hand and ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. But when I had eaten it, my stomach became bitter. (Rev. 10:10)

Joel prophesied that if the people gathered together in a solemn assembly, they could reduce the full ramifications of judgment yet ahead (Joel 1:13-14). The coming military invasion would be far worse than the locust plague.

The Spirit will release deep compassion for the human suffering that will come in a time of judgment. We will not be disconnected from the distress of others but will walk in compassion with real lament for the pain of real people.

God’s people will experience God’s grief as well as His compassion for the pain that results from judgment.

Also present in this lamenting is the desperate cry to possess all that God has ordained for us. We must have more. We are pained over our weakness, compromise, and powerlessness. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Mt. 5:4). It includes the desperation to enter into the things of God in a greater measure, as well as feeling the sobriety of the hour.

We need to feel the pain about our current condition—individual and corporate. This pain and desperation includes our cry to experience more of God.

Preparation #3: to lie in sackcloth is to call the leaders to humility

Lament, you priests … come lie all night in sackcloth, you who minister to my God… (Joel 1:13)

Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD’s anger. (Zeph. 2:3)

I will leave in your midst a meek and humble people… (Zeph. 3:12)

If My people … will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face… (2 Chr. 7:14)

We humble ourselves in the presence of God for the purpose of prayer. Joel tells the spiritual leadership to lie down in sackcloth. Sackcloth was made of goat’s hair. The priest’s attire was a beautiful garment, as ordained by God in Exodus 28. They were garments of status, honor, and prestige. The call to dress in sackcloth was not a call to discomfort, but to lay down one’s position of privilege or the prestige of their position.

Everyone was to be on equal ground before the throne. Joel was essentially saying, “Take off your priestly robes; lay down your ecclesiastical titles, your positions, and degrees.” All are equal before God without any special honor or status, regardless of one’s leadership role. It was a call for everyone to come together before the Lord in humility.

Preparation #4: all night – extreme and radical

Lament, you priests … come lie all night in sackcloth, you who minister to God… (Joel 1:13)

To come and lie all night before the Lord takes significant effort. Yet this is The Lord’s mandate to leaders. Joel is not merely preaching his personal ministry preferences. It was from God—His mandate to answer the crisis. Joel was not presenting this as an option. He was crying out, “You have to act!”

The end-time Church will walk out this radical ministry to God even like Anna did.

Anna, a prophetess … did not depart from the temple, but ministered to [served] God with fastings and prayers night and day. (Lk. 2:36-37)

Some in the Church will do anything except pray and lie all night before God.

Run With This Vision

Imagine the difficulty of having to answer this five-part mandate and proclaim it to a frantic earth, believers and unbelievers alike, in the hour of crisis. Imagine a CNN reporter puts the microphone in your hand and asks, “A terrorist bomb just went off and thousands were killed. What do you think that we should do?” You respond, “First, we must set apart a specific time of prayer and fasting, and we must weep and wail before God. Second, we must get the word out to all the leaders because God has mandated that they gather. The leaders will meet together in one place, have prayer meetings and not eat for a certain period of time. Then they will call the inhabitants of the land to do this also.” This is the plan God has given us to follow, line upon line, in the midst of crisis.

Entire populations of geographic areas are in the balance of the prayer ministries of those regions. We cannot afford to do anything less than fully obey God. We must do it for our own sakes, and we must do it for the sake of our children and grandchildren. God has invited us to be as a city on a hill, giving light to those around us.

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