The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] The Law of Threefold Return [Chalice]

Presented January 8, 2012, by Paul Miller

Listen to a recording of "The Law of Threefold Return"
35:29 minutes - 14.2 MB - The Law of Threefold Return .mp3 file.

OPENING WORDS by Dion Fortune

"It is a well-known cosmic law that everything moves in circles, and whatever forces we send out, and whatever thought-forms we extrude from our auras, unless absorbed by the object to which they are directed, will return to us in due course."
- Dion Fortune


Better to give than receive
Our deeds are like chickens, good or bad, they always come home to roost.
What comes around goes around.
You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
An it harm none, do as thou wilt.
Give and you shall receive.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
Curb your Dogma, Drive Your Karma.


Understanding The Law of Successful Giving And Successful Receiving
From Bob Burg, Excerpted from, Endless Referrals: Network Your Everyday Contacts into Sales 3rd Edition

You are giving a lot, giving continuously, and it might seem as though you are the only one doing any giving. Actually, it should seem that way - because it's probably true. This really is all about giving (about being a go-giver as opposed to a go-getter) and about how giving will come back to you many times over. And there's nothing "la-la" about this: It's based on universal laws and principles that have stood the test of time. Most people are familiar with the saying, "Give and you shall receive." Many have seen this principle operating in their lives. It's simply one manifestation of the Law of Cause and Effect. Always give more in use value than what you take in cash value. You cannot give a person more in cash value than you take from them, but you can give them more in use value than the cash value of the thing you take from them. This simply means, always do your best to add to the other person's life and success, without concern - especially at the beginning - for what you are receiving from the relationship. When people sense that just by being associated with you, their lives will experience significant increase, they will naturally want to advance the relationship. And they will do so by doing their best to give back to you. No matter what your profession, if you can give increase of life to others and make them sensible of this gift, they will be attracted to you, and you will get rich.

And this leads to one of the most important concepts of all; that which I call "The Grand Paradox". Remember the Golden Rule of Networking? All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust. When we give to someone, we take an important step toward eliciting those "know, like and trust" feelings toward us. When someone knows you care about them enough to refer business their way, they feel good about you. Actually, they feel great about you, which produces the natural desire to give back to you. They also know that it's in their best interests to cultivate a win/win relationship with you. What's important to remember is to give, not with an emotional demand that the person to whom you're giving must repay you in kind, but purely out of the joy of adding increase to the life of another human being.

This is the grand paradox of giving and receiving:
When you give purely out of the love of giving, you cannot help but receive. Yet when you give only in order to receive, it doesn't work out nearly as well! One reason is that people are attuned to your intent; it's human nature. When you give only in order to get, it comes across as such. More often than not, they can tell. Some people have a knack for getting away with this more than others, but eventually it will come back to haunt them. When you give because it's something you desire to do, and do so without the expectation of direct reciprocation, you'll find that the Law of Cause and Effect works for you in ways the typical business person might never even imagine.

While average networking relationships are 50/50, the most exciting and profitable ones are 100/100. In other words, both people are trying so hard to help each other succeed, that success comes back to each of them in spades. Simply develop a habit of giving without expectation, without concern for what you're going to "get" from the other person. Know that when you tap into the sheer joy of giving and connecting, you're going to get, and get big-time. Try not to think about it too much. Just get out there and try and give yourself away! Way before you even get close, you'll get back so much in return, you'll know you've become a superstar networker.

Bob Burg ( a popular speaker at company sales conventions, is author of the newly revised and expanded Endless Referrals: Network Your Everyday Contacts into Sales. He offers free weekly Video Briefs at

From A WITCHES BIBLE COMPLEAT by Janet and Stewart Farrar

"The observance or non-observance of these rules is precisely what distinguishes 'white' from 'black' working. All of these rules are summed up in the phrase 'An it harm none.' A witch must never use his or her powers in a way which will cause harm to anyone."

"It would seem that to observe the 'no harm' rule would mean to let a wrongdoer go unchecked, or to leave yourself undefended against attack. If someone is known to be acting evilly and harming others, witches are fully justified in stopping him. The method used is the magical operation known as 'binding'. The object of a binding spell is to render the evil actions powerless, not harm or punish the wrongdoer. Punishment can be safely left to the Lords of Karma. The spell is against the deed, not the doer -- and it works."

"The most direct and powerful means of defense, when you are under attack, is to rely on the 'boomerang effect'. This is the principle that psychic attack which comes up against a stronger defense rebounds threefold against the attacker. So your remedy is to set up strong psychic defenses while deliberately not counter-attacking yourself. The boomerang thus returns to its sender, and if he suffers harm, it is his own doing, not yours."


Writing this sermon was like being back in school and scrambling to get a term paper done in time to pass the class. What an ordeal! I'd much rather talk about Mary Mac's Tea Room. If you are in Atlanta, Georgia, and you want a good lunch for a little money, you can't beat Mary Mac's. Mary Mac is the matron who started the business, and the whole operation is still owned and operated entirely by women. The feature I most want to mention is their efficient method for taking orders. You take one of the pencils on the table and check what you want on a menu checklist, and hand the list to the waitress. One fine day I was there with a dozen relatives. My sister-in-law wanted a souvenir pencil. She said "Paul, I don't have any pockets in my dress. Sneak one of these pencils into your pocket for me, will you?" Maybe I was suffering from a hyperactive conscience that day or for whatever reason, I felt compelled to flaunt my punctilious scruples. Instead of pocketing a half-worn out pencil, I questioned the morality of pencil pilfering. Having started down the slippery slope towards uncompromising ethics, but not wanting to disappoint my sister-in-law (who already suspected I was out of my mind), I asked the waitress for permission to take a pencil. She said "No, don't take one of those old worn out ones." She went to the kitchen and returned with a box of brand-new unsharpened pencils with Mary-Mac's logo printed on them; a pencil for every one of us at the table. What a great pay-off for a trivial display of honesty! Wouldn't it be great if it always worked that way?

Ever mind the rule of three; what ye send out comes back to thee. Any student of Neopaganism hears some version of this mantra often. Whatever you do, good or bad, comes back to you threefold. This is the law of threefold return. Does it really work that way, or is it just a lie to make us behave? I believe that it really does work that way often, if not always, and not just with pencils.

The threefold law is most often mentioned in the context of magic spells. The Wiccan Rede "An it harm none, do as thou wilt" to quote Gerald Gardner's archaic ceremonial verbiage, permits us to do what we want, provided it hurts no one. That's neopagan morality in a nutshell. The threefold law provides incentive to follow the rule; payback for one's deeds, plus interest. The effects may be physical, emotional or spiritual.

Ever mind the rule of three; what ye send out comes back to thee. Ask three pagans what that means, exactly, and you can expect at least three different answers, maybe three times three.

Some Wiccans and Pagans will tell you in no uncertain terms that it's bunk, and that the Threefold Law is not a law at all, but just a guideline used to keep people on the straight and narrow.

An early incarnation of the Rule of Three appeared in Gerald Gardner's novel, High Magic's Aid, in the form of "Mark well, when thou receivest good, so equally art bound to return good threefold." Later this evolved into the notion among new witches that there is a spiritual law in effect that everything you do comes back to you. A minority of witches believe that if someone wrongs you, you are entitled to zap the wrongdoer thrice in retaliation.

Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner's most influential followers, said this in her speech at the National Conference of the Pagan Federation in 1997:

"Another teaching of Gerald's which I have come to question is the belief known popularly as "the Law of Three". This tells us that whatever you send out in witchcraft you get back threefold, for good or ill.

"Well, I don't believe it! Why should we believe that there is a special Law of Karma that applies only to witches? For Goddess' sake do we really kid ourselves that we are that important? Yet I am told, many people, especially in the USA, take this as an article of faith. I have never seen it in any of the old books of magic, and I think Gerald invented it. "

Of course Gardner didn't invent the karmic principle of payback. People have believed in karma for millennia. The idea of payback times 3 appears to be something he cooked up because he liked using the number 3 in his rituals. People took the idea of threefold return perhaps more literally than he had intended, and eventually it became Wiccan gospel. With regard to threefold return, 3 is a very fuzzy number, not a fundamental physical constant. As a scientist, maybe I should call it the Law of n-Fold Return, n being a function of infinitely many variables.

Most religions boil down to a similar ethical code of conduct, and most have some provision for spiritual payback. Good Christians go to heaven, and the rest of us go to hell, where Unitarians spend eternity discussing which is which. Hindus get re-incarnated into a better or worse situation, depending on their conduct in the previous life. Many Pagans believe in a similar system wherein you keep getting reincarnated until you have made amends for all your mistakes in your previous lives. This is known as Karma, and you may not have to wait until the next life to collect. Raymond Buckland wrote "There is no need for a Hell, or Final Judgment, in witchcraft because of their belief in retribution in the present life. It is thought that whatever you do will return three-fold." Sometimes instant Karma gets you. So curb your dogma and drive your karma.

Much is written about various forms of spiritual payback. I like to believe it's true, but scientifically credible evidence is hard to find. There are compelling anecdotes about people remembering details from previous lives. When the facts can be checked, sometimes they are confirmed, and sometimes they are refuted. Many people believe they were born into their current life in a good or bad situation because of their conduct or misconduct in previous lives, but I don't know of anyone who can prove it. People who have near death experiences often report a life review ("I saw my life flash before me"). They become acutely aware of how they have affected others in their lifetime. Perhaps this is part of the karmic process. Near death experiences have been extensively researched, and the evidence strongly suggests that they are real. Do we really get the reward or punishment we deserve after we die? I have no way to be sure. My wonderful parents must be in heaven, but they never call, and they never write. Likewise, I know of no credible reports of people returning from hell after paying for their sins, and living to tell about it. If there is a hell in the conventional Christian sense, they must surely be doing a brisk business this year.

Setting aside the question of afterlife payback, what about threefold return in this life? Nemesis, the Greek Goddess of divine anger and daughter of Night, punished those who grew too proud through wealth and fame, or who angered the gods. Her vengeance is inflexible and inescapable. As time went on, Nemesis gradually was softened into a kinder goddess of destiny, known as Adrasteia, "The Inevitable One", whom no one could escape. Adrasteia would bring sickness to those who abused their body and destruction to those parts of the earth we did not treat appropriately. Nemesis is also the goddess of law and retribution, often portrayed as a winged woman carrying a sword or whip and riding through the air on a chariot drawn by griffins.

Is there a cosmic scorekeeper tracking our deeds and misdeeds, multiplying by 3 and socking it to us at the appropriate time? One of the girls in my mom's Sunday school class thought so. She had done something naughty, and as she was fleeing the scene of the crime, God knocked her down, causing a painfully skinned knee. My mom, being devoutly religious, but also well grounded in reality, suggested maybe she fell down because in her haste she wasn't looking where she was going. Oh no, she insisted God smote her for her sin, and she would not consider any other explanation.

My own experience includes many examples of threefold return, and I would guess that your experience does, too. Often the return for our deeds is not obvious, but after sufficient contemplation, one sees the connection. As one who would like justice for all, perhaps I choose to construe every coincidence as evidence for divine retribution. While we would like it to be so, is there any rational reason to believe that we get what we deserve.

Those of you who have endured my hair-brained ramblings on quantum physics may be relieved to hear that I failed to find a way to work quantum physics into this discussion. I promise there will be no quantum physics today and no German philosophers. But there will be psychology.

Of course we like getting something in return for a favor. If you do something for me, I am inclined to do something for you in return, thus increasing the probability that you will do something for me later on. If you treat me badly, I am not likely to waste further favors on you. We don't usually think of this quid pro quo trading of favors in such coldly analytical terms. We do it instinctively. It feels like the right thing to do.

When I talk about giving ,of course I don't mean just giving material stuff. We can give stuff, time, advice, sympathy, or just plain courtesy. There is lots we can give that costs us nothing, but some are reluctant to give even then. There are quid pro quo givers, who give just enough to get something back, and most of us know who they are. They give one favor, often grudgingly, and they get one back, with equal grudgitude. They are not true givers, they are traders. Worse yet are takers, who avoid repaying favors whenever possible. Humans have evolved to detect these traders and takers, and we have learned to avoid them. We avoid them, not just out of calculated self-interest. We avoid them because we don't like them. Emotions often lead us to self-destructive behavior, but here is an example of our own emotions helping us. We have evolved to like people who are givers, and we know who they are without thinking about it. We like them, and we naturally want to give back to them.

Steven Pinker's book How the Mind Works explains a lot of evolutionary psychology, which might be called "the science of how people got to be so crazy". I shall quote from the chapter "Hotheads".

"Humans are, of course, a brainy species, and are zoologically unusual in how often they help unrelated individuals. Our lifestyles and our minds are particularly adapted to the demands of reciprocal altruism. People have food, tools, help, and information to trade. With language, information is an ideal trade good because its cost to the giver -- a few seconds of breath -- is miniscule compared to the benefit to the recipient. Humans are obsessed with individuals, and the human mind is equipped with goal-setting demons that regulate the doling out of favors; as with kin-directed altruism, reciprocal altruism is behaviorist shorthand for a set of thoughts and emotions. . . . the demands of reciprocal altruism are probably the source of many human emotions. Collectively they make up a large part of the moral sense.

"The minimal equipment is a cheater-detector and a tit-for-tat strategy that begrudges a gross cheater further help. A gross cheater is one who refuses to reciprocate at all, or who returns so little that the altruist gets back less than the cost of the initial favor. . . . people do reason unusually well about cheaters. But the real intrigue begins with [the] observation that there is a more subtle way to cheat. A subtle cheater reciprocates enough to make it worth the altruist's while, but returns less than he is capable of giving, or less than the altruist would give if the situation were reversed. That puts the altruist in an awkward position. In one sense she is being ripped off. But if she insists on equity, the subtle cheater could break off the relationship altogether. Since half a loaf is better than none, the altruist is trapped. She does have one kind of leverage, though. If there are other trading partners in the group who don't cheat at all, or who cheat subtly but less stingily, she can give them her business instead.

"The game has become more complicated. Selection favors cheating when the altruist does not find out or when she will not break off her altruism if she does find out. That leads to better cheater-detectors, which leads to more subtle cheating, which leads to detectors for more subtle cheating, which leads to tactics to get away with subtle cheating without being detected by the subtle-cheater-detectors, and so on. Each detector must trigger an emotion demon that sets up the appropriate goal - continuing to reciprocate, breaking off the relationship, and so on."

None of this is surprising, is it? Examples aplenty come to mind. Remember the lyingest cheatingest new car dealer in Quincy? He had the exclusive dealership for three of the hottest import car brands. Anybody could have gotten rich with a dealership like his. How could he loose? He lost. He lost big time. People didn't like getting ripped off. People stopped buying from him. He lost all three dealerships.

Cars aren't selling so well lately, for a lot of reasons. One reason for not buying a car is car salesmen. As a friend of mine said, when shopping for a new car, "I'd sooner take a beating than deal with those damned car salesman!" Honesty is a sales tactic that doesn't occur to most salesmen. Of course you make more money by lying and cheating your customers, right? I know a young guy who sells cars. He's so naïve that he tells his customers the truth, and he offers them the best deal he can without negotiation. Oddly enough, his boss hasn't fired him because he is the most successful salesman in the dealership.

It is obvious why we would like people who are givers. Well, duh; they give us stuff. Who doesn't like Santa Claus? It is less obvious, but equally true that we enjoy giving. We are hard-wired to enjoy helping others. This may seem contrary to one's survival instinct. Why would I enjoy giving away what I could keep for myself? Am I nuts? Ebenezer Scrooge would advise us that giving things away is the first step on the road to ruination.

Why did natural selection not snuff out this silly instinct to enjoy giving? Because the law of threefold return worked even in the ancient world, when our instincts were evolving, that's why. Evolution involves survival of the fittest, which sometimes means survival of the nicest. We have evolved to want to help others, and especially to help those who help us. We instinctively like to pay forward and pay back.

Here is how the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers reverse-engineered the moralistic emotions as strategies in the reciprocity game. (Quoted from Pinker's chapter on "hotheads") :

"Liking is the emotion that initiates and maintains an altruistic partnership. It is, roughly, a willingness to offer someone a favor, and is directed to those who appear willing to offer favors back. We like people who are nice to us, and we are nice to people who we like.

"Anger protects a person whose niceness has left her vulnerable to being cheated. When the exploitation is discovered, the person classifies the offending act as unjust and experiences indignation and a desire to respond with moralistic aggression: punishing the cheater by severing the relationship and sometimes by hurting him. Many psychologists have remarked that anger has moral overtones; almost all anger is righteous anger. Furious people feel they are aggrieved and must redress an injustice.

"Gratitude calibrates the desire to reciprocate according to the costs and benefits of the original act. We are grateful to people when their favor helps us a lot and has cost them a lot.

"Sympathy, the desire to help those in need, may be an emotion for earning gratitude. If people are most grateful when they most need the favor, a person in need is an opportunity to make an altruistic act go farthest.

"Guilt can rack a cheater who is in danger of being found out. H.L.Mencken defined conscience as the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking. If the victim responds by cutting off all future aid, the cheater will have paid dearly. He has an interest in preventing the rupture by making up for the misdeed and keeping it from happening again. People feel guilty about private transgressions because they may become public; confessing a sin before it is discovered is evidence of sincerity, and gives the victim better grounds to maintain the relationship. Shame, the reaction to a transgression after it has been discovered, evokes a public display of contrition, no doubt for the same reason."

Trivers proposed that the expansion of the human brain was driven by a cognitive arms race, fueled by the emotions needed to regulate reciprocal altruism. I would add that no matter whether we are this way because of natural selection, or because we were thusly designed by a god who values justice, the better part of human nature enforces the Law of Threefold Return. This applies to society as a whole as well as to individuals. You may recall the metallurgical rules of conduct, which I have mentioned is a previous talk. To review, they are:

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
The Silver Rule: Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you; more succinctly said as "do no harm".
The Brazen Rule: Do unto others as they do unto you.
And The Iron Rule: Do unto others however you please.
Perhaps we could add The Lead rule: Shoot first, ask questions later; do unto others before they do it to you; or
The Fissionable Uranium rule; "Nuke 'em first".

But let's not get carried away.

One can easily imagine a society where any one of these rules is rigorously followed. Using computer simulations, sociologists have modeled such societies. Not surprisingly, when the iron rule is followed, society quickly goes to hell in a handbasket. The most successful of these virtual societies is the one that follows a gold-plated version of the brazen rule. The gold plating is important. One's first action should follow the golden rule; when dealing with someone new, treat that person as you would like to be treated. After that, society works best when people return favors and offenses tit for tat in accordance with the brazen rule. This isn't exactly the law of threefold return. Call it the law of one-fold return if you like, but we have already established that 3 is a fuzzy number.

The point I want to make is that the natural human tendency to enforce a law of n-fold return (pick a number) helps a society to prosper and advance. A society wherein people treat each other right eventually triumphs over a society where they don't.

Living things are selfish by nature. Trees try to grow taller than their neighbors to get a greater share of sunlight. Birds chase other birds out of their territory. Humans lie, cheat, and steal. But humans have a way of knowing who is naughty or nice, and we instinctively reciprocate. Even if I don't repay a deed directly, I know sooner or later someone will. What comes around goes around. Our deeds, like chickens, come home to roost. One can construe this as purely a result of survival instincts or as a karmic system enforced by a higher power. Being Unitarians, of course you can decide for yourselves. I can say that whatever the mechanism, the Law of Threefold Return works.

Closing words "Instant Karma" by John Lennon:

Instant Karma's gonna get you
gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
pretty soon you're gonna be dead
What in the world you thinking of
laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin' to do
it's up to you, yeah you

Instant Karma's gonna get you
Gonna look you right in the face
You better get yourself together
Join the human race
How in the world you gonna see
Laughing at fools like me
Who on earth do you think you are
A superstar? Well alright you are.

Instant Karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you of your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Every one you meet
Why in the world are we here
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Why on earth are you there
When you're everywhere, come and get your share.

©2012 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul 2012. The Law of Threefold Return, /talks/20120108.shtml (accessed December 17, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.