Diamonds and Coal and the Pressures of Life

We don’t choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them.

Diamonds and coal are made from the same substance, carbon.[1] They are both formed by heat and pressure, but the results are very, very different.

Coal burns and can be a source of energy, though it is not a very clean source of energy because it’s full of impurities. Diamonds have few impurities and won’t burn.

Diamonds on the other hand are among the hardest substances. They can be used in industrial applications for cutting metal and similar uses because they are so hard and immutable.

Coal is soft and combustible. Coal is dirty and rubs off everywhere.

Diamonds are clean, translucent, rare and beautiful. Diamonds are highly valued, while coal is something we would rather not use if we had other choices, even for burning up in a fire.

Coal is formed relatively near to the surface of the Earth, while diamonds are formed deep within the Earth. Diamonds and coal are both formed by heat and pressure. The difference is in degree.

Diamonds are subject to much greater heat and much greater pressure over a much greater length of time. Coal forms relatively more quickly under less heat and less pressure, and the result is that coal is full of impurities and still combustible.

Scientists don’t actually know exactly how diamonds are formed, but perhaps the greater heat burns away the impurities, and the greater pressure produces the hardness, resiliency, translucence and beauty.

I have heard that diamonds form from coal, but they don’t. Though diamonds and coal do form from the same substance – carbon – one doesn’t form from the other. Carbon can be formed into diamonds, or it can be formed into coal. It’s one or the other.

These facts that I have taken some time to gather in relation to diamonds and coal prompt a question: Would you rather be a diamond or a lump of coal?

We are made of carbon too, like diamonds and coal. In fact, all life is carbon-based.[2] Thinking of ourselves as potential diamonds or potential coal is actually not as much science fiction as we might think.

One difference between us and inanimate objects is that we have some choice in how we form over time. Though we are born into our circumstances not of our own choosing, we still have choice about how we react to those circumstances and the kind of people we are.

Unlike the constants of physics (matter and energy), we can respond volitionally to our circumstances. That is what sets humans apart from matter and other life forms as well (as far as we can tell).

We all have certain properties within us that influence us to resist change, to avoid stress, to give in to temptations, even when we know the thing that is tempting us isn’t good for us. We can choose to take the easy route, rather than the harder, more difficult route. We want things to happen quickly. We tend to want immediate satisfaction.

We learn, most of us, to resist these “pressures” to some degree or another for some greater benefit that comes from refusing to give in to those influences. Taking the easy route is like succumbing to the pressures that form coal. The heat and pressure are relatively less than the heat and pressure that form diamonds. The changes in the carbon base that forms coal also happen relatively quickly. compared to the changes required to form diamonds

It isn’t just the degree of heat and pressure, though, that makes the difference. The carbon that forms into coal is subject to heat and pressure, just like diamonds, but the process that makes diamonds is different in kind. Science can’t yet tell us (yet) what all those differences are.

We might consider that coal forms near the surface of the Earth, while diamonds form deep within the Earth. Regardless of the scientific implications of that difference, we might view these differences as competing paths. Inert carbon has no choice regarding the circumstance or path in which it is formed into what it will become, but we do.

We have choice regardless of our circumstances. We might be tempted to think that our circumstances define us; and they just might, but only if we let them!

Even if we have little to no control over our circumstances, we still control how we respond to them. As proof, I am reminded of a true story in which a young teenage boy in South Africa became paralyzed by a mystery illness/condition. For years, he was trapped in his own body, unable to speak and unable to move a muscle, yet he was aware of his surroundings. The only thing left for him to control was his own thoughts. The only thing he controlled was his reaction to his surroundings.

The story was covered by NPR[3] and Christianity Today.[4] Martin Pistorius is the once teenage boy who found himself completely paralyzed for years, unable to talk, move or interact with his surroundings. His family cared for him all that time, not knowing that he heard every word they spoke and was aware of everything happening around him.[5]

Martin could have given in to anger, depression, self-pity and many other negative attitudes, but he didn’t. In fact, he says, he became aware of God. Not having any substantive religious experience to guide him, he just began to engage God one-on-one in his thoughts. He learned to become grateful, he says, and that gratitude and connection with God sustained him.[6]

Martin had to go deep within himself. The pressure he found himself facing was immense, but he didn’t allow it to define who he was. He found strength in a greater influence, and he embraced it. Martin didn’t have a choice about his circumstances, but he did have a choice about his response to them.

Most of us have the “luxury” of being able to choose our circumstances to some extent (or so we think, at least). We might turn to drugs or alcohol, pornography or eating, or throw ourselves into a career to escape the difficulties we face in our lives. We can file for divorce when our marriages get too intense. Fathers often leave their children and the mothers of their children to escape the responsibility of fatherhood. Even mothers sometimes do the same.

“Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction”, Jesus said, but He implored us to “enter through the narrow gate” because “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life….”[7]

If we choose the wide gate and broad road, we won’t avoid the heat and pressures of life altogether. Remember, both diamonds and coal are subject to heat and pressure.

We may naturally want to tend toward the “easy” way, but we won’t escape the heat and pressures of life. The difference is that the easier way produces coal, and coal is only good to be burned up in fire.

We don’t naturally embrace difficult situations, but we can learn to stand up to them, to face them head on and to bear up under the pressures of those difficult situations. We don’t naturally want to do the right thing, when the expedient thing seems so much easier, but doing the right thing – even if it means greater heat and the pressure – is the better thing.

Facing the difficulties, the change, doing the right thing, rather than the expedient thing, and bearing up under the pressures we face without giving in to them produces diamonds. It burns away the impurities of our baser desires. It crystallizes character and integrity within us. It produces in us a resiliency and strength of character that will last.

Just as we don’t naturally want face to difficulties, we don’t want to submit the control of our lives to God, but that is the only way that leads to life.

“The Lord disciplines those He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”[8]


Post script:

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.[9]


[1] See

[2] Shine on you crazy diamond: why humans are carbon-based lifeforms, by S.E. Gould, Scientific American, November 11, 2012

[3] See Trapped In His Body for 12 Years, Man Breaks Free, NPR (2015)

[4] See Trapped Inside My Own Body for 12 Years, testimony of Martin Pistorious, Christianity Today, July 20, 2015

[5] See Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body, by Martin Pistorious, November 10, 2013

[6] The Right to Happiness and Gratitude, Perspective blog, July 27, 2015

[7] Matthew 7:13-14

[8] Proverbs 3:12

[9] Hebrews 12:4-11

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