Diamonds and coal are made from the same substance, carbon. They are both formed by heat and pressure, but the results are very, very different. We can learn some very poignant things from diamonds and coal that I will explore in this piece.
The properties of the two substances are interesting, and very different, though they form from the same substance. Coal is relatively soft. Coal burns and provides a source of energy, but it is not a very clean source of energy because coal is full of impurities.
Diamonds, on the other hand, are relatively hard – one of the hardest substance that exist. Diamonds have few impurities, and diamonds won’t burn. Diamonds can be used for cutting hard metals and similar uses because they are so hard and immutable.
Coal is readily available. It is soft and combustible. Coal is dirty and rubs off everywhere. Coal is really only useful for burning. Appropriately, a coal in the stocking has become cliché for an unwanted “gift”.
Diamonds are clean, translucent, rare and beautiful. Diamonds are highly valued for their own sake. So much, that we wear them on our fingers and around our necks as adornment for special occasions. They are also highly useful in all kinds of industrial applications.
Interestingly, diamonds and coal are both formed by heat and pressure. The difference is only in degree and location.
Coal is formed relatively near to the surface of the Earth, while diamonds are formed deep within the Earth. Diamonds are formed under tremendous heat and pressure over a long period of time. Coal forms relatively quickly under less heat and less pressure.
The result is that coal is full of impurities. Coal is still combustible, though it is formed under heat. Diamonds, on the other hand, undergo so much heat and so much pressure, that they are no longer combustible. All the impurities have been burned away.
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. Coal never forms into diamonds, and diamonds never form into coal. The paths for the two elements are completely different, and the difference in the process under which they form results in two completely different elements – though they form from the same basic substance.
These facts that I have taken some time to gather in relation to diamonds and coal prompt some very poignant thoughts, beginning with the question: Would you rather be a diamond or a lump of coal? How do the processes of the formation of diamonds and coal, and nature of diamonds and coal, instruct us?
Significantly, we (human beings) are made of carbon also, like diamonds and coal. In fact, all life is carbon-based. 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 seem to 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 (agency) in how we react to those circumstances. We have some influence over the kind of people we become.
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). At the very least, we contemplate ourselves in relation to our circumstances, and we philosophize about them.
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, but we tend to 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, more lasting 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. Thus, we are tempted to take the “easy” path.
It isn’t just the degree of heat and pressure, though, that makes the difference. 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.)
Inert carbon has no choice regarding the circumstance or path in which it is formed into what it will become. Carbon will form into diamonds or into coal depending purely on where it happens to be located and the pressures that come to bear on it.
We, on the other hand, have some choice in the matter 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 of concept, 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 and Christianity Today. 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.
In the midst of that horrendous circumstance, Martin says that he became aware of God. He had no substantive religious experience to guide him, but he realized he had a choice to make. He had two paths in front of him.
Martin was initially angry, depressed, and overcome by negative emotions and thoughts. When Martin became aware of the presence of God, he cold have continued down the path his emotions and thoughts were taking him, but he “stopped” and engaged God instead.
Martin could have given in to anger, depression, self-pity and other negative attitudes, but he didn’t. He says he learned to become grateful, and he now says that gratitude in connection with God sustained him.
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 how he responded 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 can 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….”
If we choose the wide gate and the broad road, we won’t avoid the heat and pressures of life altogether. Remember, both diamonds and coal are subject to heat and pressure. One path will ease the heat and pressure, though, and one path will not.
We may naturally want to tend toward the “easy” way, but we can never 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 pressure – is the better thing.
Facing the difficulties, embracing 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. When we embrace God, He makes us into the diamonds He made us to be. When we avoid God, run from Him, and do not succumb to His “pressure”, we become coal.
“The Lord disciplines those He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”
4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 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,
6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 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.
 Shine on you crazy diamond: why humans are carbon-based lifeforms, by S.E. Gould, Scientific American, November 11, 2012
 See Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body, by Martin Pistorious, November 10, 2013
 Matthew 7:13-14
 Proverbs 3:12
 Hebrews 12:4-11