The Severe Mercy of a Lump of Coal

by Dr Rose Bexar on December 6, 2011

Today is St Nicholas Day. I’m glad to welcome back Dr Rose Bexar, who has been a semi-regular contributor to Goannatree for the past couple of years. Here is a full list of her posts.


Johnny wants a pair of spurs, Susie wants a sled,
Nelly wants a picture book, yellow, blue, and red.
Now I think I’ll leave to you what to give the rest;
As for me, dear Santa Claus, you will know the best.
My friend Enola Jones and I were chatting about various versions of the Santa Claus/Father Christmas/St. Nicholas tradition the other day, and she mentioned something that had recently occurred to her: getting coal in your stocking isn’t as much of a punishment as most people think. It’s an act of mercy. The naughty child deserves to get no gifts at all, but coal still provides fuel for a fire to warm and feed the child and his or her family.

And that got me thinking about a point John Chrysostom makes several times in his homilies on Genesis: God’s punishments are acts of justice, true, but they are also acts of mercy because they prevent the evildoer from doing anything worse. C. S. Lewis made a similar point in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken when he called the death of Vanauken’s
wife “a severe mercy” because their relationship with one another had become idolatrous.

That’s part of the point of Christmas, isn’t it?

“Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

You see, what Lewis, Chrysostom, and many other Christian writers through the ages have realized is that virtues, in order to work properly and to be truly good, must be balanced against each other. Justice without mercy is cruel; mercy without justice allows evil to flourish. To cite a simile I recently used in a different context, virtues unchecked are like free radicals, causing deadly destruction if they’re not bound to the others in the right way.

That balance is evident in the argument Anselm of Canterbury makes in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). Humanity, in Adam and Eve, broke the universe. Justice demanded that humanity make restitution. Mercy insisted that doing so was beyond the capacity of even the greatest saint; only God had the power to fix what was broken. The only way to satisfy both—the solution that God chose out of His great love for us—was for God Himself to take on a human nature and pay the ultimate price.

St. Nicholas never had to give anyone anything. He gave children gifts because he loved them. God doesn’t have to save anyone—He could have left Noah and his family to drown or even scrapped the known universe entirely and started over. For that matter, He never had to create the universe in the first place. But He chose as He did because He loves us, even when we’re at our naughtiest and least lovable.

To be sure, not every bad thing that happens is a punishment. Sometimes God allows us to go through hard times for reasons we can’t understand this side of eternity, and healing and deliverance don’t always come in this life. But however monumentally unfair a stocking full of coal, literal or figurative, may seem to us in the moment… that coal is still good for something if we will just put it on the fire, if we trust God enough to cast all our cares on Him. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28 NASB). And if a lump of coal is the clue-by-four He needs to get our attention, that doesn’t make it any less of a gift.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Dr Rose is a semi-regular contributor to Goannatree. You can read her profile here, which also includes a full list of all her posts for Goannatree.

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