The Burning Coal of Grace
By Linda Rex
In the past few years I have had to rethink previous decisions I had made about a certain relationship in my life. The biggest struggle I have found is how to reconcile reality with the possibility that a person might actually be transformed by grace. Does God truly change people? Or, as I have been told on many occasions, do people essentially stay the same and never change?
Looking at this question from the viewpoint of what I see around me, I struggle. Some people never seem to change—they are always the sandpaper in our lives, causing rashes in our emotional skin due to their abrasiveness and broken ways of being. Then I look inside and ask myself, “Has anything in me changed? Am I any different than I was years ago?” And I wonder.
The thing is, the secular viewpoint in the world around us either says, “That’s just the way I am—accept me,” or “I just need to try harder and I’ll be different—be patient with me.” The act of personal transformation or inner change is left fully up to us. We, especially us perfectionists, set impossible standards for ourselves and/or others, and then get all bent out of shape when we don’t attain them. Then again, some of us just toss all standards out the window and live free of any restrictions or inhibitions. Somehow this seems to be better than playing by the rules, struggling to become better people and failing.
The truth is—and I have seen this play out in my life and in other people’s lives—God changes people. When God goes to work in a person’s life, they are never the same as they were before. No doubt, they participated in the process, but the real heavy-lifter in the whole transformational experience is God himself.
And the key element is grace. The reality is that our transformation begins and ends with God. God meant us to be adopted children who live as unique persons in an equality and unity which mirrors the divine love and life of Abba, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The amazing Being who created us was not willing to settle for anything less than this—we were to share in his life and love, and so in the person of the Word, God ensured this would be our reality. We are meant to love God with all our being and to love one another as ourselves.
Obviously, if we are honest with ourselves, we fall short of this spiritual reality. The closer we get to God, the more we get to know him for who he is as our Lord and our Redeemer, the more we are faced with the fact that we are not what God intended from the beginning. When held to the mirror of the image of God, we are but a cracked and broken replica. There is significant work which needs to be done to bring us to the place where we reflect God’s image perfectly.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet tells about his encounter with God, where he “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, / The whole earth is full of His glory.’” (Isa. 6:1-3 NASB) Isaiah’s immediate reaction to this amazing sight was to be overcome with a deep sense of unworthiness. Who could possibly be worthy to stand in the presence of such divine holiness, of perfect relatedness?
What I see in this passage is that Isaiah makes no effort to make himself worthy. No, he knows he isn’t, and so he simply falls on the grace of God to make him worthy to be in his presence. God, via the seraphim, offers him grace—the burning coal on his lips, the forgiveness of sins. All Isaiah was asked to do was to receive it, and then to offer himself to God for his service in gratitude.
In the giving of the burning coal, Isaiah’s concern about being a man of “unclean lips’ was dealt with summarily and completely. Isaiah was given new lips through the burning coal—there is a picture of transformation here. He is moved to offer himself to God to carry a message to the people of Israel in spite of God’s warning of their resistance to the word he would carry. And his life, however broken it may still have been, became an offering of service to God.
So often we run from intimacy with God because drawing close to the One who loves us so completely forces us to face the truth about ourselves. God’s grace, love, and compassion aren’t meant to make us feel unworthy, dirty, and shameful. Rather, they are meant to assure us that even in our brokenness we are held in God’s perfect love—we are chosen by God for relationship with himself and he has done and will do all that is needed so that we can enjoy that relationship with him both now and forever.
Jesus brought grace and truth to us. We can at the same time we see ourselves in our brokenness, see ourselves as forgiven, accepted, and beloved. In Jesus we see the perfect humanity we were all meant to have at the same time we see our desperate need for transformation. In the acknowledgement of that need, in our surrender to the claims of Christ, grace goes to work. By the Holy Spirit, that which Christ has made true about us becomes ours in our personal experience. In the moment in which we receive God’s love and grace, our hearts are touched, our lives are changed.
It is not a magical transformation. Rather it is a journey of renewal. God, by his grace and power, begins to work to change, heal, and renew us inside. As we acknowledge and accept our belonging to God, believe in the truth of what Christ has done and is doing on our behalf, we will experience a change in our behavior. What God is working out inside by the Spirit becomes our reality in our words and actions. It is not just a momentary experience, but a journey—a movement which may go forward, backward, and in circles. Ultimately, though, the change in our hearts and lives is real.
Do people really change? Yes, I have seen it and have experienced it firsthand. Sometimes people may revert back to old behaviors or ways of being—the brokenness of our human flesh plays a role in this. But when Jesus by the Spirit gets involved, and people are walking in the truth of who they are in Christ, they change. They are healed. They are renewed. They are transformed.
This is why the gospel is so much more than just a promise for life after death. The gospel is the word of redemption—of renewal for us and for our entire cosmos. Jesus is making all things new and we want to be a part of that process. We want healing and transformation in our lives, in our relationships, and in our world, and we can join in with Jesus as he works to bring this about. We can share this good news with each person he brings into our lives while walking with them on the road of redemption, as we walk the road of renewal ourselves.
Dear Abba, thank you for loving us in our brokenness, for never leaving us but rather, bringing us near through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Do finish what you have begun—let the cleansing power of grace and truth transform, heal, and renew us. We offer ourselves to you with grateful hearts, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.’” Isaiah 6:5-7 NASB