Grace is the invincible advocate of freedom
and the absolute expression of perfect love.
— Gerald G. May (Addiction and Grace)
I have heard some Christians refer to “the ministry of heaping coals”. It’s a reference to a concept first written in Proverbs 25:21-22 (NRSV):
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the LORD will reward you.
The idea is this: be uncharacteristically gracious to your enemies, and it will shame them for their poor behaviour to you.
That sort of attitude always bothered me—it seems like a moral standard well below Jesus-inspired levels. Should we be good to our enemies in order to shame them? Should shaming be our motivation?
This passage from Ezekiel shows that shaming is not necessarily the motivation, but a necessary consequence of grace. In this passage, Yahweh himself engages in the ministry of heaping coals.
. . .
The list of good things Yahweh is about to do for Israel is quite overwhelming. The repeated “I will” sentences elevate the rhetoric to a frenzy:
- I will take you from the nations to your own land.
- I will sprinkle clean water on you and clean you from idolatry.
- I will give you a new heart—a new spirit—exchanging your heart of stone for flesh.
- I will put my spirit in you.
- I will save you from your uncleanness.
- I will make your land bear fruit.
This is the sort of speech that could come from a televangelist: You can just hear the crowd shouting “yes” and “amen” after each sentence.
It would be easy to spend a long time rambling on about each of the above points, but I’ll satisfy myself with pointing out the one that impacted me the most. Salvation is ultimately from uncleanness. You would expect the most important aspect of God’s salvation to be deliverance from physical enemies, but the prophet understood those enemies as a consequence, not a cause. God will save Israel from their sin. Return from exile is the practical outworking of that grace.
. . .
The last verses of this passage explains the ministry of heaping coals:
Then you shall remember your evil ways, and your dealings that were not good; and you shall loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominable deeds. (v. 31, NRSV)
Shaming Israel was not God’s primary motivation (that was the exaltation of his name). It was not even God’s secondary concern (restoring his people). Shame is a natural response to such profound grace.
. . .
Lord God, I am shamed and deeply humbled by your grace in my life. Let me always live and act from an understanding of your mercy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.