As Iron Sharpens Iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17
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Do you have a friend who “sharpens” you? Someone who keeps you honest? Someone who challenges you? Someone who holds you accountable? The Bible has much to say about relationships that we form– and some of it may surprise us. Earlier in Proverbs 27, the writer says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (v.5 NIV) and, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (v. 6 NKJV).

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I don’t know about you, but I want friends who encourage, friends who make me feel good about myself; friends who make life more pleasant and uncomplicated. I don’t enjoy hearing criticism, or having my beliefs and ideas challenged. I don’t enjoy conflict, and I tend to avoid it whenever possible. However, I also know the truth of verse 6 from experience–I can trust the constructive criticism of a good friend, even when it stings in the moment. A loving friend will take the risk of saying what needs to be said, and not just what I want to hear.

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There are three points that struck me recently as I came across these verses:

  • “Iron sharpens iron”–nothing gets sharpened by a marshmallow, and an iron blade that is left unsharpened will either lose its edge over time, or rust from disuse. We may not like conflict. But we need to be disciplined, and that means that we need to be held accountable. We need to be challenged and sharpened, or we will grow dull or rusty. God can use the “fire” of circumstances to soften our hard hearts, but He often uses other people to “spark” us into action. Left to my own devices, I can grow rusty and useless. I can feel sorry about a bad or sinful habit– I can confess it, and make plans to change. But I am more likely to grow and develop positive habits and actions if there is someone keeping me honest. I can have good ideas; I can know what the Bible says– but I can also fall into deception, lazy thinking, and pride. A good friend can help keep me “sharp” in both actions and thinking. We are not meant to do life alone, and God does not want “Holy Hermits.” He also does not want us to be so timid and accepting that we fail to sharpen others. It is really hard to risk a friendship by speaking the truth–but NOT speaking is sometimes more damaging to the friendship– and to our friends!
  • “Iron” is what sharpens “Iron”–We need to seek out truth and wisdom, and that’s what we need to offer others, as well. We should not waste time on petty disagreements, trying to “win” every point in an argument, or pointing out every minor fault. We also need to have mutual respect; being willing to listen, willing to let a few sparks fly, and willing to respect another’s strengths as we develop our own. This verse is not about letting someone else dominate you or shut down your voice, just as it is not about dominating or “fixing” someone else by forcing your opinions (even if grounded in the truth) down their throat.
  • “So one person sharpens another.” Notice it doesn’t say whether the person is a believer, a dear, personal friend, or a relative. Any person can “sharpen” us. I may disagree with another person– a coworker, a peer, a neighbor–and still respect that their ideas, their words, even their criticism.
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How does this tie into our pursuit of prayer? Conflict and testing can make us better or bitter–in this analogy, it can make us humble or it can make us brittle. A humble person will be shaped and sharpened. A brittle person will snap or break.

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When I am challenged or criticized, do I take it to God or do I take it to heart? Do I ask God to reveal truth or have I already decided what I want to believe? Not all criticism is constructive; not all challenges are meant to sharpen us. Do I react in anger? Do I become sullen? Do I crumble into a puddle of doubt? Or do I see it as an opportunity to become sharper, to change course, or to refine my thinking? Conflict and criticism do not happen in a vacuum–God is as close as a prayer, and willing to give wisdom, discernment, and strength!

How do I react to the other person? Do I become bitter toward them? Do I seek for ways to repay them with criticism or prove myself to them? Do I pray for THEM to change, without looking at my own responsibility? Do I appreciate the risk they may have taken to speak up? (Or do I appreciate the reasons they may have for feeling or thinking as they do, even if I am convinced they are in error?) Can I offer thanks to God for the way He may be using that person to sharpen me–even if that is not their intent? Can I pray for God to bless and strengthen them, even if we don’t agree?

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This is all easier to write than to put into practice. But I can say from experience that God has often used the most unlikely people to “sharpen” me in unlikely ways and unlikely moments, and I am so grateful for the “faithful” (and temporary!) wounds of friends. I am also grateful for others who challenge me to defend the Faith, and who open their hearts to me– even when we clash sometimes.

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