Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
In reflection on our many years in ministry, I am drawn to the truth of this proverb. I have seen it play out in my own life more times than I can remember.
We usually think of ministry as investing our lives through serving others, as we hopefully “sharpen” them through discipleship, worship and community. However, I have recently given some thought as to how often others have sharpened me in the past, when I didn’t even realize it.
What does this proverb mean, exactly? Most commentators see it as a statement of how people affect, or influence, one another. The essential picture is this: two things of the same nature fashion each other in a way that benefits them both. The word “sharpen” is used several times in other passages, referring to swords that are sharpened for increased usefulness. Additional definitions of “sharpen” in Hebrew are “to be alert or keen.” When we place this principle in the context of a Christian community, our relationships will naturally affect each other, hopefully for the good. Our lives are generally shaped in our daily interaction with others, not just upon hearing great sermons or Bible studies. It’s often the thousands of smaller moments that sharpen us in profound ways. Most of the wisdom I’ve received from other women came out of meaningful conversations held in a kitchen or the women’s restroom!
* For several years I taught a women’s Bible study and college age Bible study with a good friend who was a gifted teacher. She was a true Bible student and her lessons had strong illustrations, solid doctrinal content and very practical application. When it was my turn to teach, I was determined to continue that trajectory and worked hard to match her standard. She sharpened me.
* I have a friend who is an older woman, a faithful prayer partner. One day we were discussing a mutual friend who was having family difficulties. She said, “Honey, she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.” I was puzzled, I had never heard that phrase before. After she explained, I instantly took that saying to heart and determined from that point on I would seek to “know what I don’t know.” I have used that bit of wisdom time and time again. For example, I don’t know the Black Lives Matter experience, I haven’t lived that story. I don’t know the life perspective of a lonely millennial, or the desperate fears of a refugee mother. I need to stop and listen to their stories before making judgments or presumptions. This phrase continues to prod me into seeking knowledge and admitting what I don’t know.
* Sometimes sharpening comes from an awkward or negative experience. I once sat at a lovely dinner when one of the guests suddenly began to make rude accusations against the person seated directly across the table. The rest of us sat in stunned silence until the diatribe was over and the recipient abruptly left the table (who could blame her?). Needless to say, the remainder of the dinner was very uncomfortable. I later reflected on this very unfortunate event and asked God to please never ever let me say anything to another person that was as appallingly rude and hurtful as those comments, not to mention completely unchristian. I will never forget the pain and humiliation on the face of the accused. That experience sharpened me in that I want to always be fully aware of how my comments and conversations make others feel.
There is New Testament counterpart to this proverb, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). This can’t happen if we aren’t sharing our lives in community with others. And something interesting happens along the way—as you invest in others by seeking to sharpen them, you discover how they have done the same for you. Sharpened knives increase their usefulness, and sharpened Christians do as well.
Who has sharpened you?