“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17
Ancient smiths toiled over hot coals molding iron, sometimes into plowshares and sometimes into swords. They would also occasionally sharpen scythes and other tools cold in the field. Modern technology and metallurgy has changed just about everything about the profession, but the precept holds true: iron still sharpens iron.
Proverbs 27:17 is one of the most beloved and oft-quoted verses of campus ministers everywhere, and it should be. It speaks loudly to the idea of discipleship and the need for us all to be in discipling relationships, both as iron that sharpens and as iron that is getting sharpened.
Too often leaders find themselves sharpening to the exclusion of being sharpened themselves. It is a danger not to be taken lightly—that alone is a valuable nugget to pocket from this verse. But if we’re willing to dig a little deeper, there are at least five more deep truths to be harvested from Psalm 27:17…
- Iron doesn’t sharpen iron by accident, it is a deliberate act. No one ever smashed two pieces of metal together and said, “Well, would you look at that?! This one has a nice edge to it now.” Do it wrong, and you can actually dull the blade—even ruin it in extreme cases. Sharpening involves having a plan and knowing how to accomplish it. Our spiritual sharpening requires deliberate intention as well.
Application: If you want to be sharp, you have to be intentional about it.
- Iron doesn’t sharpen iron without a great deal of effort. There is a reason that blacksmiths in movies always carry hammers and have huge muscles: smithing isn’t easy. It is hot, hard physical labor. Iron is heavy and strong enough to drive metal spikes through solid rock. It is also durable enough that just touching up an existing edge can be delicate and demanding labor. In the same way, sharpening and being sharpened spiritually takes a great deal of effort.
Application: If you want to be sharp, be prepared to put in the work.
- Smithing takes time. All that deliberate, demanding work doesn’t happen all at once. It can be a long, slow, and sometimes tedious process. Even if everything seems to be going according to plan, setbacks can still sometimes happen for any number of reasons. Ask any craftsman, not just smiths, and they’ll tell you that good work shouldn’t—often can’t—be rushed. Neither can our spiritual growth.
Application: If you want to be sharp, expect to have your patience tested through the process."Ask any craftsman and they'll tell you that good work shouldn't – often can't – be rushed. Neither can our spiritual growth. -Jon Smith #collegiatedisciplemaker Five Ways Iron Sharpens Iron Click To Tweet
- Iron sharpening iron is a violent act. Hammers pound and sparks fly. Files grate and shavings fall away. To forge and hone an edge, iron is heated, cooled, twisted, pulled, peened (yes, it’s a word), and otherwise tortured into the shape it needs to be. In real life, that translates into any number of potentially negative emotions. Sharpening often produces anxiety, frustration, pain, fear…you name it, sharpening can produce it. That’s because change isn’t easy. Letting go of who you are in order to become who God wants you to be can involve a lot of personal anguish. Sharpening means making adjustments, and sometimes those adjustments are agonizing.
Application: If you want to be sharp, brace yourself for the impact of change.
- Iron sharpening iron is worth it. Ask anyone who works with knives, and they’ll tell you that you’re much more likely to cut yourself with a dull blade. More than that, cutting with a sharp blade is just a whole lot easier. Sharpness has value. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kitchen knife or a splitting axe or cavalry sword, a fine edge makes a difference. When the author of Hebrews wrote, “The word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword” (see Hebrews 4:12), he was making a point about the Bible, but he did it by equating its worth to sharpness.
Application: If you want to be sharp, remember the value of being sharp.
- Iron constantly needs sharpened. Fact: edges get dull. So do people. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it happens nevertheless unless you take the initiative to do something about it. Businesses already know this. That’s why phrases like “learning annex” and “professional development” are in our lexicon. As disciples making disciples, we can’t afford to miss this. The minute we stop seeking to grow in our own faith, we begin to lose our effectiveness at helping others grow in theirs.
Application: If you want to stay sharp, never stop seeking your own personal spiritual growth.
It’s all well and good to talk about iron sharpening iron in the abstract, but in real life, you need to be more specific. Discipleship needs to be concrete, not ethereal. If you’re going to make disciples, understand what each person needs to make them sharp. Have specific goals in mind, targets at which to aim.
Conversely, if you are wanting to be discipled (and you should), think about which areas of your life need to improve. Where are you dull? Is it knowing how to read or understand the Bible? Maybe letting go of a particular sin? Define your next step towards God and work from there.
Iron sharpening iron is a great metaphor; just don’t leave it at that.