As a young man, I worked in a small, family-owned meat market. Our primary business was to cut and wrap meat from livestock local farmers raised, slaughtered, and brought to us. We would start early in the morning, take a quarter of beef or half a hog from the cooler, and within a matter of an hour or so, we would have it cut, wrapped, and boxed for the owner to take home.
Most of the work we did revolved around using very sharp knives to section, break down, debone, and process the meat. It did not take me long to learn that having a sharp knife made the work easier, safer, and faster. In fact, I learned within the first week that the fastest way to keep my knife sharp was to use a “steel” to re-shape the edge of my blade. Just a few well-placed and well-timed honing strokes really made a difference.
Over the years as I have studied the book of Proverbs, I have noticed how often the simplest phrase can carry the greatest meaning. Proverbs 27:17 is a great case in point. I have often thought of the lessons I learned in using a steel to sharpen a knife. Many who are reading this have quoted this verse in discussing the importance of transparency and openness in genuine friendship. The verse has a beautiful symmetry: iron sharpens iron; so the countenance of a man sharpens the countenance of another. I see several important lessons that I think the writer of this proverb intended for his readers to learn.
First: Just as iron will not sharpen iron unless there are two pieces, we need other believers to sharpen us. The beauty of the Christian faith is that God brings us into community with other believers. Christian discipleship is not a solo act; it is not an individual sport. With routine, frequent interaction between the knife blade and the sharpening steel, the knife blade remains straight and true and is able to accomplish much.
Second: Just as iron pieces can damage other iron pieces if they strike each other in the wrong way, we can dull each other if we are not careful. To be most effective, the knife blade must be drawn against the steel at a proper angle. We all know what happens when two pieces of steel clash into each other—dents and dings, maybe even sparks! The resulting dullness is counterproductive all the way around. Using spiritual tact and biblical wisdom, our goal is to help guide one another into the way of righteousness, holiness, and peace.
Third: It is not always a pleasant experience being sharpened. Iron must reshape another piece of iron if it is going to make it sharp. The human spirit is created to be sensitive to God’s Spirit and malleable in God’s hands.
But, our spirits can also be rigid and unbending, especially when confronted with our imperfections by others. Regardless of who we are, the sharp edge of our usefulness in God’s Kingdom will be dulled through routine service. The longer we go without being sharpened, the more bent out of shape we become. A knife can become so dull that a few swipes across the knife steel are no longer sufficient. It must be taken to the knife sharpener or put on a stone to rebuild the edge.
Finally: Some individuals are better at using iron to sharpen iron. We need to make sure that we and our sharpening partners are in the right hands as we sharpen each other. In the right hands, the knife blade and knife steel work in harmony, creating a keen edge for effective service. In the hands of the novice, the knife can be an instrument of danger and death. Before we interact with one another, we must be sure that we have spent time alone with the Lord, drawing from His wisdom, power, and strength. Only then are we ready to be used by Him to sharpen the countenance of a brother or sister in Christ.
Iron sharpens iron; so one man sharpens another.
Randal Williams, executive director of Seminary Extension, a ministry of the six Southern Baptist seminaries, is a member of Judson Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.