Iron sharpening iron….

Today I overheard a snippet of conversation between two gentlemen involved in our small group ministry. They were referring to that scripture from Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (NIV) I had been approaching them to ask one a question when I heard this and I said to them, “You know what happens when iron sharpens iron?” They looked at me and I continued quickly, “Sparks fly” (and I might have added that heat usually builds up, too). That has been my experience when two strong wills (“iron wills”) make contact.
I have often heard that scripture cited in a favorable context, reflecting the value in two people engaging in deliberate, thoughtful dialogue.
The NKJV says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” John McArthur’s commentary on that verse says “The benefits of intellectual and theological discussion encourage joy through a keener mind and the improvement of good character which the face will reveal.” I think that translation and the commentary provide a supportive position for the favorable interpretation that I’ve always heard associated with that scripture. But the NIV translation, taken alone, can allow for the perversion of it in the kind of negative experiences I have had when iron and iron make contact.
Being an “iron willed” individual, I have often found myself in conflict with others of a similar nature. Sometimes there was heat, other times sparks, and occasionally dents and nicks out of the surface of one or the other as a glancing blow caught a thin edge. More like a fencing contest, not one instrument sharpening another. I guess I was sharpened by my contentious encounters, as were my debate partners, in some respects. Since they were more in the mold of debate than dialogue, each one sharpened my tongue and my wit so that I have become pretty adept at verbal fencing with a dangerously sharp weapon.
When viewed through the translation and commentary of my McArthur study Bible I notice a couple of things. First of all, the two should be friends. Friends engaged in intellectual and theological discussion are likely to have the kind of affection, respect, and common language and context that will minimize misunderstandings between them. Secondly, it mentions countenance which suggests to me that such exchanges should take place face to face to assure an additional means of reading one another’s meaning and reaction to each other. Body language and gestures can often help inform better than words and tone alone. When we can see our friend’s reaction, we can know if we are being clearly understood, inciting anger, creating confusion, etc.
These are not difficult principles to grasp. Any college communications instructor could have told me the same things, I’m sure, (and probably did 30+ years ago!). I wish, though, that I had fully appreciated the truth and application of these concepts through the years when some of these conflicts arose in my life. Too often I have gone to the easiest means of communicating- the internet or the telephone. Rarely has either one resulted in satisfactory communication. I have transmitted, to be sure, and often very profusely. I’ve also received a load in return at times. But “communication” has seldom resulted. Such exchanges usually degenerated into increasingly heated alternating one-way transmissions and resulted in hurt feelings and misunderstandings all the way around. Even in some face to face communications the same hurt and misunderstanding has occurred when the relationships were insufficiently trusting, open, and grounded in common history, context and goals.
Friends, true friends, will accept, love, seek to understand, and even forgive one another, if necessary, through such times when they disagree on important things. Furthermore, if they are Christian friends, each will trust the work of God in the heart of the other and know that, eventually, they will find common ground in Christ if they continue to seek it with one another in the Word and prayer.
We are to be instruments for the improvement of one another in such exchanges, not weapons to decimate one another. How sad that I have often sought to win the argument, sacrificing the relationship in the process. I trust that God has used those times to teach me, to prepare my heart to learn this lesson and to make better use of future opportunities to engage in intellectual and theological discussion to His glory. One lesson gleaned from these exchanges has been the opportunity to forgive and to seek forgiveness again and again. Maybe I’ve finally gotten to the point that God can use me as an instrument to sharpen the countenance of my friends. I just hope I have a few of them left…..
In the famous words attributed to St. Francis “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” Perhaps this is the time that Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3 both refer to when God shall judge between the nations, and decide for many peoples; “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Weapons turned to tools and the end of war….. What a concept! It has to start in the heart- and communication- of each heart, one at the time.