“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17)
My wife bought me a machete for my birthday recently. Occasionally I need one for my job, and it’s a good thing to have when you need it.
If you know anything about them, you know that they come unsharpened and the first thing you have to do is spend some time putting a cutting edge on the blade.
Consequently, I’ve been thinking about this verse in Proverbs. Ironically, this is my second post in less than a month from what I consider to be my least-understood book of the Bible.
We often understand this sharpening as an almost accidental thing, something that just happens as we rub up against one another’s rough edges. Rather like pebbles on a beach get smoothed and weathered by the pounding of the waves and by crashing into each other, our rough spots are smoothed by contact with someone else’s rough spots. The verse is, we are given to understand, about tolerating one another’s annoying habits and character weaknesses so that the Holy Spirit can work patience and self-control in us.
But sitting here sharpening this machete, I’m struck by the fact that this may not be what the verse is saying.
Pebbles get smoothed by crashing into one another on the beach. They don’t get sharpened. Indeed, a sharp piece of glass will get smoothed into a rounded transparent pebble, not sharpened still further.
What I’m saying is that there’s an intentionality about the act of sharpening. You have to run a metal file or whetstone over the blade time after time in the same smooth stroke in the same direction, otherwise you’ll damage the edge you’re forming. By varying the angle between the file and the blade, you can create either a broad cutting edge that cuts very finely but is easily blunted (the way I prefer it), or a narrower one which will not slice as easily but which will be more robust (more like the way my father-in-law has his machete).
This intentionality seems at odds with our usual application of this verse. Perhaps it’s more about the act of teaching and training than about rubbing off our rough character spots. There’s an intentionality about it; we are trying to put an edge on those we are training. We have to be careful to develop the appropriate edge, not just scrape on one another any old how. People can get damaged if we are careless in how we train them.
It’s true that we all have rough edges that need to be smoothed down, and that close contact with other people is a great way of revealing areas for character development. But my machete says that this may not be the whole story of this verse.
Sharpening a machete takes smooth strokes, and mostly a lot of repetition. In our Western culture of instant success we get impatient with anything that can’t give us results right now. We have weight loss programmes promising that you can “watch the pounds fall off in just days”, instant communications, fantastic (as in: almost certainly fantasy) wealth generation schemes promising instant rewards if you’ll come to this free seminar. But being taught isn’t like that. We spend most of our waking hours between the ages of 5 and 18 getting formally educated. That’s 12 years just to learn the information and basic skills we consider essential to our civilisation. If you want a specialist career, there’s usually more schooling after that. And this is after the first few years of our lives in which we learn to move, control our own bodies, walk and talk.
12+ years of formal education just to learn the information and skills we consider necessary. We shouldn’t be surprised at spiritual teaching and training needing to take a while.
If you go off to rid a tree of its dead wood with a half-sharpened machete, you will quickly become frustrated. Because you haven’t spent enough time putting an edge on your tool yet, it will not cut well and you will find the job much harder than you ought. Yet sometimes we encourage people to do just that with serving God. You don’t need an education; you can serve God just as you are in what He is calling you into. This is true, but if you know your calling is a long-term, lifetime thing, why make the task more difficult than it needs to be by failing to get properly honed? David spent years being pursued by Saul and living in caves between the time he was anointed by Samuel and the time he was crowned king. There are times for hearing the voice of God and obeying without delay: if Joseph had waited around after the angel said to flee to Egypt, Jesus might have been killed by Herod. But there are equally times when putting in the time to hone your blade is a proper investment of time. You are going to be spending a lot of energy using these skills. It behooves you to develop them by spending time around other people who can train you, not just going ahead with some blithe confidence that your blade will somehow self-sharpen as you begin to use it.
Sometimes we’re the blade being sharpened, and sometimes we’re the flat file. There’s a difference in these two roles, just like you can’t sharpen things with a machete or lop dead wood from a tree with a file. Maybe when we approach this verse we should be asking ourselves whether we have people in our lives that are a machete to our flat file, that we are being intentional about teaching and training. Maybe we ought to be asking whether we are the machete to someone else’s flat file: do we have someone in our lives who is intentionally teaching and training us in righteousness?
Iron sharpens iron, but it doesn’t do so by accident.