‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.’ (The Bible–Proverbs 27:17)

With today’s post we complete our August journey through some of the Bible’s proverbs. Great quotations in their own right. And worthy of attention and incorporation into our lives. Their wisdom has stood the test of time, and the principles they cite are as relevant today as when they were first written—now more than three millennia ago. Proverbs 27:17 teaches through analogy, as many of the proverbs do. Let’s look at the primary analogy and then draw some conclusions implied by the proverb.

The primary analogy is about improvement through process. As iron improves by the right kind of interaction with other iron—so a person is improved by the right kind of interaction with another person. The iron in the proverb improves by being sharpened. The assumption is that the ‘iron’ is a knife or a saw or an axe, or some other iron tool where effectiveness increases with sharpness. This principle is then applied by way of analogy to human relationships. That one person becomes more ‘effective’ through the right kind of interaction with another person. As with all analogies there are limits. But the main point is clear and beyond dispute. Let’s look at some implications from this proverb.

  • The two sharpening components are similar. Notice that it’s iron that sharpens iron. That it’s a person who sharpens a person. If you’ve ever watched a skilled chef sharpen one knife with another knife—you’ve seen this truth in action. You don’t need something SUPERIOR to iron to sharpen iron. You can sharpen a piece of iron with a piece of iron just like itself. Likewise, it doesn’t require a SUPERIOR PERSON to sharpen another person. The two people can be similar in many ways. Yet they have the power to increase the ‘sharpness’ (effectiveness) of each other. So your friend can sharpen you. You can sharpen your friend. In fact, this is one of the great benefits of friendship. Friends increase the effectiveness of each other. The more time you spend with this kind of person—the better BOTH OF YOU will be. Friends can and should sharpen each other.
  • The choice of sharpener is important. Notice it doesn’t require a LOT OF IRON to sharpen one piece of iron. It only requires one piece of iron. But the piece of iron chosen is important. Not every piece of iron will effectively sharpen another piece of iron. So the sharpening piece will need to be carefully selected. We don’t need an army of people to sharpen us. We only need the right people to sharpen us. The lesson is to choose people wisely. This is especially important when it comes to friends. Choose your friends wisely. You don’t need A LOT. You need A FEW. But the few should be chosen wisely. It will be better for BOTH OF YOU.
  • Realize that some people don’t sharpen you—they dull you. This may sound harsh. But the truth is that some people don’t sharpen you. They dull you. They make you less effective. They create stress for you. They create problems for you. They make life more difficult for you. They don’t help you RESOLVE PROBLEMS—they CREATE PROBLEMS for you. When you spend time with such people, you come away LESS than you were. We tend to take on the characteristics of people we spend time with. So you’ll want to spend time with people whose characteristics you want to TAKE ON. Of course, some people you cannot avoid even if you want to. But you can at least LIMIT the time you spend with people who dull you. And you can balance it out by spending time with those who SHARPEN YOU after you’ve been DULLED. We’re each responsible for our own growth and health. So we’ll need to recognize who dulls us—and avoid them if we can. This is wise.
  • Be grateful for those who sharpen you. In an ideal world, the people we spend the most time with would be the people who most sharpen us. That’s something worth aiming for—even if you can’t hit the target all the time. A goal is something we PURSUE. A goal is what we should be getting closer to—even if we never fully arrive. The simple truth is that it’s better to be close to those things that help us…and far away from those things that hurt us.

So recognizing the simple truth of Proverbs 27:17 should help. That people similar to us can make good sharpeners. We can sharpen them and they can sharpen us. Mutual sharpening. It’s a great value of friendships. Choose your sharpeners wisely. Those you spend time with will inevitably impact your own life—for good or for ill. Don’t be afraid to admit that some people don’t sharpen you—they dull you. Avoid such people if you can. And be grateful for those people in your life who sharpen you or have sharpened you in the past. They’re one of life’s gifts to you. As you may have been to them. After all, as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

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Copyright © 2016 by Samuel Rodenhizer
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