What “Iron Sharpening Iron” Does Not Mean

Just before Isaac was born, my parents and my mother-in-law made the long drive from North Carolina to Illinois to come stay with us and wait for the baby. They arrived well in advance of his due date, but as luck would have it Isaac was a week and a half late. Between my parents’ advanced arrival and the week they stayed postpartum, they were with us for over a month.

My dad is not the kind of guy to sit on his tush and watch the clock, so during his lengthy stay here he ferreted out any and every chore he could find. He took on a massive yard project that had him outside every morning at 7am. He fixed the shower drain. He re-potted plants. He washed my car and had the oil changed. He hung a huge net over the open stairwell leading to the basement so that no one accidentally dropped the baby over the rail (ok, that last one was actually a special request from me).

After awhile, however, I could tell my dad was running out of things to do. This became clear the day he complained that our knives needed to be sharpened and offered to buy us a knife sharpener.

As a nine months pregnant woman, I could have cared less about how sharp our knives were. It was quite possibly the very last thing on my list of priorities. But for my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who are certifiable chefs and made numerous meals for us during that time, the knives were more of a concern. The knives were indeed dull and, as a result, made meal preparation a hassle. As you probably know, dull knives take longer to use, require more force, and can actually be more dangerous.

That was almost 3 months ago. I had actually forgotten about the whole “knife situation” until last week when the sermon message covered Proverbs 27:17, which reads,

“As iron sharpens iron,
    so one person sharpens another.”

We had a guest preacher that Sunday morning, Shauna Niequist, and she focused on the sharpening elements of force and heat, both of which are necessary for shaping iron. Although her perspective shed insight onto this oft cited verse, I found myself still wondering about the proverb long after I went home. So, I dug a little deeper.

I don’t know a lot about blacksmithing, but after doing a little research I learned that iron is not typically used to sharpen iron. Most commonly, blades are sharpened with a whetstone. The rough texture of the stone provides the necessary resistance to sharpen the blade.

Although few knife sets come with a whetstone, many are accompanied by a steel “sharpening rod.” Is that what Proverbs 27:17 is referring to? Not quite. As I eventually learned, sharpening rods don’t actually sharpen the knife blade. They simply reshape it. Over time, a knife will need to be sharpened using another means.

At first, this information threw me off. If whetstones are used to sharpen blades, not iron, what does this verse mean? Does iron sharpen iron?

I began looking into blacksmith tools during the Iron Age, which is approximately when this verse was written, and I discovered one iron tool that was used to shape and sharpen a blade: a steel file.

Whenever I used to read Proverbs 27:17 I had never imagined a metal file. Instead I pictured two blades sheering across one another to produce ever increasing sharpness. To be more precise, I pictured one of those Japanese steakhouse chefs clanging his knives before cutting a shrimp tail in mid air.

In reality, two blades cannot sharpen one another. At least, not very well. The only way to sharpen an iron blade is to use a tool with a different edge or texture, and that is an important point. Although Christians often emphasize the “like iron” part of this verse–meaning two similarly strong Christians–this verse does not promote uniformity. If a blade is sharpened by resistance, then a similarly smooth blade has little to offer. The iron that sharpens iron must be an entirely different tool.

Knowing this, Proverbs 27:17 encourages me to surround myself with strong Christians who can sharpen me, as well as those who are different enough to shape me by means of friction. That is to say, I need friends whose wisdom, whose willingness to say difficult things, or whose different perspectives will provide the grit with which God can sand my dull edges.

This means having friends who are different from me. It also means exposing myself to a wide variety of voices in the church. And let me emphasize this last point especially. Evangelicalism is so divided right now. Everyone has their camp or “tribe,” and they tend to read their camp’s authors and bloggers somewhat exclusively. The Reformed read the Reformed, the Egalitarians read the Egalitarians, and so on. As a result, there are a lot of blogs out there that are preaching to their own choirs, but not always a lot of sharpening going on.

All of that to say, if I desire to be sharpened the way Proverbs 27:17 instructs, I need more than strong Christian friends. I need friends who are different from me, and friends who will challenge me. I need a friend, a mentor, or a leader who is as strong as steel in her faith, but whose shape is different enough to provide some sanctifying resistance in my life.