Iron Sharpens Iron
I’ve been thinking about Proverbs 27:17 lately and about how its concept doesn’t really work with other materials: Cheese doesn’t grate cheese. Coffee doesn’t brew coffee. But “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (ESV).
I googled the phrase “iron sharpens iron,” and my computer screen was filled with logos for tough men’s conferences—there were images of crossed swords and hammers slamming into glowing red steel on anvils. We all like the idea of being sharpened by other believers through mutual investments of relationship, vulnerability, accountability, transparency, etc. But I think we expect to set the terms when it comes to the process. Consider the substantial amount of heat, pressure, and resistance required for us to be sharpened as instruments of God’s purpose in our daily lives and in our ministries.
I recently sent out an email to my inner circle, asking for prayer. These are men I know who love the Lord, and I trust them to pray for me when I need to make tough decisions. These guys are a lot like me: they also lead ministries, we have similar interests, and we have the same sense of humor. They’re a blessing to me—and they’re also easy to be with. Over the next couple of days, the majority of my guys replied that they would be praying for me, were excited about the opportunity I was talking about, would be seeking wisdom and clarity, and so on. But one of the guys didn’t say any of those things. He replied with a paragraph of questions, hypothetical scenarios, and apprehensions that initially made me feel defensive. We all like to surround ourselves with people guaranteed to encourage us.
So how does iron sharpen iron? Practically speaking, you sharpen something by creating shape-altering friction between the two surfaces. The softer metal edge will be worn down and thus sharpened by the harder material. This is why you don’t sharpen two identical Kershaw folding knives by vigorously rubbing their edges together—that would only dull them both.
Metaphor alert: This is where you lean back and think, Wow . . . so seeking refinement only through relationships with guys my age who use the same beard balm I do isn’t the best way to stay sharp in my spiritual growth and leadership.
I’m not at all saying you need to cancel your weekly Starbucks date with your bro or skip this summer’s Man Camp Out where you’ll stare at the fire and “get real” with each other. Instead, I’m asking you to consider who God has placed in your life that you don’t always appreciate or seek perspective from. This might be that youth worker with whom even a casual conversation is a challenge. This could be the deacon who always questions your motives. Or maybe it’s the staff member from a different generation or background who makes you roll your eyes and sigh during staff meetings. These personalities are tough to deal with, but they may also be the means to your greatest leadership-development potential.
Here are three things to remember about staying sharp:
Stay malleable—but don’t be too soft.
It’s important to be sensitive to the Spirit and compassionate to others, but you should also be thick-skinned and not take things too personally. You aren’t committed to your programs, sermon series, youth building, or DNow themes—you’re committed to the people you get to serve and worship alongside. Just know not everyone is going to appreciate the time, prayer, and creativity you invest into your messages. When the fruits of your labor aren’t celebrated but are instead cast aside or trampled underfoot by parents or by those outside of your ministry, don’t let Satan have a foothold. Try to take all criticism as constructive criticism. Be confident enough to ask yourself (and your ministry team) if what you’re doing is the best you have to offer to the Lord and his church. If you can be doing something better, do it. If you can’t, don’t sweat it.
More resistance = more change.
Scripture says we’re to flee from unrighteousness. Unfortunately, some of us flee from conflict in the name of church peace (or self-preservation). We have a saying in my home that we’d rather be friends than be friendly. Being friendly means never offending anyone and thus never getting past surface relationships. But being a friend means “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13 ESV). The Lord has forgiven us, so we’re to be genuine and offer forgiveness in every relationship we have—that will help others do the same.
So how much resistance do you allow?
Who are you allowing to speak into your life?
Do you have any real friends who are at least 10 years older than you?
Do you have friends who have different hobbies and interests?
Chances are there are church members who would love the opportunity to speak truth (or at least opinion) into your life and ministry. Allowing a variety of people to share their perspectives allows you better opportunity to see your personal and professional blind spots.
An unused blade never needs sharpening.
I once had a neighbor show me a custom-made, heirloom hunting knife he had received for Christmas. The razor-sharp blade was rolled 12,000 times within the fires of Mordor, and the handle was a fine-grain cocobolo wood repurposed from the port side of Noah’s ark—or something like that. Really, it was a work of art. The problem was that once it got carefully passed around the room, it was returned to its sheath and then placed back into the safe—it was never to be used as a tool of any kind.
I hope you feel useful—I hope you feel as if you’re a well-used, common instrument of God’s grace. I hope you’re allowed to dream big in your ministry, encouraged to take calculated risks, and given freedom to make mistakes—I hope you’re expected to become dull. I hope you serve on a team of ministry leadership that allows you to do all these things. I hope that when you find yourself losing your ministry edge, you have trusted counsel who will speak wisdom and love into your heart even if it hurts to hear it. I hope you’ll allow people into your circle who aren’t much like you but who remind you that the process of becoming more like Christ involves much heat, pressure and resistance.
John Barnard is a veteran youth pastor of 20+ years. He heads up a mentor development outreach ministry called Middleman Skateboard Ministries (middlemanskateboards.com) and lives in TX with his beautiful wife Mandi, loud kids Dylin, Levi and Evie, and fat bulldog Oscar. He likes to turn a wrench while listening to Junior Brown and has never turned down a taco.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.