Can ‘Iron Sharpens Iron’ Become an Excuse for Abuse?

Too often in the Christian scheme of things we’ve ‘sharpened’ one anothers iron without the due care and respect of gentleness.

A man and a woman engaged in conversation together

Here’s a goblet of gold from my wife about ‘iron sharpens iron.’ The conversation went this way:

Me: You say that ‘encouragement is sometimes about finding the right time for iron to sharpen iron.’ Does that mean we need to wait for the right time to give someone a truth they may not like to hear?

Wife: I think it’s more complicated than that. There’s more to be considered. Iron sharpening iron, as a method of encouragement, must be a tremendously complex idea. There’s a stand-alone article in that.

Me: Okay. That sounds exciting.

So, here goes:

I think there is a truth to be straddled here. First, there is the biblical truth that iron does sharpen iron; as human beings, we can sharpen one another; and the circumstances of life can sharpen us. It is a great achievement when this happens. But second, we’re only ‘sharpened’ when we’re stretched encouragingly — and it would be helpful to look at encouragement as that trait of giving others courage, helping them to be brave.

If we’re ‘sharpened’ in such a way that we’re presented with ‘a truth’ when there’s insufficient trust, or the person delivering the sharpening doesn’t discern the right time or method, words, or tone, ‘the truth’ doesn’t so much sharpen a person as much as it stabs them.

We’re only sharpened when we’re stretched in a way we find encouraging.

If anyone were to think, no, that’s being too soft on the person, I would contend that our approach to them from a biblical viewpoint is still not right. We, ourselves, need to look inwardly to determine and be truthful regarding our own motives.

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Is not gentleness a fruit of the Holy Spirit in those that genuinely have God? ← Read that sentence again.

Is not gentleness a fruit of the Holy Spirit in those that genuinely have God?

If we’re truly Christian, we’re gentle, or we’re on a journey to gentleness, meaning we repent of it when we’re not. When we’re not gentle, our relationship with God means the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin.

The conviction of our sin is always a good thing.

God is calling us all to higher wisdom: to do the work of sharpening ourselves and others, according to God’s work in us. We must first allow Him to sharpen us. That’s primary. Our sharpening of others has no credibility if we’re hypocritical purveyors of truth — like, do as I say, not as I do. It doesn’t work.

Too often in the Christian scheme of things, we’ve ‘sharpened’ one another without the due care and respect of gentleness. We’ve got it wrong. We’ve fallen short of the glory of God, which is to exemplify self-sacrifice. Then, when we’ve ‘sharpened’ someone ‘for their own good,’ we wonder why there’s a stress reaction — I mean post-traumatic stress, the ingredients of PTSD.

What we’ve actually done is not dealt with our own frustration and taken it out on another person. For, there is always a way for speaking gently. (And here I am, facing my own hypocrisy for times when people would definitely say I’ve been harsh with them. Thank you, Lord.) What we’ve actually done is polarize a person away from the growth potential we saw in them. We’ve defeated God’s purposes.

And the person suffers abuse.

A better way is this: always have our sharpening front of view. A true sharpening is pure encouragement. Leading a penitent life that welcomes our own ugly truth is God’s way of encouraging us. When we do this well, we naturally curate trust in relationships because people feel safe with someone who has the courage to see their own fault first.

When we learn this, we have more capacity to genuinely encourage others because the sharpening comes from a core that believes ‘I need sharpening, first, before I can see how to sharpen another.’

Again, and again, here it is, Jesus’ own words in red in Matthew 7:1-5 (NRSV):

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Let our gauge for encouraging another be their reaction. If another person doesn’t feel encouraged, ultimately, after we have both reflected over what was done and how it was done, we haven’t done it right.

Question from Steve Wickham, the author.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Comment below!

Written by Steve Wickham

Steve Wickham is married to Sarah has three adult daughters and one son. He is a pastor, counselor, mentor and chaplain. Having experienced marital brokenness, his passion is marriage counselling. A Christian writer and blogger for over ten years, Steve has degrees in science, divinity, and counseling. Steve has a passion for peacemaking and is a student of grief.

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