How does iron sharpen iron? | The meaning of proverbs 27:17 | Learn the value of the proverb

Iron Sharpens Iron

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What traits do you look for in a friend? Is how a person looks most important to you? Is it because you consider people "cool" because of how they behave or dress? Or, do you give more importance to the person's character and qualities, and their influence on your life?

The Bible offers good advice on what to look for—and what to avoid—when choosing friends. One well-known principle of positive friendship is given in the Old Testament book of Proverbs: "As iron sharpens iron, so a person sharpens his friend" (Proverbs 27:17, New English Translation). What does this scripture mean, and how can this idea direct your friendships?

According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary, "When iron is rubbed against another piece of iron it shapes and sharpens it. Similarly people can help each other improve by their discussions, criticisms, suggestions, and ideas." The image of a chef using a rod of steel to sharpen a knife is a good example of using strong metals to improve the instrument.

Relating directly to friendship, The Life Application Study Bible states, "There is a mental sharpness that comes from being around good people. Two friends who bring their ideas together can help each other become sharper."

This scripture emphasizes the importance of making friends with quality people who help improve us. Such friends can greatly broaden our understanding and worldview, plus offer feedback that can improve our behavior. Without this type of personal help, we can develop an inaccurately inflated view of our own ideas and conduct.

Why Is This Important?

Choosing friends can be one of the most important decisions a young person will make. The influence exerted by our closest relationships will tend to determine the course of our lives—whether opening up new options and possibilities and encouraging us to grow, or directing us down pathways that restrict our growth and lead us into trouble.

For those who aspire to follow God's teachings, this choice is vital. The Bible warns, "The righteous should choose his friends carefully, for the way of the wicked leads them astray" (Proverbs 12:26). As this scripture indicates, the "wicked" often bring down the "righteous." This point is reiterated in 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Do not be deceived: 'Evil company corrupts good habits.'" We should not take it for granted that we can become close to a bad influence without that influence changing us for the worse.

This is why finding "iron sharpens iron" relationships is important. We increase the opportunity for success by surrounding ourselves with those who raise us up. It is a good thing when our friends expect excellence. We then tend to expect it of ourselves.

Personal Example

As I look back on my formative years, I realize that much of my life was influenced by the quality of my friends. There were times when their direct guidance and counsel helped me to make necessary changes in my approach to life.

When I was in college, a close friend had to confront me because I had been exhibiting generally obnoxious behavior. I was oblivious as to how irritating I had become, and my friend needed to point this out to me. It was painful to hear, and I was defensive at first, but as he explained my various infractions it became obvious that I needed to hear his words and act on them. Today, I appreciate that my friend cared enough to challenge me, because what he pointed out has helped me through the rest of my life. In that way, he "sharpened" me.

Yet this is just one of the many ways in which a friend has helped improve me. There have been countless times when participating in engaging conversations with friends has stretched my thinking in ways I would never have experienced by myself. This is perhaps the most important aspect of "sharpening" that I have found. Even my most closely held Christian beliefs have been shaped and clarified as I have had the benefit of refining my thoughts with close friends who were also seeking a better understanding of God's way.

Your Turn!

There are obvious benefits to being around friends who help prod us into becoming better people. However, as the phrase "iron sharpens iron" suggests, there should be mutual contributions to improving one another. In other words, our friends should benefit from being around us as much as we benefit being around them. So, it can be helpful to analyze whether this is true in your relationships. Does your influence improve others? If not, there are steps you can take to begin sharpening those around you:

  1. Improve yourself—Strive to become a person of quality by developing your intellectual and spiritual capacity. This can be achieved by obtaining wisdom and understanding. A good place to start is in reading and living by the book of Proverbs, which has personal improvement as its stated purpose: "To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth—Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance" (Proverbs 1:2–5, ESV).
  2. Set the right example—Knowledge is of little value if it does not improve your life. If you live by the wisdom you acquire, the positive example you set should automatically follow. People will naturally come to respect you as they see you are a person of upstanding character, not a hypocrite. Your example should stand as a testimony to how a positive, giving and serving person should act. Jesus Christ set the ultimate example by serving His disciples, whom He called friends: "For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:15, cf. John 15:15).
  3. Love your neighbor—Humbly seek ways to help others, maintaining a genuine desire to see them succeed. Remember the "give and take" dimension of iron sharpening iron that encourages back-and-forth interaction through which each person benefits. If others discern that your motivation is to love and serve others, your opportunities for mutually satisfying relationships will increase due to the care for others you demonstrate. "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself" (Philippians 2:3).

As many successful people have discovered, the quality of our closest personal relationships makes a tremendous difference in shaping who we are. We should be grateful when we are challenged by caring friends who polish away our rough edges, improve our minds and help us aspire to be our best. At the same time, we should strive to do the same for them. So, as an important part of your personal development, endeavor to fill your life with such iron-sharpening-iron relationships.


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