For some time now many of those close to me have been praying that I’d find some close friends and engage in some genuine Aussie mateship. I have to admit some reticence to that, thinking life pretty much alone (disregarding family) was the way to go—for me. In this way I’m quite introverted, but also it’s a function of maximising my effectiveness in life according to a great many things.
Of recent times, however, I’ve found a friend who’s an old mate from way back. Recently he highlighted something for me afresh—in the mix of our interactions—a golden friendship truth:
“Iron sharpens iron,
and one person sharpens the wits [face] of another.”
—Proverbs 27:17 (NRSV).
Many people rather flippantly throw this proverb around; it becomes a worn cliché. But, in context there’s a tremendous certainty to it, as I found.
It hasn’t been until this particular encounter that there’s been any skerrick of conflict between us. We’ve seen eye to eye on a vast number of issues. And in any relationship we’d begin to see it mature somewhat down to a brass-tacks level, for God has purposed for it (and for both of us) more than we’d readily expect.
Inadvertently (or not?) a subject of Christian doctrine came about, or so I thought, my filters of perception “sharpened,” reading a lot (i.e. too much) into the situation. The long and the short of it was we converged on uncharted territory for the two of us—the ‘land of conflict,’ never before seen, certainly in the context of the present time.
This otherwise unique feature of our meeting marked our burgeoning relationship in a good way. And conflict in relationships is good, or it can be good (i.e. it’s designed to be good). The conflict got us into a very personal, highly-focused frame with each other. When we bear this issue in mutual trust a better friendship is necessarily forged.
To learn more about the theory of ‘iron sharpening iron’ we can safely plunge into the wisdom of Proverbs. In the overall context, theologically speaking, this verse presented above should be read as a subset of the overall passage of Proverbs 27:17-22; verse 17 merely opens the stanza.
This collection of proverbs tells us that friendship is mighty in everyone’s life—at least in those that partake of it. When we invest of ourselves and our friends with us, we risk our selfish pride and open up to the feedback of another—trust ensues. Whoever sows honestly and courageously reaps a fruitful relationship from that garden (v. 18). This is because as the friend hears and takes on-board the feedback, the quality of the person is enhanced—and so too, the relationship.
Friendships have a reality about them. They’re ‘even better than the real thing,’ in the language of premier rock band, U2. They bring home an authenticity to life that we can’t avoid if we dare. More risk, more return.
And if little is risked, verses 21-22 come into play to the negative: our character’s are not honed as God designed them to be i.e. in the context of friendship viz., ‘iron sharpening iron.’
So, whilst at one end there’s the reticence to take on board feedback or provide honest feedback, at the other there’s the risk of aggression creating the necessity for mutual humility for the sustainability of the friendship:
“If kind hearts can reflect one another in friendship, it is also true that greedy eyes can devour another’s life.”
Balance is necessary. Friendship is a dual-edged sword—risk and return versus risk and reward—for it is faithfulness that provides the key to success. Through faithfulness we endure via courage all the faults that people, through God and our own self-revelation, reveal in us. These are simply chinks in the armour of our characters which everyone has.
Revealed chinks are good for us. They bring home the human quality of the people we deal with, as well as remind us we’re all flawed individuals requiring the Master’s touch.
And, of course we should know; our God uses the people in our midst in collusion with our circumstances—together with our own ruminations—to bring about our transformation into the eventual likeness—on death’s day—of Christ.
© 2009 S. J. Wickham.
 Paul E. Koptak, Proverbs – The NIV Application Commentary (
 Koptak, Ibid, p. 610.