“Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”Proverbs 27:17 (NASB)
It’s not like we think.
I’ve had plenty of times when a friend has cared enough to chastise me when I am behaving badly or immaturely. It stings. But, if I’m smart about it, and listen, things go better for me as I course-correct. So then, sharpening seems to be the dream: one where people habitually tell the loving truth, uplifting each other. My mind was wandering over this verse the other day while I was spending time in, well…the bathroom.
Then my children barged in one.
This was not uplifting.
Suddenly I was yelling, clearly defining my boundaries, sharply chastising them. “What are you doing? No! You are not allowed in here right now!” One kid mumbled that she wanted to ask me a question. “No. I will not answer questions here. You can wait outside and I will answer your question when I come out. This is my time to have some privacy to myself. Please go out now.” Answering specifically, I brought into sharp focus what I would, and would not do. Once I had regained my privacy, I took a few deep breaths to allow my body to come down off of the high alert to which it had spooled.
What just happened?
Whether I liked it or not, I was just sharpened by my children.
Perhaps a sharpening is nothing more than an intentionally clarifying result borne out of pain and conflict.
This is not uplifting. But it is necessary.
As is often the case in life, I was minding my own business when I was invaded by the unexpected. As Jordan B. Peterson would say, “Order unraveled and chaos emerged. The unknown presented itself.” My brain scrambled to make sense of this intrusion.
Clarifying my position to my children, I immediately began establishing order in the situation – a thing that our brains do expertly, both subliminally and overtly – and brought into sharp focus the moral landscape of my boundaries. The oblivion of their self-centered desires vanished, and they opened their eyes to the world around them. They saw my angry face. The reality of their offense quickly registered for them, and they meekly backed out of the bathroom and closed the door. I required them to practice bearing the weight of deferred gratification, to suspend having my attention for a time. They had to wait to talk to me until I came out.
When dealing with our children, it is our job to clarify our own structures of propriety of behavior, both for ourselves and for them. If we do this work – which is akin to that of a land surveyor of the inner man – we can order our structures of relationships to be well-marked, clearly visible, and easy to navigate. We will not resent them for walking all over us, if we mark out where they may, and may not tread. They will not feel like they are navigating the hidden land mines of an angry parent. The emotional environment will not have dragons hiding invisibly in a foreboding fog. They will know the way, and see the path to success, because you have established it, and are helping them navigate it. They will be taught and supported. We, as parents, will protect and fortify ourselves, and hold the space for them to be themselves as well. We will clearly differentiate who our child is from who we are. In this family construct, everyone has their own identities. Everyone makes their own choices. Everyone has their own freedoms, expectations, successes, responsibilities, and consequences. Order is established and maintained. This clarifying, sharpening process creates tremendous relief for all involved.
How can this translate outward? How can this sharpening mechanism be utilized to protect and clarify our own positions in our communities in this current landscape of social unrest? After all, everyone is offending everyone.
We must remember: an offense forces a choice.
We can use the offense to sharpen the image of ourselves, clarifying our own position in relationship to the offender. We see the riots sparking up on the news, and feel uneasy. We hear people we are friends with on social media decrying things as evil/racist/sexist that we thought were not so bad. Why are we uneasy? What do we really think about the value of memorial statues, the value of black lives, the value of the American project? The important part of this inquiry is that nobody else is allowed to answer for you. You have your own priorities, your own convictions, and your own experiences to guide you. This appears terribly useful in today’s climate of pre-election polarizing frenzy.
Every time we have the opportunity to mold and clarify our position in response to abrasion, we stay in practice. We test our views against other perspectives. We discover what is stout about our worldviews. We discover what is brittle. This practice of sharpening is essentially our search for truth: a truth that will withstand brutal cross-examination. The more self-examination we can bear, the sturdier our own bearing. If we first risk jumping on the bridge we built ourselves, and it does not collapse, it may bear up under the weight of others too.
Perhaps another interpretation of the above verse could read: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man causes another to clarify/specify/bring-sharply-into-focus his boundaries and convictions.”
One man causes another to clarify himself. He causes him to define more specifically who he is, and who he isn’t. What he will accept, and what he won’t. What he will do, and what he will not do. This is a terribly personal process, but it is the bedrock for living happily in society, as it clarifies where I stand in relation to you. This truth-telling is a tremendous relief for all involved. We may live among boorish, myopic, neighbors. If we don’t develop our own characters, we will behave no better. We are raising tiny immature humans who naturally behave as selfish, pushy dictators. With any luck, we will teach them to grow into contributing, conscientious adults, with a keen sense of self-examination, and a capacity for creating clarity. These days people are watching us – especially those of us who claim to belong to Jesus. My hope is that they will see us engaging in the hard work of following Him authentically, practicing wisdom in our own sharpening process, responding with clarity and understanding to muddy situations. We will grow into His likeness as we practice establishing order out of the chaos around us, wherever we are, for His glory.