As one who frequents a number of Facebook forums and who is actively involved in the blogosphere, I have noticed a rather disheartening trend. This trend rears its ugly head in particular when certain discussion points are presented such as matters of eschatology, law vs. grace, and matters related to creation. Those are the “biggies” if you will where the madness seems to ensure, an endless list of topics that will trigger what I am about to address.
What I have noticed is that many view the iron sharpening iron principle found in Proverbs 27:17 as an excuse to create a barrage of “sparks” in a conversation. It seems to me the intent of a number of Facebook forum posts and blog posts is to stir up the pot for reasons other than honest, purposeful, biblically rooted dialogue. Instead of seeking to build one another up in truth, the purpose seems to be an effort to belittle, tear down, and lord one’s theological system over another as the source of truth. Such a presentation does very little to move us towards a place of maturity in the Word. Furthermore, such a mentality leaves the battlefield of Facebook and the blogosphere littered with anger, resentment, backbiting, and ungodly words with many aghast at what they see taking place within the Christian community.
I humble admit, I have fallen prey to the sort of interaction I’m describing in this post on more occasions than I care to admit. The desire to win arguments often supersedes what the real purpose should be, namely that of coming together to dig into God’s Word through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Attitudes, presuppositions, and boxing gloves should be left off the discussion plate. In their place should be humility, a heart of passion under the leading of the Holy Spirit, and a helping hand given to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. This does not mean that a firm hand is never required when discussion and thoughts get outside the fencepost of Scripture. Those times are certainly needed; however, many of these discussions resemble a mixed martial arts match where the contestants enter the ring looking to do harm to their opponent.
This approach is perhaps indicative of the environment in which we live. Through technology, we are able to connect with people across the world through social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, etc.). This is all well and good as it certainly provides a means to share the truth of Scripture to a much wider audience. The drawback can be that to some degree, the individuals or groups of people we interact with are faceless names. We see their profile picture; however, more often than not but we have no personal face to face relationship with those we speak with on social media. The question is does this reality cause in part the harsh level of conversation (i.e. the boxing ring mentality) that arguably would not take place if the parties spoke in person? Other than those who are by nature crotchety and argumentative human beings, I find it hard to believe people would actually talk to others in person in the manner, I observe takes place on social media. Maybe I am naïve, but the attitudes I see online cannot be how people interact with others in person. If I am wrong, we are in serious trouble with our relational abilities.
If iron sharpening iron is not about making sparks fly, then what is meant by Proverbs 27:17? Let’s dig into this passage and take a look in particular at the terminology and the meaning behind the words.
The word iron is the Hebrew noun barzel. The meaning of this noun is exactly as it is translated, namely speaking of a piece of iron, in particular a utensil or tool used for a specific purpose. Sharpening is translated from the Hebrew verb chadad, meaning “to be sharp, be alert, be keen.” This term is followed by the mention once again of iron. If we put these two together, we have a tool being used to sharpen a tool of the same kind for the purpose of helping both tools be sharper, and more alert for the function to which they were designed.
Proverbs 27:17 then moves from the symbolic to the practical, as it explains why iron needs to sharpen iron and who is sharpening who, and for what purpose. The sharpening of the iron is noted as the process of helping our fellow man become sharpened. I especially like how the KJV puts it: “so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” The word translated as countenance is quite interesting. It is the Hebrew noun paniym, meaning “face or presence”. This term is often used to describe our posture towards God and in turn, His posture towards us. Seeking the face of God is seeking the paniym of God. It involves the moving of our lives to a more intimate relationship with our Creator.
One can hopefully see how this term can be applied to Proverbs 27:17. Sharpening another’s countenance does not involve causing sparks that catch fire and melt a relationship. Conversely, it involves the development of relationship to help others sharpen their skills of understanding God’s Word and growing in maturity. A combative posture is not involved in such a process. Moreover, this sharpening process requires interaction and thus we should not shy away from such interaction and growth. Such a relationship should involve much spiritual and mental stimulation towards the goal of growing in knowledge and love for God and His Word. Together, as the iron sharpens the other iron, we are collectively growing in a desire to seek God’s face while seeking the face of each other in this sharpening process.
Will there be disagreements? Of course there will be as no two minds think perfectly alike. With that said, when a point of discussion arises for which there is a disagreement, that is not a time for the attitudes to rear up, for sparks to fly, and for the boxing gloves to be donned.
Below are five suggestions to consider when the temptation arises in a discussion forum, blog post, or other conversational venue to lash out at another.
1. Pray before you speak or type. If you feel the urge to lash out with an angry response with the attitude of “I’ll show you who knows God’s Word”, it is time, truthfully past time, that you prayed about your attitude. Pray for God to shape your response so that anything you say will reflect Scripture and not anger or contentiousness.
2. Ensure you have studied the topic being discussed. There is nothing worse than seeing comments made that are from a position of opinion and not Scripture. There is nothing wrong with humbly saying “let me get back with you on that.” Over the course of a conversation, especially one that engages Scripture, there will be a learning process involved which is healthy. We are all to be growing in maturity in the Word of God and I don’t care how learned you are in the faith, you should always take a learning posture. Be diligent about your study of Scripture so that you can bring something to the table that will help sharpen others.
3. Learn to walk away. There are many times when I get drawn into a conversation, often feeling the need to try and get that last word of wisdom in that will assuredly change someone’s mind to align with my perspective. Always, and I mean always, I should have just walked away. Sometimes it is wiser to end your involvement in a conversation, especially those where the purpose is not iron sharpening iron. A simple God bless you and thanks for the chat is often best.
4. Humility. The “know it all” attitude is out of control these days, yours truly included. The tendency to approach a conversation with the ambition of telling someone off or overwhelming another with your superior knowledge must stop. Part of the iron sharpening iron process is the humbleness to have a posture of learning. If you are being big headed and puffed up, then you are not sharpening another’s iron. Conversely, you are likely contributing to the sparks flying.
5. Speak the truth in love. Ephesians 4:15 reminds us that part of becoming mature is the need to grow from infancy in the Word to a place of maturity. When we do this, “we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” Spiteful, anger-filled, and snippy responses in a Facebook post are not indicative of speaking the truth in love. Passion for truth rooted in love with the goal of growing in maturity and helping others grow in the same through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is the only way to go.
The bottom line is this: Iron sharpens iron for the goal of growth in God as a community of believers. If you are struggling in this area, it might be time to take a break from social media to assess your actions. I know I have had to do that on many occasions. Build up the brethren. Be willing to come alongside one another and to have others come alongside you. Finally, check your attitude before you press the on button to your electronic device.
Michael lives in Belleville, IL, a suburb of St. Louis, MO with his wife Erica, adopted daughter Alissa, two cats Molly and Sweetie Pie and horse Beckham. After spending eight years in the United States Navy as a Yeoman, he has been employed for the past ten years by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) where he oversees advanced educational programs. Michael holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Religion (Biblical Studies) from Liberty University and is currently closing in on completing a Master of Arts in Religion (Biblical Studies) from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an avid reader and blogger.