One of the all-time movie classics is The Princess Bride. In the story, the beautiful Princess Bride is abducted in a complex scheme and escape, lead by the dastardly Sicilian, Vizzini. Vizzini is assisted in the abduction by the dashing Spaniard, Inigo Montoya, and the gentle giant, Fezzik. But there is one snag in their plan—Westley, the Princess Bride’s sweetheart and now the Dread Pirate Roberts, is hot on their heels as they attempt to steal away with the Princess.
Over and over again, Vizzini and his cohorts fail in their attempts to get Westley off their trail, to which Vizzini keeps exclaiming, “Inconceivable!”
And one of my favorite scenes in the movie is where Inigo finally confronts the scheming and plotting Vizzini after another exclamation of “Inconceivable!”, and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Which is a great lesson for biblical interpretation. So often, we grow up in the church hearing a passage of Scripture along with its popularized, pithy application, without really having thought about it in context or in depth. And in some cases, I think the author would come along and say, “You keep using that passage. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Enter this popular, Christian-coffee-cup Bible verse:
Iron sharpens iron,
and one person sharpens another.
(Proverbs 27:17, Christian Standard Bible)
In my experience, this one gets thrown around quite a bit by the male of the species, in some kind of chest bumping exercise of what masculine friendship looks like. In a mere moment, some bit of advice or wisdom is shared from one dude to another, to which he replies, extending his hand for a fist-bump, “As iron sharpens iron, man.”
“I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for little moments of encouragement that can happen between men, and women as well, for this passage applies to all genders. But I think this saying of wisdom is meant to be applied more robustly and extensively. It seems likely there is an assumed bond of community that is able to withstand the process of sharpening. For what does getting sharpened look like?
It’s likely not the quick, momentary sharing of a bit of advice. Rather, it is the process of one person looking closely at another person, finding the rough edges and notches and imperfections present—largely due to sin and fallenness—and then discovering what will be necessary to smooth them out and knock them off. And that will involve grinding, and placing that person against the whetstone of your sanctifying input, and withstanding the sparks that will fly as a result, so that the other person may be left “sharpened.”
Further, it means that the one receiving all of that must be open to the process. They will need to be vulnerable, and fight against defensiveness, and listen carefully to all that is bound up in the grinding and smoothing influence of another person getting into the details of their lives. It means admitting they are a sinner, that there exist notches and imperfections, and submitting themselves to the often painful process of sharpening.
In my experience, rarely does this involve high-fives and chest-bumping and knucks being exchanged. While it will end in the joy of a new level of maturity, the process is often difficult, and is always humbling. And a big part of that is because all of this involves knowing, and being truly known.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer reflected on this challenge in his book, Life Together:
He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!
But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. “My son, give me thine heart” (Prov. 23.26). God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that; He loves the sinner but He hates sin . . .
As Jared Wilson has recently pointed out, when we try to hide our sin, our pain, our shame, our brokenness, and do our best to maintain the illusion that we have it all together, we are a bigger failure than we have even feared. And the reasons that we don’t live transparently with each other—opening ourselves up to sharpening—is because we are afraid, and we are embarrassed, and we don’t want to be judged.
And the reason other people in the church don’t do that with us is because they are afraid, and embarrassed, and they don’t want to be judged.
And we’ve all probably been burned at least once by someone we opened up to in a “sharpening” event, because all they did was judge, condemn, or use it against us.
To which Wilson responds,
And what all of this amounts to is a distrust in God himself. I know people are mean, I know people are judgmental, I know people act weird and get messy and cause problems and are really inefficient for the ways we normally like to do church—but if we believe in the gospel, we don’t have a choice any longer to live in the dark.
How about we stop being shocked to find sinners among the “pious” and start shocking the fearful with grace?
That is the wisdom of one person sharpening another.
It will take time.
It will take effort.
It will require grace.
It will demand faith and trust.
And it will be worth it.
Iron sharpens iron,
and one person sharpens another.
Thank you for the grace of community. By sending your Son to rescue us from sin, through him, you made us perfect; and by adopting us into a family, through them, you will make us good. So help us not to act shocked when we find sinners among us who need sharpening. And help us not to act shocked when we are told we are a sinner who needs sharpening! The only way this will happen is if it is all bathed in your Holy Spirit, so send him to do your purifying work in and through us.
Yes, and very amen, in Jesus’ name.
Pursuing the wise and good life with you,
P.S. If you’d like to study some of the wisdom literature further, I highly recommend the Wisdom Series from The Bible Project, and their resources on the book of Proverbs.
Proverbs Thirty-One Day Reading Plan
August 14: Proverbs ch. 1
Aug. 15: ch. 2
Aug. 16: ch. 3
Aug. 17: ch. 4
Aug. 18: ch. 5
Aug. 19: Grace Day
Aug. 20: ch. 6
Aug. 21: ch. 7
Aug. 22: ch. 8
Aug. 23: ch. 9
Aug. 24: ch. 10
Aug. 25: ch. 11
Aug. 26: Grace Day
Aug. 27: ch. 12
Aug. 28: ch. 13
Aug. 29: ch. 14
Aug. 30: ch. 15
Aug. 31: ch. 16
Sept. 1: ch. 17
Sept. 2: Grace Day
Sept. 3: ch. 18
Sept. 4: ch. 19
Sept. 5: ch. 20
Sept. 6: ch. 21
Sept. 7: ch. 22
Sept. 8: ch. 23
Sept. 9: Grace Day
Sept. 10: ch. 24
Sept. 11: ch. 25
Sept. 12: ch. 26
Sept. 13: ch. 27
Sept. 14: ch. 28
Sept. 15: ch. 29
Sept. 16: Grace Day
Sept. 17: ch. 30
Sept. 18: ch. 31
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