The Wounds of a Friend

There is nothing at all soothing about the striking of one piece of iron against another. First of all, there’s usually an annoyingly-loud clang to contend with, plus an unpleasant jolt to the arm muscles should one happen to be holding either of the two pieces. And then there’s the time-consuming and painstaking process of chipping away small imperfections, the toilsome transformation of one surface from rough to smooth.

I don’t think it’s any accident that King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived (2 Chronicles 1:11-12), chose this particularly-vivid word picture of iron-striking-iron to describe the process of being refined within the context of a close, trusted friendship:

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
Proverbs 27:17

Iron Sharpens IronThe Apostle Paul, for his part, gives us some much-needed help translating Solomon’s word picture into an everyday action when he says in Ephesians 4:15 that, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” For Paul, growth toward Christ is absolutely unthinkable apart from truth…it sounds to me like those who truly desire to become more like Jesus need to be able to both speak truth in love to others as well as receive truth from others. Sanctification in this way is a two-way street; we’re all going to get chipped and scarred along the way.

If truth is the Christian’s primary tool for becoming more like Christ – who, after all, claimed to be Truth Incarnate (John 14:6) – why then is real, honest-to-God truth such an exceedingly-rare commodity? It can often seem as though most relationships this side of eternity cannot bear the weight of it and so, rather than give up access to relationship, we turn instead to watering down truth or (worse still) remaining silent altogether. If this happens within the context of unbelieving friends, then it’s more or less to be expected; after all, “Who wants to make waves?” But it doesn’t seem to me that Solomon, Paul or Jesus leave a lot of room for silence in the face of a fellow Christian’s spiritual demise.

Like just about everyone else, I dislike receiving criticism. I dislike it even more when the criticism happens to be true. All that being so, I awaken every day to an acute awareness that one day we will all stand before the throne of Christ (Revelation 7:15), either to judgment or to eternal life. Whatever our eternal destination, the Bible makes it clear that we will all give an account for ourselves (Hebrews 9:27). I’m pretty confident that on that Great Day all of the lies I like to tell myself and all of the justifications I muster for outrageous behavior will be burned away and reduced to ash.

Assuming that all of the above is in line with Scripture, one of the greatest ways we can show love to each other is to point to those fallacies or self-delusions that will go up in smoke before the Risen King, now rather than later. Yes, it’s a lot of work to enter into friendships where we agree to sharpen each other. Yes, it can be exhausting to have “yet one more sin” brought to light by a close friend. But for my part, I’d rather have my Precious Self-Lies burned away from my soul in this life, even if it does hurt. As Johnny Cash once said, “Being a Christian isn’t for sissies.”

Iron Sharpens IronAs I have walked this road of sanctification, I have become increasingly indebted to other Christians who have had both the love and the faithfulness to confront me and ask for a willingness to move toward change. Boiling it down to its essential ingredients, I’d say that at least some of the characteristics of an iron-to-iron friendship look like this:

  • We agree not to idolize our relationship, but rather to see it as a God-given blessing.
  • We agree that we both want to draw closer to Christ more than we wish to be comfortable.
  • If practical, we will always ask permission to speak before diving in.
  • Where permission is given, we afford each other “safe passage” to speak honestly and fearlessly.
  • Our observations about one another need to comport with the Bible and lead us closer to Jesus.
  • Getting mad (or worse, dismissive) is unacceptable.
  • We won’t “punish” one another for honest critiques; we won’t engage in open hostility or passive-aggressive behaviors.
  • Confidentiality is taken very seriously; gossip is out of the question.
  • When in doubt, we both agree to yield to the clear witness of Scripture and other faithful Christians.
  • Grace superintends all discussion; all of us are prone to sin and error.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that agreeing to these guidelines like these will yield success. It’s been my experience that sin hates nothing more than being exposed to light (John 3:19). Resistance to the light of grace and truth is powerful; sometimes we can find ourselves getting upset and not even really know why; it’s helpful in those moments, I think, to mentally review whether or not I value comfort more than the clang of iron against the sins of my soul. What lie am I believing that makes me shrink before candor like Dracula before the midday sun?

“Winston Churchill once said that the most valuable thing in the world was the truth. So valuable is it, said he, that it needs to be constantly protected by a bodyguard of lies.”
Ravi Zacharias, The Inextinguishable Light

Proverbs 27:6 (ESV)
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

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