‘Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.’ (27:17)
For the Sunday lunch ritual of carving roasted meat, I always sharpen the carving knife first. Sometimes I use a modern ceramic sharpener, but it’s much more satisfying to use the old, classic steel that we were given as a wedding present by Noel, a retired butcher friend of my parents.
I don’t usually manage the beautiful slices of roast beef from cookbook photography, but a sharp knife makes the job much easier and more satisfying. And it’s the sweeping friction of the knife-blade and the ridged steel rod, with the right pressure and angle, that gives the sharpest edge. Without friction and a bit of pressure, the knife won’t be sharpened. If it’s bashed headlong against the steel, the blade will be ruined.
It’s the same when we’re being sharpened by contact with another person. The steel isn’t sharpened by being rubbed against cotton wool or a cushion – it needs steel hard enough to knock off its dulled edges. We need to have people around us who are at least our intellectual equal if we are to have our wits sharpened by contact. People we can outreason, persuade easily or bamboozle won’t give us a real edge. Only people who will challenge us where we are wrong, see the flaws in our reasoning or make us explain ourselves more clearly and eloquently will help us to sharpen our wits.
I read somewhere the advice, ‘If you’re always the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.’ You may need to seek out people who are strong enough to challenge your views and develop your thinking, but it will be worth it if it helps you to grow spiritually and mentally, or just to refine your plans and ideas.
I’ve always valued having people on committees and councils who will disagree with me and challenge me – so long as they do it in a thought-out, coherent way, of course! I don’t always thank them at the time, because I don’t always like being challenged at the time. But I know that in the long run the results will always be better when they’ve come out of real debate than when I’ve just set out what I think we should do and everyone has agreed without argument.
But just as the knife won’t benefit from being bashed or even rubbed against the steel at the wrong angle, it’s important that the friction is applied carefully and creatively. Unmoving opposition, however intelligent the opponent, doesn’t get us very far either in progress towards an objective or in shaping our thinking on the way. It just leads to frustration on both sides. When both sides can find a way to slide their views past each other, then sharpening can take place. When we can agree on the shared aim we are both trying to achieve in opposing ways, then our tension becomes creative.
So search out people who will argue with you – if they will argue because they care as deeply as you do about doing the right thing, and about finding God’s way so that you can walk in it together. And enjoy the friction – or at least appreciate its results in a sharper, more exact mind.