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  • Paul Reich

Iron Sharpens Iron

Updated: May 23, 2021

God has designed relationships to shape us. However, relational challenges don't automatically change us for the better; they only give us opportunity to grow. To grow, we must cooperate with God's transforming purpose in our relationships.

 

Photo without text is by Steve Raubenstine from Pixabay

 

During my teen years, God did a deep work in my heart and life regarding the issue of anger. For nearly two years His Spirit dealt with me repeatedly regarding my sinful reactions to one of my brothers who really knew how to push my buttons. Conflicts were frequent between us during those years, and it was not uncommon for him to slug me in the gut each time we passed in close quarters. Sometimes in these interactions I vented my anger by exploding verbally, and on a few occasions, I responded with physical aggression and punched him back.


One time when my brother was tormenting me, I was holding a pencil in my hand and in the heat of my anger, I threw it at him. Knowing not to throw it at his face, I aimed low. Because it was summer, my brother was wearing shorts and due to the force of my throw, the pencil literally jabbed into his thigh the depth of the lead. Even today, I cringe at the thought of what I did and remember the recurring shame I felt over my angry reactions to my brother.


Each time I failed and became angry, I experienced deep conviction over my sin, often retreating to my bedroom and falling on my knees before God at the edge of my bed. During these two years, I poured out my heart many times to God, confessing my sin of anger, asking Him to forgive me and to give me victory over this area of my life. Through these years, I was daily reading the Bible and regularly memorizing Scripture. The Holy Spirit used the Scriptures like a mirror to show me the condition of my heart, as a instructor to give me insight into anger, and as a counselor to carry out His transforming work in my life.


Verses that exposed the condition of my heart included [1]

  • Genesis 4:6–7, Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

  • Proverbs 25:28, Like a city that is broken into and without walls Is a man who has no control over his spirit [“anger” – GNT; “temper” – NET].

  • Ecclesiastes 7:9, Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, for anger resides in the bosom of fools.

  • Ephesians 4:26–27, BE ANGRY, AND yet DO NOT SIN; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.

These passages all showed me that my lack of self-control made me vulnerable to the work of the enemy in my life – a condition that desperately needed to be changed. I prayed that God would help me overcome my anger and develop the capacity to rule my own spirit, for this demonstrated strength of character, which is better than physical might.

  • Proverbs 16:32, He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.

Because of other Scriptures, I also knew that I needed to respond to my brother with a calm spirit and kindness in my words and tone.

  • Proverbs 15:1, A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

  • Proverbs 15:18, A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger calms a dispute.

  • 1 Peter 2:21–23, For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, … while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously;”

At each failure of my anger, I cried out to God and He probed deeper into my heart. I learned that “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions,” were all works of the flesh (Galatians 5:20) and that to overcome them, I would need to walk under the control of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16). I learned that growing in discretion and understanding would help me to conquer anger:

  • Proverbs 14:29, He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly.

  • Proverbs 19:11, A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.

So, I prayed that God would help me understand my brother and discern the underlying issues and dynamics of our interactions. On one occasion, God spoke to me and said, “Paul, how do you expect to respond in quietness, gentleness and kindness when you are riled up and unsettled in your own spirit? Give your anxiety and striving to me and learn to walk in my peace. You don’t need to defend yourself. Entrust your soul to me and trust me.”


From a youth conference I learned that getting angry was a sign of unyielded rights. Many of my conflicts with my brother were over belongings, blocked personal goals, or unwelcome interference in my life. So, I yielded everything I could think of to God, even my body. I told God, “This is Your body and if my brother hits and hurts Your body, then You will have to deal with it.”


During each of these times in heartfelt honest prayer, God dealt with the inner recesses of my heart, exposing underlying issues in my own life, revealing lies in my thinking and replacing them with truth, helping me to see my brother in new light, and giving me new keys to overcome anger. After each encounter with God, I increasingly experienced victory for longer periods of time. Then after months of victory, I once again lost my cool with my brother and found myself yet again on my knees crying out to God. It was at this time that God spoke to me out of James 1:19-20.

  • James 1:19–20, This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.

God said to me, “Paul, you are trying to change your brother through your anger. You don’t like what he is doing to you, so you resort to anger to protest his behavior and to try and get him stop. Yet, your anger will not bring about my righteousness in his life or in this this situation.” It was as if the light went on in my heart! My anger would not change my brother and it would not resolve this ongoing conflict between us; rather, it would only create more wounds and stir up more strife. Many years later I learned that anger is often used to control and force compliance, but it never brings a heart change, nor does it build the trust and loyalty that is essential for healthy relationships.


This encounter with God dealt a significant deathblow to my anger. I got to a place where my brother would try to “push my buttons” and even hit me, yet I responded with kindness and sometimes even laughter. Through the Spirit’s deep work in my heart, I was free on the inside. My brother could no longer get me riled up and over time, he eventually quit trying. I later learned that he enjoyed getting my ire up and when I no longer responded with agitation, he got bored and quit bugging me.


Because my brother slugged me in the gut so often during our teen years, I was conditioned for several years after high school to flinch and cover my gut every time I walked past him. Even as a young adult after our relationship had matured and we were both married, there were times I found myself flinching and covering my gut when we passed each other, though he had not hit me in years. Sometimes when this happened, we both laughed remembering the conflicts of our youth and realizing we had both come a long way. My flinching eventually stopped, and it’s been nearly four decades since I last flinched when walking past my brother.


Today, my brother and I have a really good relationship and can talk openly about our teen years as well as many other personal topics. We both love Jesus, have undergone extensive personal transformation including the healing of our youthful insecurities, and have matured in our relational skills. Neither of us is perfect, but we have grown in our love for each other, our self-awareness, and our understanding of life and God’s word. Unlike the immature conflicts of years ago, we now mutually seek to be a blessing and a positive force in each other’s lives, enjoying getting together whenever possible.


My point in sharing this personal story is to illustrate how God often uses other people to be a shaping influence in our lives. As Bob Mumford used to say, “God blesses us and afflicts us with people according to our need.” Some of the people God sends are like healing balm to our wounded hearts, liberally applying unconditional love and wrapping us with bandages of understanding and encouragement. Others, whose personalities we may find grating or who are unrefined in character, are like sandpaper smoothing the rough edges of our own character. On occasion, we are even blessed – though it comes disguised as affliction – with people who are more like chisels leaving gouges in our hearts. All these relationships give us opportunity for growth.


Relationships are the building blocks of life and society. They come in all sizes and shapes based on age, gender, roles, goals, levels of intimacy, degrees of commitment, and more. There are marriage relationships, family relationships, friendships, work relationships, and group relationships (church, school, teams, troupes, etc.). Relationships can be positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy, peaceful or conflicted, beneficial or destructive, safe or unsafe. Every relationship is built around social interactions and emotional exchanges between participants. The character, emotional wholeness, and maturity of the participants as well as the health of the interactions and the nature of the exchanges all determine the outcomes of each relationship.


We all appreciate the positive and nurturing relationships in our lives. These relationships vitalize our hearts, embrace us as we are, heal us where we are broken, and encourage us to grow and achieve. In these relationships we experience love, acceptance, joy, trust, and fulfillment. However, because we are all broken and because healthy relationships also need to be mutual, even these relationships challenge our selfishness and teach us to give as well as receive. All healthy and growing relationships require mutual investment, and they will not be sustained if the giving only goes one way.


Healthy relationships can greatly enrich our lives in many ways, but they also require something of us. Even good relationships go through challenges and are part of God’s training ground for growth. Through our relationships, we learn about granting forgiveness, demonstrating respect, expressing appreciation, setting healthy boundaries, loving difficult people, extending comfort, taking responsibility, keeping commitments, being honest, learning accountability, and denying selfishness. Relationships help us to grow both in character and in interpersonal skills. They help us realize that we are not the center of the universe and that there are times we need to revolve around the needs and desires of others and not insist that others always orbit around our wants.


People come in every variety imaginable, all requiring us to grow in unique ways. Differences in age, culture, belief, gender, maturity, morality, status, personality, intelligence, race, culture, language, disability, and more, necessitate that we grow in character and develop a wide range of relational skills to interact appropriately in each situation. Special wisdom is often needed for relating to those with challenging mental, emotional or physical needs or with those who are significantly broken or relationally dysfunctional. However, we must remember that we are all flawed in some way (James 3:1). If we expect grace from others, we must extend it ourselves.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay


Experiencing betrayal, abuse, manipulation, trauma, cruelty, or aggression can be deeply impacting, frequently requiring emotional healing and deep personal growth to move on and live a healthy relational life. Suffering at the hands of others is common in this fallen world and well attested to in the Scriptures. Many servants of God suffered unjustly and the Bible is filled with examples, instructions, and hope for such times, but these are possible topics for future posts.


The Scriptures are replete with examples of God using relationships to accomplish His work in us and through us. Jesus summarized the instruction of the entire Law and the Prophets under two relational commands: 1) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and 2) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:35-40). In addition, the Bible gives specific instruction on how we are to conduct ourselves in every major human relationship including marriage, parenting, friendship, relationships in the church, employment, and even on how we are to treat our enemies.


One of the significant themes of the New Testament is how we are to treat one another in the family of God. There are more than 40 “one another” passages in the New Testament teaching godly relationships between believers, including the following:

  • Love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35)

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10)

  • Give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10)

  • Be of the same mind toward [live in harmony with] one another (Romans 12:16)

  • Accept [welcome] one another, just as Christ also accepted us” (Romans 15:7)

  • Admonish [instruct] one another (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)

  • Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)

  • Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)

  • Bearing with [showing tolerance for] one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2)

  • Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32a)

  • Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32b)

  • Be subject [submit] to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21)

  • Comfort one another(1 Thessalonians 4:18}

  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11a)

  • Build up one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11b)

  • Exhort one another every day” (Hebrews 3:13)

  • Stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24)

  • Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16a)

  • Pray for one another (James 5:16b)

  • Be hospitable to one another without complaint” (1 Peter 4:9}

Our love for God is lived out in our relationships with others. John tells us that it is a lie to claim that we love God whom we have not seen while hating our brother whom we have seen (1 John 4:20-21). Jesus taught that we will be judged for how we treat those in need – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned – because how we treat them is how we treat Him (Matthew 25:31-46). In other words, one of the ways that we love God is by loving others created by Him.

“It’s easy to love God, because God doesn’t smell. God doesn’t have bad breath. God doesn’t reward kindness with evil.” [2]

The Bible’s abundant instruction on relationships demonstrates that learning to love as He loves is primary to spiritual formation. It is only possible to grow in love and to exercise love in the context of relationships. Therefore, relationships serve as one of God’s primary tools for developing godly character and conforming us to the image of Christ. Even Proverbs, the Bible’s primary book on practical wisdom, bears this out.


Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.


There are many ways that we can be sharpened through relationships. Teaching, mentoring, coaching, and training can impart knowledge and skills from those more experienced. Competition and debate challenge us to hone our knowledge and skills and to excel under pressure. Modeling and encouragement motivate us to improve. Brainstorming and stimulating conversation help us to see things from differing perspectives and to generate new ideas. But the metaphor, “iron sharpens iron,” implies friction. It is often in adjusting to the differences of others and handling the conflicts that arise because of those differences that constrains us to grow.


Gary Thomas, in his book Sacred Marriage, powerfully illustrates the potential of marriage, our most intimate relationship, to be a primary tool for God to develop holiness in our lives. He writes his entire book on the premise, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” [3] He supports this major premise from many angles. For example, he describes how the intimacy of marriage exposes our weaknesses and our character flaws, “[Marriage] is the merciless revealer, the great white searchlight turned on the darkest places of human nature.” [4] He further comments, “Any situation that calls me to confront my selfishness has enormous spiritual value.” [5] He then illustrates how marriage provides this opportunity more than any other human relationship.


Gary Thomas describes marriage as a gym for developing love, “Marriage can be the gym in which our capacity to experience and express God’s love is strengthened and further developed.” [6] Also, because of the many challenges that arise in a lifetime of committed love, “Marriage creates a climate where this love is put to the greatest test.” [7]


Closing


God has designed relationships to shape us. However, relational challenges don’t automatically change us for the better; they only give us opportunity to grow. To experience growth, we must seek God, discern His purposes in our relationships, and submit to His dealings as He seeks to do a deeper work in our hearts. As our character flaws are exposed through our relationships, it is only as we surrender to the control of the Holy Spirit, inviting Him to transform our hearts, that we can conquer the sinful expressions of the flesh that manifest in our relationships (Galatians 5:19-21), and correspondingly produce the fruit of the Spirit. It is not difficult to see that the character of the Spirit will make us fit for healthy relationships. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23 NIV). If our marriages and other relationships embodied these nine qualities, they would all flourish. Moreover, they would model to a broken world the very character of God.



REFERENCES

[1] All Scriptures are from the NASB unless otherwise noted.

[2] Thomas, Gary L. Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid


[4] Ibid., by Katherine Anne Porter as quoted by Gary Thomas.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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