I am not talking about an iron that smoothes out creases. I am talking about iron that sharpens iron – think of a iron blade or axe. When two of these meet each other their friction and interaction sharpens the other. Both utensils are mutually sharpened and improved for their purposes, simply for having scraped the other.
So why am I going on about iron. I am not telling you to go scratch your friends – I don’t think that would do anyone any good, but I read something recently that enlightened my view on friendships.
We should give our friends ‘licenses’ to hunt out the flaws in our character, the wrongness in our ways, and trust them to – in love – challenge us, encourage us and sharpen us to our full potential, remaining loyal to our commitments and values.
What this means is that our friendships should not be sought out for their own sakes. Friendships do not last and are not strong if we only seek comfort or convenience from them. The strongest friendships we see around us are built on mutual goals and values (think of friends who drive each other to train for a marathon, or parents who seek the best for their children, or people who want to pursue a life that has minimal impact on the environment). These shared goal need not be temporary – for example you can share a goal to pursue a life that values honesty and openness; or one that pursues justice and advocacy.
These stronger friendships also incorporate something other than shared values or goals – they include permission to challenge.
In the bible’s proverbs we find the verse “as iron sharpens iron, so a friend should sharpen a friend”. The wound a true friends makes to our ego, our identity or self-image – when done out of love – can make us so much stronger in our character and give us much greater integrity in acting with accordance to the values, commitments and beliefs that shape our lives.
It is impossible to reach the greatest depths of friendship without full permission (and action!) to name the messy, the vulnerable, the weakness and the struggle. In sharing and sharpening these with those we trust, respect and understand, we can find the most fulfilling of friendships – nothing to hide, nothing to shame.
Do we give our friends permission to sharpen us?
Do we have friends whose advice, critique or challenge we respect and can trust?
Do we have friendships based on vulnerability, transparency and understanding?
This fierce love of friends can take effort. For starters is can seem totally counter-cultural to those who find themselves in friendships built upon mutual enemies, or a culture of putting each other down. When reading this you might even realise you couldn’t actually trust those who are closest to you to lovingly challenge you in this way. If that’s the case, don’t be disheartened! This realisation isn’t a pitfall, but is a recognition that this deeper friendship is something you desire, and can begin to seek out in new friendships or in changing the culture of those you spend time with already.
This challenge and lesson I am learning doesn’t summarise as: let you friends point out where you’re going wrong and criticise you. It goes much deeper than that. With the permission to challenge, comes the responsibility to build up and champion. When we challenge each other out of love, our aim is never to leave a friend deflated, wallowing at their own incapability. But to challenge in love, means to challenge one another in order to begin a journey or strengthening and sharpening, encouraging each other to reach that potential – not just pointing out how far away we are from it.
Challenging in love means we sharpen each other like iron, we don’t just stab them and leave them wounded. It’s a process and we, as friends, invest in the whole beautiful and messy journey.