This lively analogy of iron and men in Proverbs 27:17 always catches my attention. I recall that some men—Art, Sam, Ed, John, among a few others—were iron-like figures to me. These strong men—ready to mark others for good—were God’s gifts to me.
With that in mind let me comment on what I’ve appreciated about my hall-of-fame ironmen.
First—though I’m writing in the context of spiritual benefits—my early lessons in sharpening came from athletics. Good coaches call for more from us than we think we have to offer. And in the process they offer honest feedback that is too rare these days.
Early lessons came in football practices when we were hot, exhausted, and looking for some sympathy. Instead my best coaches demanded more effort. When I faltered one coach would call me out by name: “Push it, Frost!” Or, on occasions, he would pull me aside and say, “You can do more . . . put yourself into it!” And, to my surprise, I found more resources were indeed to be found.
It wasn’t always one-on-one sharpening. A good coach can move a whole team. In my high school days, for instance, a couple of our assistant coaches—men who worked very closely with us—were remarkably effective. We turned from being winless (for four years!) into one of the best teams in the region. What drove us? The passion of the coaches was infectious: we wanted to win for them and for each other.
But as much as a hard-nosed coach fits the ironman image—a man characterized by sheer determination—that imagery can also be a misleading if their goals are too low and ordinary.
A man who did more to change my life than any other was actually a cheerful and low-key figure: Sam. In his case the iron was his desire for God’s word—a desire so strong that he had been reading through the Bible two or more times a year for fifty years. I had to pry that information out of him but I’d already seen a strong focus in other areas of his life so his reading ambitions fit what I already knew about him.
What did Sam teach me? To live out my priorities: if a value is important to me then do something about it! And spending time with God by reading his word was a priority for me. But until I met Sam no one showed me what chasing that ambition looked like in real life.
Ed was another marking figure—a professor. He had a fierce reputation at my Bible college. When as a freshman I asked about a couple of his courses a senior student warned me away: “He’s the hardest teacher on campus—you better avoid him!”
Honest advice, but not necessarily complete or wise advice. After a pause I went back to the senior and asked whether Ed was a good teacher.
“Oh yes, probably the best at the college, but he really pushes his students!”
I thought to myself, “What’s the point of coming to college if it isn’t to learn?” and I eventually signed up for almost every course Ed offered. To my delight he was an outstanding teacher—but also very, very challenging. My student adviser was right: Ed was a bit of iron and I’m glad he was willing to chisel away some loose ends of my learning and character in those years. The hundreds of hours I devoted to his courses were all well spent and continue to bear fruit today.
I now see in hindsight how important these sometimes flinty characters were for me: my uncomfortable treasures! I hope, in turn, that I’ve been a similar resource to a few men along the way.
In sum, any spiritual iron consists in a wholehearted devotion to God and to others. I found over time that it’s not necessarily the strength of personality that characterized my most-honored mentors—it was, rather, the focus of their hearts. The benefit of being around men whose passion is bold, well-focused, and unbounded is extraordinary.
Too many Christian men today seem to be timid—ready to settle for personal entertainment and social comfort. Yet iron-on-iron relationships can multiply if we look for the opportunities God gives us.
I pray, Lord, give us the courage to follow courageous leaders—leaders who love and follow you.