Iron on Iron

Anvil2“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”

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.

11 Responses to Iron on Iron

  1. Gretchen July 23, 2013 at 9:49 pm #

    I laughed out loud when I read this post at the recollection of my own experience with Ed, the professor you mention. One of his classes was the only class I have ever flunked in my life—I mean literally flunked—30+ years ago! Your post also caused me to reflect on another thing, though, and that is, how thankful I am for the “ironmen” who have poured into my 19-year-old son’s life over my years as a single parent. They have been God’s gift of love to him. To see my son now pouring into the lives of younger men himself as an overflow of God’s love to him is a blessing to my heart. So, ironmen, know that you make a difference! Yes, may God continue to raise up men who love and follow Him!

  2. Jason von Meding July 25, 2013 at 2:26 am #

    This is a difficult topic for me, since my own dad passed away when I was 7 and to be honest, I’ve never had a mentor of the calibre you describe. Perhaps I never embraced the role of ‘apprentice’, having been thrust into much responsibility in the home at a young age as the eldest child of 4, and carried that into a role of husband at 21 and father at 23. Maybe more experienced father figures didn’t see me as someone needing mentorship. Either way, it has taken me much longer than it should have to mature spiritually, and grasp very simple concepts about the heart of God- even though (maybe because!) I was a ‘church attender’ from a young age. I suppose my point is, as much as someone seems to have it together and be a mature in the faith, many are crying out for an ironman!

  3. Gretchen July 25, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    Jason, I cried when I read your response to this post because I could so connect with what you are saying. My kids were 4 and 5 years old when my husband left. I so wanted an an “ironman” for my then 5 year-old-son. I went to my church leadership and asked for help. They expressed concern and a some even expressed a commitment to help but didn’t follow through. I prayed and prayed and it seemed as though nothing was happening. Years later, though, when I looked back I could see the thread of God’s faithfulness in my son’s life as I looked at the not one, but many, mentors He had placed in his life—not long-term, intensive mentors—but just those who had been touch points for him in showing him God’s love. I do think that the lack of men willing to step forward and pour into another man’s life on a longer term basis is, at least in part, due to a lack of understanding of the need and also feeling like they don’t have anything significant to offer. We say the word “mentor” and all of the sudden they feel inadequate, when what a young man needs, especially one without a father, is someone to just share the stuff of life with him. Several years ago I started a ministry at my church for single moms. A big part of my role is helping to inform my own church leadership and others in the church of the needs of the CHILDREN in these situations. They are so often the ones who are left floundering, feeling unloved by God, by their church family, and sadly, sometimes even their own families. If I could offer one encouragement to you, it would be to saturate yourself in the Bible (see Ron’s article under the Resources section of this website for an example). It is there that you will connect even more deeply with your Heavenly Father’s heart, whose love will overflow so as to fill all of the places needing filled in your own heart. And I will begin to pray now that God will bring a mentor—or maybe many mentors—into your life to walk alongside as you offer your love to your wife and children. Thanks so much for sharing your honest thoughts here. I’m sure they are echoed by many others.

  4. Ron Frost July 25, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    Gretchen, I didn’t realize you had time with Ed. He was, indeed, tough, wasn’t he!

    But to go to Jason’s reflections, and your response to him, I realize that my all-too-brief blog (by necessity) leaves out a few hidden assumptions. E.g. I was open to jumping into some challenging settings, by God’s grace, and somehow had a sense that the benefits that come from pressure/challenges is worth the pain. And that ‘ironman’ growth opportunities abound if we look for them. In a real sense that’s what we’re trying to offer at Cor Deo: i.e. a huge growth opportunity but also a high bar to get in (such as finding a way to be unemployed for almost 6 months simply to get a non-certificated opportunity to grow in Christ & his Word).

  5. Jason von Meding July 26, 2013 at 1:09 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing Gretchen, I think much of the problem in my case stems from the fact that I was a MK who did not need to learn any more basic theology necessarily, and many men in the church are limited (or think they are) to imparting just that. That is comfortable, rather than going anywhere near real heart issues where things get messy. I can totally think of ‘touch points’ as you put it, and things I have picked up from brief encounters. I’m grateful that God provided these opportunities, such as meeting Ron last year!

    As Ron says, ironman opportunities are there if we look for them. I think however that many young Christians do not understand the value and therefore most will not look. Many with potential to mentor are therefore not asked, and do not grab hold of the gift and responsibility that comes with this activity.

    There is a serious problem in the church around understanding the heart of God and real relationship with Him (I rarely saw any reality of this growing up…just plenty of religion!), so much that it does not surprise me that I have found it difficult to identify men that I’d actually be able to learn from. Part of this is clearly my problem- pride, naivety, time management…but I think it demonstrates some issues within the body also.

    I for one will take every opportunity to pour into the lives of others, to actually listen and provide counsel (not just doctrinal and behavioural advice!). I have come a long way in the past year or two and I am so thankful to the individuals (authors/friends/bloggers/thinkers) that have tread the path with me.

    Ron, I love what you are doing at Cor Deo. I think there is a lot of ignorance about how important this kind of mentorship and growth is. Blessings to you both!

  6. Gretchen July 26, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    When my own son was 10 or 11 years old, he said to me, “The hardest thing about growing up with no dad at home is that I don’t have anyone to show me how to be a man.” The Bible reading mentioned previously has been a huge part of what God used to fill the gap with our Heavenly Father and Christ being our examples of manhood, and I also tried to be intentional about having both my children around men who love the Lord and whose love for Him overflowed to their wives, children, and others. The Lord has been so faithful and good to my children in the way that He has provided those who touched my children’s lives in different ways. Still, there is a lot of room for growth in the church as far as taking a II Tim. 2:2 approach in heart-to-heart relationships between men. Cor Deo is definitely a blessing in that regard!

  7. Ron Frost July 26, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

    Good advice, Gretchen. Thanks.

    As I commented you may have noticed my response wasn’t fully aligned with the conversation you & Jason are having. I should say more about that.

    I know how important a mentor, especially a parent, is to our growing into successful adulthood. My own father, for instance, still provides insights for me (though he died 26 years ago) about how to live in a late-career stage of life; or in how to transition gracefully from one career to another. I only need to think back to him and the way he lived.

    Art Branson was another wonderful mentor whose role as my youth pastor and friend during high school was a treasure (he’s listed above, of course). So he offered both mentoring and some ironman moments.

    In this blog, then, I was thinking more about people and circumstances that pushed me well beyond my comfort zone. My football coaches, for instance, weren’t so much mentors as demanding figures who helped me be more effective as a player (and as a young man who conquered some fears). And Sam didn’t have enough time in my life (about 6 weeks) to be a mentor but he was an eye-opening presence to me.

    So this blog was more about finding settings and people where we’re certain to be challenged in good ways. It might be a caring mentor who does it, but not always. After I was drafted, for instance, my Army drill instructor was an ironman in my life but not really a friend!

    So maybe it’s time for a blog on the need all men have for father-figures in life. And for ironmen. We need to approach God by asking him to meet our needs in both realms. And to give us wisdom in offering the same benefits to others.

  8. Jason von Meding July 26, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

    Very interesting Ron…I guess I’ve never had an ironman or a mentor and have a bit of trouble differentiating between the two ;) I can say with certainty that I’ve learn a lot from men outside the church (coaches/supervisors/profs) but precious little from those within it. I don’t mean this as a sweeping criticism, it’s simply my experience.

  9. Ron Frost July 27, 2013 at 12:51 am #

    To be honest, I haven’t thought to differentiate the two (sometimes overlapped) roles until this blog & conversation!

    Maybe the simplest distinction is that a Christian mentor is someone who offers a parental role in caring for another; the relationship features a personal bond and offers time and creative thought out of a heartfelt devotion to the welfare of the man (in our case) being cared for.

    An ironman, on the other hand, can be relationally disinterested (e.g. my football coaches, many of my university/seminary professors, my Army DI, and even some pastors) but they still have important benefits to offer and they became resources in my own personal growth.

    But in making the distinction I’m not trying to affirm or promote disengaged relationships. Quite the opposite. In Cor Deo we seek to offer mentoring in the context of John 13:35 (…”love one another”), while also inviting the men towards more growth than they may have thought possible.

    My insight for this blog, is narrower and more functional: that when I wittingly place myself in demanding settings where iron is available it usually leads to growth.

    Why do that? Because sharpening is a gift. If the ironman who sharpens me is a Christian who loves me, then I have a wonderful benefit. But I won’t stop looking for places to be sharpened just because the person on the other end of the relationship may be hard to be around (as Ed could be at times). So some of my hall-of-fame men weren’t true mentors. But they had much to offer and I would take advantage even in the face of personal, social, and even spiritual discomforts (when, for instance, I had unbelieving teachers in university).

    My concern is that too many men today are missing opportunities to grow; and that, in turn, limits what they can offer others.

    So thanks for pressing the point. I hope there’s sense in my distinction. I’m encouraged, too, to hear that you’ve taken the mantle of mentoring on your own shoulders. I’ll keep my eyes on your blog to see if you carry that side of the conversation forward.

  10. Mark July 31, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    After reading this, I can only say thanks for being such a man in my life, Ron. I pray I can be so in the lives of others, too. So it will indeed cascade down and be a spreading goodness…

    “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2Tim 2:2)

  11. Jason von Meding August 2, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    Thank you Ron for the detailed response, and making the distinction so clear. I will certainly be more deliberate in searching for growth opportunities in future, however uncomfortable they may appear ;)

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