Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. So one woman sharpens another. So one Christian young person sharpens another.
As iron sharpens iron, so one campus minister sharpens another. So one worship leader sharpens another. So one deacon sharpens another. So one missionary sharpens another. And pre-eminently, as iron sharpens iron, so one pastor sharpens another.
I tell you on the authority of Heaven that no matter what level of ministry you are serving in, you need two or three great, close personal friends to keep one another sharp and faithful and working at the highest level.
Over 46 years of ministry, I’ve known only two pastors who did not like preachers. The first one, it turned out, was a fake. When his last church forced him out of the pulpit, it came to light that he had been spending time at the gambling tables in the casinos, was ordering alcoholic drinks with his meals, and was given to telling dirty stories and sprinkling profanity in his conversation. I believe we would all agree here was a man who had no business in the ministry. His dislike and criticism of other preachers, no doubt, was a diversion to draw attention away from his own misbehavior.
The other pastor, however, seems to have been genuine in his dislike for preachers. I knew him well and saw close up the effects of the isolation he imposed on himself as a result of his contempt for preachers. I’m not a psychiatrist, but only a pastor. However, my opinion is that any preacher in isolation has to contend with two great problems: ego and temptations of the flesh. Now, everyone fights these battles, but the isolated minister does so with one arm behind his back. He has no colleague to confide in or draw strength from.
Ego problems vary from feelings of worthlessness to extreme pride and egotism. The fleshly temptations may involve impure thoughts, unhealthy reading material, and smutty stories, and in time may lead to pornography and adulterous affairs.
Both kinds of temptation ended the ministry of my friend.
Over the years, I’ve often wondered how things might have been different had that pastor chosen a few close friends to meet with regularly, to confide in, to trust, and pray together.
“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)
Everyone needs lots of friends. But we’re talking about two or three or four special friends, intimate colleagues, the kind who will be straight with you. We’re not talking about your fathers in the ministry or your children. This kind of friend is not someone who thinks you hung the moon and can do no wrong.
Jim Nalls pastors the Southwest Baptist Church in Bainbridge, Georgia. In the 1990s he served a church just west of New Orleans and we became close friends. One day he told me that 30 years ago, he and three seminary classmates formed themselves into a prayer group. They (humbly, I suppose!) named themselves “the holy brethren” from Hebrews 3:1, and agreed to meet for a weeklong prayer retreat every year. I called Jim recently to make sure I had my facts straight.
Jim said, “The last week of September was our 29th prayer retreat in a row.” I said, “What do you do? You don’t pray for a solid week.” He said, “We pray. But we also talk. We talk about the denomination, our churches, our lives, our sermons, everything. But mostly, we are honest with each other.”
I said, “But you only see each other once a year?” He laughed. “No. We call each other all the time, we visit if one of us is in the area, and at the annual Southern Baptist Convention, we try to get our families together.”
The last week of July, Jim’s wonderful wife Linda went to Heaven after a lengthy battle with cancer. The three “holy brethren” descended on Bainbridge and ministered to the family and held Linda’s service.
There must be a hundred reasons for the success of Billy Graham, but I can tell you that one reason has to do with the four friends he surrounded himself with some 50 or 60 years ago: Grady Wilson, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, and T. W. Wilson. I once heard Cliff Barrows speak of the times they would be driving down a highway and pass a farmer in his field. One of the men would say, “Billy, see that fellow out there on his tractor? But for the grace of God, that’s you in that field.”
That’s what friends do: pop bubbles of pretension, lift you up when you’re down, hold you accountable.
Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”
I like to think of our text, Proverbs 27:17, as a blacksmith shop verse.
As a kid on the farm in Winston County, I used to enjoy watching my dad work in grandpa’s blacksmith shop. He would build a fire in the forge and let me work the bellows. Dad would put a piece of metal on the fire and leave it until it was white hot. Then, he would take hold of the tongs and steady it on the anvil and hammer it into the shape he wanted. To a kid, a blacksmith shop is a great place with its fire, the noise, the smells, the feel of the place.
Any kid on the farm could tell you, when “iron sharpens iron,” you can expect there to be abrasion, friction, and maybe some sparks flying.
When friends get together — the kind of friends we’re talking about here, the kind who sharpen you — expect some friction from disagreements and straight talk, maybe a few sparks. But when you leave, you’re sharper, and that’s the whole point. This means these special colleagues need to be different from you, a little stronger in some areas. Remember, the difference is what sharpens you.
In a small group of pastors, the leader asked everyone to tell about his ministry so we would pray for him. An old man said, “As you know, I’m over here at Shiloh. Shiloh has always been a troubled church. Someone is always upset about something. That used to bother me, but it occurred to me one day that without friction, there’s no traction.”
I said, “Whoa — let me write that down! That’s worth remembering.”
Elijah or Paul?
Most pastors have preached series of sermons on Elijah. There is much to emulate about the man, especially his faith and his courage. But if Elijah had a weakness, it was that he was a loner. Whether that was by choice or due to the circumstances, we’ll leave to another time. But we can see the effect his isolation had on him.
In Scripture, we see Elijah feeling lonely, getting depressed, and even wanting to die. Then, we see the ego take over. Twice in I Kings 19, he tells the Lord, “I’m the only one left standing.” After he said it the second time, the Lord stopped him. “Not even close,” the Lord said. “I still have 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal or kissed his ugly image.”
Had Elijah been foolhardy — and he wasn’t — he might have argued, “Yes, but where are they—holed up in the security of a cave somewhere. I’m out here laying my life on the line for you.”
Elijah knew no one wins arguments with the Almighty.
Paul was a different story.
From his testimony in Galatians 1, we get the impression that Paul began his ministry as a loner. When he was first called, he says, he did not drop everything and run down to Jerusalem and sit at the feet of the apostles. Instead, he retreated into the desert and for some three years, spent time with the Lord. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was teaching Paul a new way of looking at all those Old Testament scriptures he knew so well.
When Paul began preaching in Damascus, there was a power and logic in his messages. But instead of making converts, he made enemies. The disciples slipped him out of town just ahead of the lynch mob.
In Jerusalem, the situation repeated itself, but this time, as he escaped the city, he returned home to Tarsus. We can assume he went back to making tents and perhaps reflecting on the short-lived ministry he had known and wondered what it all meant.
In the meantime, a revival broke out in Antioch of Syria and the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas, Mister Encourager, to check on things. When he found large numbers of Gentiles coming to Christ, he remembered that God had called Saul of Tarsus as an apostle to the Gentiles. Acts 11:25 is one of the great sentences in the history of this planet: “Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul.”
In Antioch, Paul found his calling. Thereafter, he is never alone, but always surrounded by devoted colleagues in the ministry. At Antioch, he is one of five leaders of the church. When God calls missionaries, it’s Barnabas and Saul. Later, it’s Barnabas and John Mark, and it’s Paul and Silas. Soon, it’s Paul and Silas and Timothy and Titus and Luke and Epaphroditus and Demas and on and on. Read his epistles — especially read between the lines—and you quickly see how much these co-workers meant to Paul, and how lonely he was without them.
The last chapter of Romans is generally thought of as a lengthy post-script to the greatest of all epistles. It’s mainly greetings to this one and that one in Rome. But two things stand out. We are struck by how many people Paul knew in that church, even though he had never been to Rome. And look how intimately he knew them. These “risked their necks for my life,” these are my co-workers, my fellow-prisoners, my beloved, on and on.
Paul is a better role model for the servant of the Lord today. Don’t try the ministry alone, minister of God. It’s a tough life, and the demands are more than you can meet. You need a few strong colleagues as confidantes, as encouragers, as your buddies.
I promise you if you pull together the right friends, your ministry will be sharper, your marriage will lose a lot of stress, and you personally will find more fulfillment in serving the Lord.
Where to find such a friend?
The little acrostic which Matthew 7:7 gives regarding prayer works here: A-S-K. Ask, seek, knock.
First, ask. Pray. Tell the Lord. Often, when I’m coming to a meeting where I know I’ll meet other preachers, I ask the Father, “Give me a new friend today.”
Seek. Start paying attention. Look for the Lord to answer your prayer. Stick out your hand and introduce yourself. Learn names, ask questions.
Knock. Or pick up the phone and call him and see if you can get together. Recently a young pastor told me he had been turned down twice by older preachers whom he had called. “They don’t have time,” he said.
I said, “Let me make a suggestion. Once you decide on someone you’d like to get to know better, call him up. Tell him,