Recently, I found myself engrossed in YouTube videos about knife sharpening. I was no longer content with sloppily chopped tomatoes and roughly sliced garlic. Enough was enough. To remedy the situation, I watched countless videos on the process of shaping and honing the edge of a blade. As it turns out, there are people who have spent a lifetime devoted to this craft and are happy to share their knowledge with those who clearly have too much time on their hands.

First, you take a coarse stone—400 grit. It’s designed to remove lots of material and to give the blade the correct shape (which, in case you were wondering, is about 15 to 20 degrees on each side). However, after this process the edge is somewhat rough and unrefined. The second step involves a finer stone. As you gently bring the knife back and forth, the small gouges begin to smooth. Getting better, but we’re not there yet. This step is followed by an even finer stone—5000 grit. The edge has been smoothed out; the burr has been removed. We can cut paper, just like on those infomercials! However, the process is still not complete. The final step is stropping. Usually this is accomplished by pulling the blade over a piece of leather with buffing compound.

Now, we’re there! The edge has a mirror finish… it can cut the hair off your arm or slice a tomato so thin you can read a newspaper through it.

Sharpening a knife is a great analogy for spiritual growth.

I don’t know about you, but at times I feel dull spiritually—yes, I’m still a knife (Christian), but I’m not as effective, joyful, or holy as I should be. Like Paul, I fail to do what I want. Instead, I do what I know is wrong.

I need to be sharpened.

When we are new believers, or perhaps after long periods of neglect or misuse, the Spirit works in our lives to remove lots of material—a dramatic time of shaping and molding us into the right geometry. But just like a blade after a coarse stone, more work is needed. Through a process of growth, called sanctification, the Spirit works in our hearts and minds to gradually bring us to a mirror finish. But what is it that we are to supposed to reflect? Paul tells the church in Corinth:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3:18

The purpose of sharpening is being transformed into the image of Christ! The sin nature is being ground away and polished so that we can reflect God’s glory back to Him and to the world. Sounds great! But how does this happen practically?

There are lots of ways that the Spirit sanctifies us but I want to share two: hardships and friendships.

As it turns out, there is a problem with sharpening: it hurts! Spiritually speaking, much of sanctification is pain with a purpose. Scripture is replete with examples of how God uses trials to shape us. Paul’s ministry is a case study in suffering for Christ. James tells us to consider it pure joy when we suffer. Peter encourages us to stay strong in the face of trials as it proves our faith… we could go on and on…

But thankfully, hardship is not the only way we grow. Solomon shares this insight in the book of Proverbs:

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17

In other words, relationships are tools that God uses to mold believers. Living in intentional community with other Christ-followers is essential if we want to be transformed into the image of Christ. It is no wonder that Jesus calls his disciples into community with each other as he offers relationship with himself. Christianity, it has been said, is a team sport.

In my life, God has used both hardships and friendships to mold me. The tough times have brought me to a place of greater trust and reliance on God and I’m grateful (in retrospect) for every moment I have suffered. Community and relationship are also powerful instruments that God has used in my spiritual journey. I am amazed to think about how God has strategically placed me in relationships that help me grow. My wife, parents, close friends, pastors, and other mentors remind me that people need people to grow closer to God.

Here’s the trick… hardship finds us easily; friendship is hard to find. You need only live a little while and will difficulty come your way. Friendship works very differently. We have to work diligently to develop meaningful bonds with other believers.

So, how are you embodying Proverbs 27:17?

I know… 2020 was not exactly the year of community. But hasn’t the last year shown all the more how important relationships are? Isolation and loneliness are maladies that affect the mind, body, and soul. We need to address these as fervently as we seek to eradicate COVID-19. Moving into this year, I want to challenge you to connect to others! Join a group, come back to church, or invent a new way of fostering community that you haven’t tried yet. Allow God to use you to mold and shape others and see what he does in your life in the process.