June 11, 2011

Relationships and Sharpening Knives

Sounds pretty grim and serial killer-ish, huh? Really, it isn't. Bear with me while I take you through some seemingly unrelated information to get to my final point.

One of my favorite Bible verses is, "Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." - Proverbs 27:17, NASB. We all get the gist of that verse, but I think a lot of people miss the most effective way to put it into practice in our daily lives. Why? Because most people have no idea how to properly sharpen and care for a knife.

Lots of us have in our kitchens a knife block with an assortment of knives, usually a housewarming or wedding gift (not many people go and buy a set like that, do they?) In that set will usually be a sharpening steel...steel, not stone or ceramic. The catch is that it's not a sharpening steel, it's a honing steel. What's the difference between sharpening and honing?

If you look at a sharp knife edge under a microscope, you'll see that it isn't smooth, but almost serrated looking at that level. A series of minute nicks and peaks. As you use that sharp knife for a while, and notice that it isn't cutting as well as it did when it was new, you'd see the same tiny grooves, but you'd notice that the peaks are getting bent over to one side or the other. To get it back up to par, you run it along your honing steel, and those peaks get bent back straight, and the knife is good to go again. It's daily maintenance that any chef or butcher does to their knives. That's what honing is, and all that the steel will do; straighten the edge back out. The thing is that it doesn't make the blade like new, as eventually some of those peaks will break off, leaving a bigger nick.

After a while, the steel won't bring the knife back up to the state of sharpness it should be in. It may be usable for a bit, but it will need more and more honing to keep it that way, eventually needing to hit the steel after every slice: the knife has become dull. On a dull knife, these nicks are much bigger, sometimes visible to the naked eye. Once a knife gets to that point, no amount of work on the steel will ever sharpen it; you have to put it on stone. A sharpening stone removes metal from the blade to make a new cutting surface, and most well used knives need to be put to a stone at least once a year. The amount of metal that has to be removed depends on how dull the knife is. The catch here is that if the only tool you use to keep your knife sharp is a stone, then eventually you won't have much blade left, and the knife can't do it's job properly. Both the steel and the stone are necessary to keep the knife like new.

To get a good edge on the dull knife requires stone, but you just can't smack a knife haphazardly against a rock and expect a good cutting edge. The angle of the blade against the stone has to be kept constant, and the stone needs to change in coarseness as you sharpen. I use a Lansky sharpening system on my knives; the blade is held in a clamp, and the stones are guided by rods through holes to match various angles, depending on the knife's purpose. With this system, my most used knives are as sharp as surgical scalpels, and let me work quickly and efficiently to prep my ingredients. When I have friends come to cook with me, I generally don't let them use my Chinese cleaver, as I keep the blade so sharp that it's dangerous to use if you're not experienced with it. I have other knives of a more appropriate sharpness for most people to use.

The funny thing, though, is that a knife is more dangerous to use when it's dull. You have to use more force behind the blade to get the work done, and you're more likely to have the knife slip and stab or cut you. And when it does, the wound heals much slower and more painfully than a slice from a sharp blade.

Isn't that the way people are in relationships? The ones that are properly sharpened spiritually may cut and hurt us, but the healing is faster and easier, and those that are spiritually dull make big gashes that take a long time to heal. What in the world does that have to do with the verse I quoted? When one of us is spiritually dulled, no amount of our clashing and working to sharpen the person will work to make it right. You have to have stone to sharpen the dull blade...a Rock, if you will. 

If you use a long Chef's knife for a while, you'll notice that the whole blade doesn't usually get dull, just the most used part, or the part of the blade that has been abused by using it to cut on a glass or ceramic surface. You can slap the sharp section against the steel to touch it up, but the damaged part has to have stone against it. That's the way we are in our relationships. It's so easy for us to see the dull section, and to try and put our steel against it to bring it back to where it needs to be, but it will never work. Only the Rock can fix those sections, and only God knows how much metal needs to be removed. But we still have to be willing and wise enough to be a proper honing steel for God to use.

Perhaps it would be a good thing for us to keep that in mind in our relationships. That way, we can live that verse effectively and work together to keep our good parts sharp, and know when to let God work on the parts we can't fix together. That's what's on my heart today.

Today's helpful tip to go with this subject: When sharpening your knives on a stone, keep the stone oiled and rinse it off periodically with hot water. This keeps the pores of the stone from filling up with metal shavings and lets it keep working properly.

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