Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline
April 2, 2018
In recent decades the evangelical church has seen a resurging interest in the practical aspects of Christian spirituality. Books on spiritual transformation and the spiritual disciplines line our shelves. Many of these are helpful, offering wise instruction on practices such as meditation, prayer, and fasting. But one discipline rarely appears in these catalogs of devotional habits: watchfulness.
Yet watchfulness is as necessary to a healthy spiritual life as meditation and prayer. Jesus tells His disciples to “watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). The letters of Paul, Peter, and John sound the same note, urging us to exercise moral vigilance and watchful prayer (1 Cor. 16:13; Gal. 6:1; Col. 4:2; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Peter 4:7; 2 John 8). And Hebrews commands mutual watchfulness and exhortation while also reminding us to obey those leaders who keep watch over our souls (Heb. 3:12; 13:17).
All believers, regardless of their station and season in life, need to be watchful. Consider Beth, a married woman in her thirties with three children, six years old and under. She loves Jesus and thrived in her walk with Christ during her college and single years. But the domestic, often mundane challenges of motherhood are more difficult than Beth expected. She feels distant from God. She longs for the days when she could quietly spend hours over her Bible and journal. The chaos of corralling her children from one activity to another makes it hard for her to focus on spiritual things. Beth needs to become more attentive to her state of heart and learn how to stay connected to Jesus throughout the day.
Nathan, on the other hand, is a college-aged believer struggling with pornography. He feels terrible when he fails and quickly repents. While he tries to read the Bible and pray every day, he is missing something in his spiritual regimen. His use of time lacks intentionality. His quiet times are disconnected from his other habits in solitude. Despite regular sin struggles, he underestimates the danger of temptation. Like the disciples in the garden, Nathan needs to learn how to watch and pray against temptation’s subtle power.
Craig is a spiritually mature Christian man entering midlife. He has been married for twenty-five years and has four children in middle school and high school. He is a veteran lay leader in his church and enjoys a close walk with God. But Craig is saddled with many burdens, and his emotional resilience isn’t what it used to be. He faces new temptations in his fifties and needs Jesus more than ever. Paul’s words, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall,” echo in his mind. Craig is searching for practical ways to put this into practice.
While their seasons of life are quite different, Beth, Nathan, and Craig have a common need: the consistent exercise of vigilance over their hearts and active dependence on the Lord’s sustaining grace. As varied as their temptations are, Paul’s exhortation applies: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13).
The Christian life is a journey, a race, and a battle. As pilgrims, we travel the long winding road from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. As athletes, we are called to forget what lies behind and, with eyes fixed on Jesus, to cast aside every hindrance to completing the race of faith. And as soldiers, we must ready ourselves for battle by putting on the gospel armor and relying on the wisdom and strength of Jesus, our brother, captain, and king. These biblical metaphors have shaped the Christian imagination for centuries. Implicit in each picture is the need for eyes-wide-open watchfulness.
Watchfulness consists of four essential ingredients: wakefulness, attentiveness, vigilance, and expectancy. Watching involves staying awake both morally and spiritually; paying attention to God’s word, to our own souls, and especially to Christ Himself; maintaining vigilance against our mortal enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil; and hoping in the Lord—in His promises and His return.
Charlotte Elliot’s hymn “Christian, Seek Not Yet Repose” captures the essential nature of watchfulness. Read and heed:
Christian, seek not yet repose,Cast thy dreams of ease away;Thou art in the midst of foes:Watch and pray.Principalities and powers,Mustering their unseen array,Wait for thy unguarded hours:Watch and pray.Gird thy heavenly armor on,Wear it ever, night and day;Ambushed lies the evil one:Watch and pray.Hear the victors who o’ercame;Still they mark each warrior’s way;All with one sweet voice exclaim,“Watch and pray.”Hear, above all, hear Thy Lord,Him thou lovest to obey;Hide within thy heart His word,“Watch and pray.”
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