Our Most Neglected Spiritual Discipline

One summer I worked for an old Texas rancher, killing mesquite trees on vast acres of uncultivated grassland. With a tank of Roundup on my back and a sprayer in my hand, I walked countless miles through the tall grass of these pastures. It was a boring job except for one thing: rattlesnakes.

I was in the Texas Big Country, an area famous for its annual Rattlesnake Roundup. My one measure of protection was a pair of plastic chaps, hard enough to deflect the fangs of a rattler, worn over my jeans. But the chaps weren’t enough to take me off my guard. Like my childhood hero Indiana Jones, I hated snakes (still do!), and I never knew when a rattler would cross my path. One time I came within about two feet of stepping on one. That experience made me vigilant: I watched where I stepped, listening for any faint hint of a rattle, ready to jump at any sudden movement. Danger felt imminent, and I was watchful.

Spiritual Vigilance

Vigilance is an essential component to the spiritual discipline of watchfulness. To be vigilant is to be on guard. The sentinel of a city is vigilant. He watches for the approach of the enemy. Warriors are vigilant. They’re watchful and wary of their antagonist’s every move. People become vigilant when they realize they’re in jeopardy. As soldiers of the cross, we are surrounded by enemies.

In the words of an old hymn:

Christian, seek not yet repose,
Cast thy dreams of ease away;
Thou art in the midst of foes:
Watch and pray.

Watchfulness, therefore, 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 Pet. 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).

Yet despite this biblical emphasis, watchfulness is one practice that rarely gets mentioned in contemporary manuals of spiritual disciplines.

Watchfulness is the whetstone of the spiritual disciplines, the one practice that keeps the other habits sharp.

That hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the 17th-century Puritans wrote often about watchfulness and its practical outworking in our lives.

Richard Rogers, for example, was an early Puritan who published a substantial book called Seven Treatises in 1602. Divided into seven parts, the 900-page compendium on Christian living explores the full spectrum of religious life and experience. In the third treatise, Rogers discusses “the means whereby a godly life is helped and continued” and divides these helps into two categories: public and private. The private means include things you might expect, like meditation, prayer, and fasting.

But first on Rogers’s list of private helps is watchfulness, “which is worthily set in the first place, seeing it is as an eye to all the rest, to see them well and rightly used.”

The implication is clear: neglect watchfulness and you will hinder other spiritual practices. Watchfulness is the whetstone of the spiritual disciplines, the one practice that keeps the other habits sharp.

Guard Your Heart

The discipline of watchfulness includes both negative and positive aspects. Negatively, we’re to ruthlessly guard our hearts from sin and temptation, making no provision for the flesh (Prov. 4:23; Matt. 26:41; Rom. 13:14).

This requires the cultivation of self-examination, where we take regular inventory of our personal tendencies towards particular sins, what the Puritan Isaac Ambrose called “Delilah sins.” Delilah sins, like Samson’s Philistine mistress, like to sit on our laps and whisper sweet nothings in our ears, but they will betray us to our foes in a heartbeat and cut off our moral strength. These are the specific sin patterns we’ve cultivated through willful and habitual sin. Like deep ruts that furrow a muddy road, these vices are etched into our lives through daily routines, self-justifying rationalization, and continual repetition.

The discipline of watching is like a home security system.

Having identified these sin patterns, we then need to persistently protect the points of entry to the heart. John Bunyan, in his allegory The Holy War, refers to these entry points as five gates to the city of Mansoul: “Ear-gate, Eye-gate, Mouth-gate, Nose-gate, and Feel-gate.” When we fail to watch, temptation clambers into our hearts through an unwatched gate. This means we can’t tend our hearts without considering the websites we visit, the books we read, the shows and movies we watch, the places we frequent, and the music and messages that fill our ears.

The discipline of watching is like a home security system. An effective surveillance system includes several components, such as security cameras, motion sensors, floodlights, electric locks, and high-decibel alarms. All these components serve one purpose: protecting the home from dangerous intruders. In similar fashion, watchfulness embraces a variety of practices, such as self-examination, prayer, meditation, and accountability, but all governed by the single intention of keeping the heart.

Look to Jesus

But there’s also a positive dimension to watchfulness. We mustn’t only mortify sin and avoid temptation. We must also set our gaze on Jesus. To return to the city metaphor, we mustn’t only guard the gates of our souls from dangerous intruders but also store our hearts with the gospel. Our goal in keeping our hearts isn’t to keep them empty, but to make room for Christ to dwell in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:17).

We mustn’t only mortify sin and avoid temptation. We must also set our gaze on Jesus.

So while the practice of watchfulness requires vigilance over ourselves, it must never be focused on the self. The unswerving gaze of our souls should be forward, upward, outward, and onward. We watch with eyes set forward as we anticipate the coming of our Lord (Matt. 24:42; 25:13; Luke 12:37; Rev. 16:15). Watching also involves an upward look, for Paul tells us to set our minds on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1–2). Like marathon runners, we don’t stare at our feet, but outward and onward to the finish line, indeed to Christ himself. We run the race set before us by “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

Perhaps no one has helped me learn how to look to Christ better than the 19th-century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M‘Cheyne. In a letter to a struggling believer, M‘Cheyne said, “Do not take up your time so much with studying your own heart as with studying Christ’s heart. For one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ!”

That’s it! The key to watchfulness is keeping our eyes steadily focused not on self, but on the Savior.

Editors’ note: 

This article is an adapted excerpt from Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline (Reformation Heritage Books, 2018).

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