Keep Watch: How to Combat Spiritual Slumber
A Puritan minister named Richard Rogers lived in similarly unsettling times. When Rogers was a boy in sixteenth-century England, Queen Mary I arrested and executed hundreds of believers because of their Protestant faith. Although her successor Elizabeth ended the persecution, many still feared that another ruler like Mary would again take control. Also outside forces threatened to invade England and compel its citizens to return to their former religion. Homeland security was as high of a priority then as it is now.
Rogers wrote a guide to the Christian life that reminded believers in his day to guard against the most dangerous enemies of all. His book, Seven Treatises, became a best-seller in England and also New England, where people were beginning to settle. Rogers listed several activities mentioned in Scripture—“helps” he called them—that would enable Christians to grow spiritually, including listening to sermons, studying the Bible, and praying. The most important help of all, he wrote, was watchfulness. Without this, all other spiritual aids would be of little use. Rogers’s message is a fitting one for us today.
Watchfulness is what King Solomon had in mind when he warned, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life”(Prov. 4:23). With the same urgency Peter wrote, “Be self-controlled and alert”(1 Pet. 5:8). Rogers described watchfulness as “a careful observing of our hearts, and diligent looking to our ways, that they may be pleasing and acceptable unto God.” The Lord desires that we remain spiritually healthy and obedient at all times. His great love for us, demonstrated at the Cross, demands nothing less than our complete surrender to Him. To love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30) implies that we love Him completely and continually. But we face constant attack from enemies that seek to sabotage our spiritual growth: the world, the devil, and our own sinfulness. To ensure that our walk with the Lord is steady and fruitful we must stand guard against such assailants and protect our hearts from their attacks.
During Jesus’ time in the Garden of Gethsemane He urged His disciples to “watch and pray” so that they would not fall into temptation (Matt. 26:41). The Greek word translated watch in this passage can also mean “stay awake” or “be alert.” We learn two things from Jesus’ instructions. First, we are called to stay mentally and spiritually alert, keeping an eye on the state of our hearts—our thoughts, our feelings, and our intentions. There is no such thing as “spiritual autopilot.” We cannot take a casual approach to the walk of faith or assume that all will go well without our vigilance. Second, we learn that watchfulness and prayer go hand in hand. Like all other aspects of the Christian life, watchfulness requires the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot do it on our own. We need strength from the Lord to remain alert and to overcome trouble or temptation when it comes. Prayer connects us to God, our source of power.
To be watchful we also need to be familiar with two things: the Word of God and ourselves. The Bible is the standard by which we can measure our faith and obedience. It teaches us how to tell the difference between spiritual health and spiritual sickness. We must be sure that what’s in our hearts is worth guarding, after all. How are we doing? Are we remembering to be thankful (Col. 3:17)? Are we showing hospitality to others (1 Pet. 4:9)? Are we keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus (Heb. 12:2)? The more familiar we become with Scripture, the more accurate our self-diagnosis will be.
In addition to knowing the Word of God, we need to be aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, habits, likes, and dislikes. No two believers are exactly the same. What sins do you find hardest to resist? In what situations do you find yourself most tempted? On the other hand what people or things seem most helpful to your spiritual life? When have you been your “strongest” spiritually, and what was unique about that period in your life? Watchful Christians reflect on these kinds of questions, use what they have learned to avoid things that weaken them spiritually, and pursue those that help them grow. True, we cannot avoid some people and places, such as our places of work. But if we can at least recognize where we meet our greatest challenges, we can prepare ourselves before we walk into these “battle zones.” The most important thing is that we take an active role—not a careless one—in our spiritual lives.
Some Christians have found that keeping a journal helps them stay watchful. A written record of spiritual progress, and occasionally regress, can provide helpful information in the pursuit of spiritual stability and fruitfulness. It can also serve as an encouraging memorial to God’s faithfulness as you record and remember His acts of grace and assistance from one day to the next.
We can ask fellow believers to come alongside us and help us keep watch as well. This was exactly what the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he exhorted his readers to “encourage one another daily” (Heb. 3:13).
Richard Rogers testified to the rewards of watchfulness in his Seven Treatises, having experienced these after thirty years of keeping watch. He was thankful to know many Christians who, like him, had found it to be “a special nourisher and strengthener of their faith.” While we keep a cautious eye on our nation, our homes, and our loved ones, may we also remember to guard our most precious possession, our faith, by standing watch.
H. Chris Ross (ThM, 2002) lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he is pursuing a PhD degree in church history, focusing specifically on the Puritans at the University of Edinburgh.