The Discipline of Watchfulness

Pastor Kyle McIver


The Discipline of Watchfulness
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Christians spend a great deal of time today talking about and hopefully practicing spiritual disciplines. The two primary disciplines for many of us are Bible intake and prayer - and rightly so! The profound emphasis on these two disciplines is not misplaced. David Mathis, a pastor at our mother church, Cities Church, very helpfully teaches us about another crucial spiritual discipline - or Habit of Grace as he refers to it in his recent book - of belonging to God’s people, his body, and walking side by side together through life.

But I believe that if Christians from several hundred years ago were to examine the two or three primary habits Christian practice today, they would tell us that one is missing - that we’ve left out and forgotten one of the most essential spiritual disciplines: watchfulness. The Puritan John Flavel wrote: The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God and the greatest difficulty after conversion is to keep the heart with God. The discipline of watchfulness is concerned with the latter - keeping the heart with God.

So what is watchfulness, then? What does it look like in the Christian life? Consider passages such as when Jesus instructs his disciples to watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation… or 1 Peter 5:8, which instructs us to: be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a lion, seeking someone to devour. We gather from these verses that if you are not watching, you are vulnerable… easy prey for the lion who seeks to devour.

Brian Hedges, in his excellent little book, Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline, draws in numerous helpful definitions of watchfulness - here’s two of them:

“Watchfulness of the soul is when we do not sleep in our sins, being rocked in the cradle of carnal security, but shake off our drowsiness by unfeigned repentance, rising up to newness of life.” -John Downame

“Watchfulness is a continual, careful observing of our ways in all the passages and turnings of our life, that we still keep close to the written word of God.”-Isaac Ambrose

Watchfulness means staying awake, being alert. It’s a sober-mindedness about the reality of sin and it’s far reaching power in our lives - meaning that we must be watchful of its subtly deceptive influence lest we be swept away by its current.

Now to some of you, the discipline of watching may sound wearisome… continual watching and vigilance over our hearts and minds is not a small task! And it may sound like the effort required is simply too much. I want to gently push back against this. I very much understand the position - it does take effort, and many of us are weary. I confess that I often feel this!

Here’s what Brian Hedges says about the discipline of watching:

"To cultivate watchfulness is to preserve freedom—from the world and its snares; from sin and its enslaving power; and from the temptations, deceptions, and accusations of our adversary the devil. "

Watching is a pathway to freedom, and freedom ushers in all manner of blessings: joy, life, renewal, and rest. Sin is the greatest weariness that we suffer through in this life. Its mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual toll is much higher than we realize.

So church I want to exhort you to watch. Pay attention to your hearts and desires. Measure them against God’s promises. Root out idols great and small. And as you look closely at yourself, gaze that much more frequently at Jesus. Stock your hearts full of the love of Jesus and refuse to settle for the inferior promises of sin. This is what watchfulness is, and it will be life and refreshment and joy to your soul.