WHAT IS WATCHFULNESS?

Early in December I received a promo suggesting some books and I ordered the one that most intrigued me.  The title of the book is Watchfulness by Brian G. Hedges and was published in 2018 by Reformation Heritage Books. The title got my attention, but the small print RECOVERING A LOST SPIRITUAL DISCIPLLINE closed the sale.

During all my years of studying the Bible and theology I had never seen or read anything about watchfulness. Richard Foster’s popular 1978 book Celebration of Discipline has one short paragraph in the chapter on Fasting dealing with “watchings.” The index of Dallas Willard’s 1988 book The Spirit of the Disciplines cites six places in the book where he mentions watching as a discipline. I don’t remember any of the references.

Hedges’ book informed, inspired, instructed, convicted, and encouraged me to give some attention to the Spiritual Discipline of Watchfulness. What is watchfulness? The basic definition of watchful is to be “vigilant, wide-awake, alert meaning being on the lookout especially for danger or opportunity. Another suggested definition is “being watchful means staying alert and constantly vigilant.

The spiritual discipline of watchfulness is pretty much the same thing as the non-spiritual definition of watchful with a focus on one’s spiritual life as a Christian.

We’ve all probably heard or read these selected biblical references, but looking at them again all together (and in their context) tells us more:

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

 “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong” (I Corinthians 16:13).

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Colossians 4:2).

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Timothy 4:16).

“The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray” (I Peter 4:7).

“Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully” (II John 8).

Walter A. Elwell’s entry in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (edited) explains: “Watchfulness suggests a preparedness in order to avoid being taken unaware by an enemy (Psalm 127). It involves fighting carelessness to reach a desired goal (Proverbs 8:34; see Nehemiah 4:9; 7:3). In the New Testament three basic emphases are found: (1) be prepared for the Lord’s return; (2) be on guard against temptation; and (3) struggle in prayer. Watchfulness characterizes the attitudes of the disciples who await with hope the return of Jesus. The Pauline epistles echo a similar theme. Believers must resist evil so as not to be taken by surprise at the Lord’s coming. Watchfulness implies sobriety, an avoidance of worldly excesses associated with darkness. Paul urges the church to pray with unfailing perseverance. The actions of watchfulness and prayer are indissolubly united. Prayer is an act of vigilance and vigilance a consequence of prayer (Ephesians 6:18-19). Vigilant watchfulness is a manifestation of genuine spiritual life. It keeps the church faithful in avoiding being lulled into false security.”

Let me conclude with a few selected statements from Hedges’ book that impacted me:

“All believers, regardless of their season and station in life, need to be watchful” (p.2)

“Not everyone who starts well finishes well. Many aspire, but few attain. The dangers of backsliding and the warnings against apostasy are real” (p. 9).

“To be watchful is to be wakeful. Watchfulness also requires attentiveness” (p. 25).

“Watchfulness requires effort” (p. 39).

“Decay sets in gradually, slowly, imperceptibly. The same is true in our spiritual lives” (p. 58).

“It’s not enough to know what watchfulness is and that it’s necessary . . .” (p. 67).

I hope all of this whets your appetite and stimulates your thinking about this important but underemphasized spiritual discipline of watchfulness.

Perhaps we can become more watchful spiritually in the New Year.

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