A guard who falls asleep on his watch is negligent of his duty and makes himself vulnerable to the enemy. A soldier who is not vigilant in enemy-occupied territory is exposed to dangers, traps, and enemy strategies. An athlete who loses focus during a competition will not perform well at her event. Once a guard, soldier or athlete has developed the skills necessary for their task, their ability to focus on the demands of that task is essential to effectively executing those skills. In the same way, we hear a lot about the importance of the disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, fasting, and meditation, but if we lack intentionality and attentiveness then we are not going to be able to engage effectively in these other disciplines. When our attention drifts, affections stray, or wills weaken, we hinder all other spiritual practices. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” As John Flavel says, “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 New Testament uses several words to encourage watchfulness among believers. First, there is the verb grēgoreō, “to be watchful, stay awake, be on the alert.” Jesus said to the sleeping disciples: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt 26:41). Paul uses in it 1 Cor 16:13: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” and Col 4:2: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it.” Then there is the word blepō, “see, watch, look to, be aware of.” This word is used in Eph 5:15: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.”. A third word is prosechō, “to be in a state of alert, pay attention to, give heed to.” Jesus said in Luke 21:34, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” Heb 2:1 warns: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” One final example is the word agrypneō, “to be vigilant, be alert, keep watch over, be on guard.” After putting on the whole the armour of God the Christian is to “keep alert with all perseverance” (Eph 6:18). So how do we go about cultivating spiritual watchfulness? Here are five brief suggestions:
1. Watchfulness Over Your Heart
Prov 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” When the Bible speaks of the heart it is not referring to a part of who we are but rather the very core of our being, the central animating centre of who we are and all that we do. It is the wellspring from which flow the springs of life, and if you contaminate the wellspring, you contaminate all of the streams that flow from it. Watchfulness begins with knowing and watching over our hearts. John Owen wrote: “Let him that would not enter into temptation labour to know his own heart, to be acquainted with his own spirit, his natural frame and temper, his lusts and corruptions, his natural, sinful, or spiritual weaknesses, that, finding where his weakness lies, he may be careful to keep at a distance from all occasions of sin.” Do you know your own heart? Heart watchfulness means becoming intimately acquainted with the state of your heart, its dispositions, inclinations, passions, weaknesses, temptations, and sins so that you can be on guard. It requires being alert to what causes you to drift, to stray, to wander, to grow cold, to give into certain sins and temptations.
2. Watchfulness Over the Gates of Your Heart
Watchfulness over your life begins with watchfulness over your heart, and watchfulness over your heart involves watchfulness over the entry points that lead into your heart. In his allegory The Holy War John Bunyan refers to these entry points as five gates that lead into the town of Mansoul: “The famous town of Mansoul had five gates which were also impregnable. They could never be opened or forced unless permission was given by the people within. The names of the gates were: Ear Gate, Eye Gate, Mouth Gate, Nose Gate, and Feel Gate.” Watching over our hearts involves watching over what we allow into our hearts through our eyes, ears, lips, and feet (Prov 4:20–27; Job 31:1; Ps 119:37; 141:3; 1 Jn 2:15–16). In our media-drenched, streaming-saturated, TikTok-entranced culture, both Ear Gate and Eye Gate are coming under a simultaneous and sustained attack from a relentless barrage of sights and sounds, images and ideas, videos and vines. We need to set a vigilant watch over the gates to our hearts.
3. Watchfulness for Your Enemy
Being watchful means not only being wary of our fleshly weaknesses but also Satan’s attacks. 1 Peter 5:8 says: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Like the army of Orcs that besieged Helm’s Deep in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, we have an implacable enemy whose one objective is to storm the town of Mansoul and to plant a victory flag deep in the heart of its vanquished territory. Mansoul is by nature a sleepy town, and its spiritual life is often feeble, weak, and of little vigour. Yet all the while the enemy is ever watchful, poised to make us fall in any way he can. The wounds inflicted by the enemy are grievous and his fiery arrows burrow in deeply. As Luther put it, “For still our ancient foe / does seek to work us woe / his craft and power are great /and armed with cruel hate / on earth is not his equal.” But Paul does not want the Christian to “be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor 2:11). How about you? Are you able to recognise the shrewdness of his schemes, the treacherousness of his temptations, the inventiveness of his insinuations and accusations, and the danger of his deceptions?
4. Watchfulness Over Your Gospel Supplies
When the town of Mansoul is being besieged by the enemy, the survival of those inside the town rests not only on the thickness of its walls, the height of its towers, and the strength of its gates, but also on the ample supplies of good food, clean water, and various medicines to sustain the people for the duration of the battle. The more you have stored up, the more likely you are to outlast the enemy. The psalmist was aware of this principle when he wrote: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:11; cf. Matt 12:35). You need to store up gospel promises in the pantry of your souls, then throughout the battle, as you reach in and take a bite from those gospel promises, it nourishes and sustains your faith, and as a result, your faith grows stronger. John Owen said: “Be sure to lay in provision in store against the approaching of any temptation. This also belongs to our watchfulness over our hearts. … When an enemy draws nigh to a fort or castle to besiege and take it, oftentimes, if he finds it well manned and furnished with provision for a siege, and so able to hold out, he withdraws and assaults it not. If Satan, the prince of this world, come and find our hearts fortified against his batteries, and provided to hold out, he not only departs but, as James says, he flees. … Gospel provisions will do this work; that is, keep the heart full of a sense of the love of God in Christ. This is the greatest preservation against the power of temptation in the world.”
5. Watchfulness for Christ
Finally, while watchfulness requires vigilance over our hearts, the focus must not be on ourselves but Christ. In a letter to a struggling Christian, Robert Murray McCheyne famously 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.” Heart watchfulness must be characterised by a steady and focused sight of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). We “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:1–2). It is only as we contemplate the glory of Christ, and fill our minds with thoughts of Christ and his glory, and allow those thoughts to warm our affections, that sinful thoughts and passions are cast out. As Thomas Chalmers said: “The way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.” Ultimately, the watchful heart lives in constant anticipation of the coming of our Lord when he will finally and fully liberate the town of Mansoul from throes of sin, death, and Satan. Christ said in Matt 25:13, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” and in Rev 16:15, “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake.”