The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, Chapter 8: Watchfullness

“Take heed unto yourselves.” – Deut. iv. 23.

“Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong.” – 1 Cor. xvi. 13.

“Be watchful in all things” – 2 Tim. iv. 5.

“Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.” – Eph. vi. 18.

“Therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers.” – I Pet. iv. 7.

“Be sober, be vigilant.” – 1 Pet. v. 8.

“Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die.” – Rev. iii. 2.

THERE are many who feel much perplexity as to the nature of watchfullness, and the place it should occupy in the life of the believer. For it must be admitted there is a kind of watchfullness which, instead of being a help, is really a hindrance to the soul in his walk with God, because it throws him back upon himself rather than upon Christ, and as a natural result his watching is in vain.

Now, of course it is with a view of being preserved from sinning, and of being guided aright in our daily life, that watchfullness is needed. But let us first clearly understand that our security does not lie in our ability to keep ourselves. True, our safety is closely bound up with our watching; we must watch, and watch continually. But let us never lose sight of the blessed fact that it is the Lord, and He alone, who is our Keeper. “Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Ps. cxxvii. 1).

We must know what it is to be in His keeping before we are in a position to watch. We must be in the Tower, within the Lord’s keeping power, before we can really learn what true Christian vigilance means.

Let us clearly recognize the true object of our watching. We may be directing our thoughts and attention in the wrong direction. What is it we have to watch?

Is it the enemy? No; for he has such marvelous powers of deception that he can transform himself into an angel of light.

If he had simply our vigilance to contend with, our power of discernment to cope with, he would have no difficulty in deluding us, he would find us an easy prey to his subtlety.

There can be but one object of watching: “Looking unto Jesus.” There can be no other attitude of watching. And for what do we watch? For the Lord’s warnings, His leadings, His teaching.

We have to watch for His warnings. It is He who alone sees and knows all Satan’s schemes, everything that is going on among the powers of darkness. The believer can see but little of the wiles of the devil; but Christ’s omniscient eye penetrates into all the innermost recesses of spiritual wickedness, He can never be taken by surprise. He who never slumbers or sleeps is ever ready to forewarn His believing followers of all that it is necessary for them to know in order to preserve them from the enemy’s power; His loving glance will never fail to put the watching believer on his guard, and acquaint him of the enemy’s approach, or of any special danger that may arise.

And as He can never be taken by surprise, so He never gives a false alarm. No child of God ever fell into grievous sin who had not previously received Divine warnings of the approaching danger. The warning neglected was the first step in the fall.

We have to watch for the Lord’s leadings.

“I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with Mine eye” (Ps. xxxii. 8 KJV).

To be guided by God’s eye is the most delicate of all kinds of leading. You may guide another by your hand who is deaf, or you may guide one by your voice who is blind; but you cannot guide one with your eye unless he can see, and is willing to keep his eye on your eye, and understands your looks. But this supposes intimate knowledge, personal acquaintance.

There are many little turnings in the course of the day concerning which we need to know His will, as well as in the great thoroughfares of our journey through life. It is for the silent but unmistakable indications of His eye that we need to be watching if we would abide in His will. How great and momentous are the consequences that sometimes turn upon one trivial event, or that hang upon a single step! Watching is needed, not only to be kept from falling into the enemy’s snare, but to be abiding in the knowledge of His will.

So if we would know the most blessed, the truest of all kinds of Divine leading, we must understand what it is to live so near, and to walk with such a vigilant spirit, that the eye of God alone is enough to indicate to us what He would have us do and the way He would have us take. There must be a perfect understanding between the soul and Christ.

“Do not be like the horse or like the mule, Which have no understanding” (Ps. xxxii. 9). True wisdom consists in knowing God’s mind. “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Eph. v. 17).

We have to watch for the Lord’s teaching.

“I will stand my watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected” (Hab. ii. 1). “He awakens my ear to hear as the learned” (Isa. l. 4). He has many things to teach us which at the early stages of our discipleship we are not able to learn; but He is a wise, gentle, and patient Teacher. We must sit at His feet, as Mary did, and learn of Him, not merely by receiving His truth, but by partaking of His grace, drinking into His Spirit. He “is full of grace and truth.”

“Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors” (Prov. viii. 34). It is impossible to say how much depends upon this attitude of watching, of hearkening to the voice of the Lord. The best messengers are not those who are the most original, but those who are able the most faithfully to deliver to others what the Lord has spoken to them. It is out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, but it is by hearkening the heart is filled. To be good listeners to the voice of the Lord we must know what it is to watch daily at His gates.

Then as to the purpose of our watching. It is with a view to prayer. “Watch unto prayer” (1 Pet. iv. 7). This is an exhortation that occurs frequently. It shows us the immediate purpose for which we are to exercise vigilance.

We shall not watch long before we receive Divine indications of the enemy’s nearness, and of the necessity of special grace and protection. These times of warnings should be times of prayer – special prayer.

It is not watching alone then that is needed, but watching unto prayer.

Often the Spirit will prompt us to prayer, when, judging from external circumstances, we shall be inclined to conclude that no real danger exists, or any special necessity for prayer. But how often have we afterwards discovered, it may be to our cost, that through disregarding the Divine call we were betrayed into a snare or overcome by a temptation!

The spirit of vigilance should lead to the deepening and strengthening of the habit of prayer. In answer to the prayer prompted by the Spirit there comes the deliverance, or the relief, or the guidance, or the light sought, as the case may be. This is followed by gratitude and praise. Hence we see the close connection between watching, praying, and thanksgiving, as they so often occur in the word of God. “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving” (Col. iv. 2).

Now from what has been said we see that the spirit of watchfullness supposes confidence in Christ’s ability, a firm persuasion of His omniscient care and unfailing love. You are no longer questioning His wisdom, His power, or His faithfulness. You can rest in His care for you. You can say, “I am persuaded He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him.” You are no longer fearful because of the enemy’s power, for you know that greater is He that is with you, and in you, than all those that are against you. You can rely on God’s keeping power. You know you are on the side of Him who is always triumphant.

But it supposes another thing; and that is a close walk with God. Nearness, not only in worship at certain stated intervals, but in the daily life, throughout each hour of the day. It implies a sensitive conscience – a conscience becoming more and more sensitive to sin’s approach, a deeper and truer hatred of its loathsomeness. Not a scrupulous, but a healthy, tender conscience – a conscience void of offence.

From this it follows, that if I am continually being suddenly overcome by some evil habit, repeatedly taken by surprise by the enemy’s assaults, I cannot really be in a spirit of watchfullness, I am not habitually “looking unto Jesus,” I am not walking in fellowship with God. The communication between my soul and the Lord is broken.

We cannot excuse our falls by pleading that we are taken by surprise. We need never be taken by surprise, if only we are obedient to the warnings which He who knows all things ever gives to those who are watchful.

The following incident will serve to illustrate the important truth we have here touched upon, namely, that the spirit of watchfullness supposes the possession of a sensitive conscience, or a faculty of spiritual discernment, which is of the utmost value in our walk of faith.

“In the autumn of 1879, the steamship Arizona, 5,000 tons, at that time the swiftest ocean-going steamship in existence, was urging her way at the rate of some fifteen knots an hour on the homeward course from New York, whence she had sailed but a day or two before.

“It was night, and there was a light breeze, but of danger from collision with a passing ship there was little or none. The captain and crew knew of no special reason for watchfullness, and the passengers were altogether free from anxiety.

“Indeed, it so chanced that at a time when, in reality, the most imminent danger threatened every soul on board, many of the saloon passengers were engaged in purchasing at auction the numbers for the next day’s run – runs below 350 knots being sold at a very low rate indeed.

“Suddenly a crash was heard. The ship’s swift progress was stopped, and a few minutes later every one knew that the Arizona had run dead upon an enormous iceberg, the spires and pinnacles of which could be seen hanging almost over the ship, and gleaming threateningly in the rays of her masthead light.

“But the risk that threatened her living freight was not that of being crushed by falling ice. The bows of the Arizona were seen to be slowly sinking, and presently there was a well-marked lurch to starboard. The fore compartment and a smaller side compartment were filling.

“It was an anxious time for all on board. Many an eye was turned towards the boats, and the more experienced thought of the weary miles which separated them from the nearest land, and of the poor chance that a passing steamer might pick up the Arizona’s boats at sea.

“Fortunately, the builders of the Arizona had done their work faithfully and well. Like another ship of the same line which had been exposed to the same risk, save that her speed was less, and therefore the danger of the shock diminished, the Arizona, though crippled, was not sunk. She bore up for St. John’s, and her passengers were taken on later by another steamer.

“The danger which nearly caused the loss of the Arizona – collision with an iceberg – is one to which steamships, and especially swift steamships, are exposed in exceptional degree. Like this danger also it is one which renders the duty of careful watching, especially in the night and in times of haze or fog, a most anxious and important care.

“But, unlike the risk from collision with another ship, the risk from collision with icebergs cannot be diminished by any system of side lights or head lights or stern lights, except in just such degree (unfortunately slight) as a powerful light at the foremast-head, aided by strong side lights or bow lights, may serve to render the glance of the treacherous ice discernible somewhat farther ahead. But to a steamship running at a rate of fourteen or fifteen knots an hour, even in the clearest weather, at night, the distance from which a low-lying iceberg can be seen, even by the best of eyes, is but short. She runs over it before there is time for the watch to make their warning heard, and for the engineers to stop and reverse their engines.

“But science, besides extending our senses, provides us with senses other than those we possess naturally. The photographic eye of science see in the thousandth part of a second what our eyes, because in so short a time they can receive no distinct impression at all, are unable to see.

“They may, on the other hand, rest on some faintly luminous object for hours, seeing more and more each moment, where ours would see no more – perhaps even less – after the first minute than they had seen in the first second. The spectroscopic eyes of science can analyze for us the substance of self-luminous vapours, or of vapours absorbing light, or of liquids, and so forth, where the natural eyes have no such power of analysis. The sense of feeling, or rather the sense for heat, which Reid originally and properly distinguished as a sixth sense (not to be confused, as our modern classification of the senses incorrectly confuses it, with the sense of touch), is one which is very limited in its natural range.

“But science can give us eyes for heat as keen and as widely ranging as the eyes which she gives us for light. It was no idle dream of Edison, but a thought which one day will be fraught with useful results, that science may hereafter recognize a star by its heat, which the most powerful telescope yet made fails to show by its light. Since that was said the young Draper (whose loss followed so quickly and so sadly for science on that of his lamented father) has produced photographic plates showing stars which cannot be seen through the telescope by which those photographs were taken. . . . The sense of sight is not the only sense affected as an iceberg is approached. There is a sensible lowering of temperature. But to the natural heat-sense this cooling is not so obvious, or so readily and quickly appreciated that it could be trusted instead of the outlook of the watch.

“The heat-sense of science however is so much keener, that it could indicate the presence of an iceberg at a distance far beyond that over which the keenest eye could detect an iceberg at night; perhaps even an isolated iceberg could be detected when far beyond the range of ordinary eyesight in the daytime.

“Not only so, but an instrument like the thermopile, or the more delicate heat-measurers of Edison and Langley, can readily be made to give automatic notice of its sensations (so to speak). As those who have heard Professor Tyndall’s lectures any time during the last twenty years know, the index of a scientific heat-measurer moves freely in response either to gain or loss of heat, or, as we should ordinarily say, in response either to heat or cold. An index which thus moves can be made, as by closing or breaking electrical contact, or in other ways, to give very effective indication of the neighbourhood of danger.

“It would be easy to devise half a dozen ways in which a heat indicator (which is of necessity a cold indicator), suitably placed in the bows of a ship, could note, as it were, the presence of an iceberg fully a quarter of a mile away, and speak of its sensations much more loudly and effectively than the watch can proclaim the sight of an iceberg when much nearer at hand. The movement of an index could set a foghorn lustily announcing the approach of danger; could illuminate the ship, if need be, by setting at work the forces necessary for instantaneous electric lighting; could signal the engineers to stop and reverse the engines, or even stop and reverse the engines automatically.

“Whether so much would be necessary – whether those amongst lost Atlantic steamships which have been destroyed, as many have been, by striking upon icebergs, could only have been saved by such rapid automatic measures as these, may or may not be the case; but that the use of the infinitely keen perception which the sense organs of science possess for heat and cold would be a feasible way of obtaining much earlier and much more effective notice of danger from icebergs than the best watch can give, no one who knows the powers of science in this direction can doubt.” (Extract from a letter published in The Times by Mr. Richard A. Proctor.)

The foregoing statements from the pen of a well known writer and scientist are deeply interesting, not only as showing the marvelous results of modern scientific discovery, but also as illustrating a truth that has its parallel in the spiritual life.

We read for instance that among the other blessings conferred upon the believer there is the gift of spiritual discernment. “The Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true” (1 John v. 20). He has “given us a sense” (Lange), so that we are getting to know the True One. The following are Dr. Westcott’s remarks on this passage : – “That with which ‘the Son of God’ incarnate has endowed believers is a power of understanding, of interpreting, of following out to their right issues the complex facts of life; and the end of the gift is that they may know, not by one decisive act, but by a continuous and progressive apprehension, ‘Him that is true.’

This then is a real endowment, of which those who are watchful and are walking in obedience to the Divine leading are made really conscious. They have given them “the power of believing in and seeing, little by little, the Divine purpose of life under the perplexing riddles of phenomena.”

In words that are scarcely figurative, we may say with truth, that with the approach of some special forms of temptation or peril “there is a sensible lowering of temperature.” We are made conscious that danger is at hand by something we cannot describe or explain; we feel that a call to special vigilance and prayer has come to us from above. Such warnings cannot be neglected without serious loss. Let them be the occasion of a steadier gaze, of a simpler trust, of a humbler dependence, of a more childlike confidence in God, and of a prompt obedience.

This faculty of spiritual discernment is not a gift to be lightly esteemed. It cannot be trifled with; it may be easily obscured or entirely lost, through want of watchfullness or careless walking. And when lost it is not so easily restored.

Few gifts are more precious than this faculty of spiritual eyesight, or the sense by which any lowering of the moral temperature may be at once detected. Often it will be the means of keeping us from venturing into scenes where the Spirit of God would be grieved, and where, not only our joy and peace, but our liberty and power in service are forfeited.

On the other hand, the gift by use is strengthened and becomes more and more sensitive. We grow in the possession of an “understanding heart.” And as we live in this watchful and obedient attitude we are brought to know, in a way that no commentary could teach us, the meaning of these words of the apostle “that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. i. 9, 10).

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