The Discipline of the Self-Watch
- 2007 21 Jun
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully . . . beware lest you act corruptly . . . (Deuteronomy 4:15,16)
By now the lapsing of evangelical religious leaders fails to surprise us. We’ve almost come to expect it. After all, we reason, they’re only human. True, but that’s no excuse for scandalous sin that compromises not only some highly-visible ministry, but the credibility of the Church and her message as well. I can’t help but believe that many of the spectacular moral failures of the past couple of decades could have been avoided if those leaders had practiced a more consistent self-watch.
The Scriptures over and over call believers to exercise a careful watch over their lives. Moses, Solomon, David, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John, not to mention most of the prophets, could all be cited exhorting us to pay careful attention to how we use our time, expend our energy, invest our affections, and engage our thoughts.
Our lives and everything of which they consist are precious gifts of God. He has bestowed them on us so that we might make the knowledge of His glory known in every area of our lives. This is a daunting challenge, to be sure, especially given the lingering presence of sin in our hearts, coupled with the relentless spiritual warfare in which we are every day engaged. The person who fails to exercise a careful and consistent self-watch vulnerable to falling into some trap or snare of the devil, often resulting in scandalous sins that damage more than just his own reputation and standing in the community of faith.
The self-watch is an aspect of the discipline of circumspection (Ephesians 5:15-17), part of that spiritual regimen by which we train our hearts, minds, and consciences to engender actions and works consistent with our calling as the followers of Christ. The discipline of circumspection includes paying attention to the goings-on of the day (1 Chronicles 12:32), making wise use of our time (Psalm 90:12), attending carefully to all the details of our everyday lives (Proverbs 4:21-27; cf. Luke 21:34-36), guarding against false teaching (1 Timothy 4:16), and amending any ways that turn out to be contrary to the Word of God (Psalm 119:59,50).
Such an active discipline of circumspection requires daily renewal (Romans 12:1,2), persistence (1 Timothy 4:16), and faithful friends to encourage us and hold us accountable (Proverbs 27:17; Hebrews 10:24). Central to the discipline of circumspection is the self-watch, the caring for our souls and lives that enables us to stay on the path of righteousness according to the will of God.
Moses’ exhortation to the people of Israel, as they prepared to enter the land of promise, marks out the general parameters of the kind of self-watch every believer in God is called to exercise. We may make four observations concerning the rationale for and nature of this self-watch.
The Incentive for Watching Ourselves
Notice first of all the incentive for exercising a careful self-watch: God has called us into a covenant relationship with Himself, in which He intends to bless us, and to use us as witnesses to all the nations concerning His greatness, goodness, and wisdom (Deuteronomy 4:1-8; Acts 1:8). God has bestowed on those who believe in Him precious and magnificent promises, by which He is determined to transform us increasingly into the image of His own dear Son (2 Peter 1:4; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18).
We do not become believers in God in order to remain the same person we’ve always been. God intends to change us, to separate us unto Himself — “sanctify” us — and to fashion and mold us increasingly so that we reflect His beauty, goodness, and truth. This is full and abundant life (John 10:10). Indeed, this is eternal life (John 17:3), life spent in the very presence of God, abounding in joy and wholesome pleasures (Psalm 16:11).
Just as God called Israel out of Egypt to be a peculiar people unto Himself, obedient to His Law and, thus, reflective of His glory, so He has called the followers of Jesus Christ to be a royal priesthood, a chosen generation, a people of His own possession, so that we might make known the many excellencies of Him Who has called us out of darkness into His glorious light (1 Peter 2:9,10). We cannot fulfill this calling without a diligent and determined effort to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 3:18). This must necessarily involve some paying attention to what’s going on in our souls—what we’re thinking, how we feel about things, and what priorities and values are making themselves at home in our consciences.
Certainly we want to possess this life of redemption in all its fullness; we don’t want anything to stand in the way of our realizing more of Christ’s salvation. A careful and consistent self-watch can help us to attain to the greater realization of the high prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).
The life of fullness of joy, peace, goodness, blessing, and purpose is available to all who trust in Jesus Christ and work hard to unpack the mysteries and wonders of His salvation in their everyday lives (Philippians 2:12,13). This requires a careful watching over our lives, as Moses knew, and as he commanded the Israelites to take up as part of their own practice of the disciplined life.
The Practice of the Self-Watch
The self-watch Moses exhorted Israel to maintain consisted of two practices. Doubtless each of those listening to him on the plains of Moab would have taken up these practices in somewhat different ways. But the basics to which he exhorted them — and us — remain the same.
First, there is the discipline of remembering. Israel was strictly charged not to forget the things they had heard or seen (vv. 9-14). This word, “remember,” has a particularly strong flavor in the Hebrew. To remember is to attend carefully and constantly to something, as when God “remembered” His covenant with His people during their time of captivity in Egypt (Exodus 2:24), or when He commanded them to “remember” the Sabbath day, to guard it and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8). To remember is thus to attend carefully to all the details of something, to know it intimately, understand it completely, and give due diligence in keeping it as it is supposed to be. As part of the practice of the self-watch we are charged with remembering the works as well as the words of the Lord.
This kind of remembering requires reading, study, meditation, perhaps even memorization of important teachings and timely events. The more we give our minds to storing up the Word of God and meditating on all His works—His glory revealed in the things He has made and all that He has done for His people—the better our souls will be prepared to shape us into the kind of people who walk in obedience to the Lord. But if our minds are cluttered and crowded by too much of the world of getting-and-spending, we won’t be much inclined to apply them to the things of the Lord. The only things we’ll care about are those things which pertain to our lives in this world, all of which are passing away, as John reminds us (1 John 2:15-17).
In addition to remembering the works and words of the Lord, we need to practice the discipline of resisting anything which might draw us away from Him or His truth (Deuteronomy 4:16-19). For Israel the constant temptation was to want to be like the other nations around her, tolerating their false gods and incorporating many of their pagan ways, just so they could live in peace and not rock the ancient Mideast boat.
But God had called them to be different, not to be like the unbelieving nations around them. So they had to train their minds not to think like pagans, their hearts not to desire the ways of unbelievers, and their consciences to value the unseen things of the Lord more than the treasures of kings or the fleshly ways of idolaters. We need to learn how to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil as well, if we’re going to persist in the kind of self-watch that God expects of us.
The Focus of the Self-Watch
The third aspect of the self-watch that Moses enjoins upon us relates to its focus. Essentially, we are to keep careful watch over everything that pertains to our inner and outer person. We must regularly inspect our souls, subjecting them to the searching light of God’s Word and Spirit. And we must continuously monitor the way we use our time, strength, and resources in order to make the most of the opportunities that we are presented with each day (Ephesians 5:15-21).
Each of us will need to develop some means for practicing this kind of vigilance over soul and body. However, at a minimum, consistent planning, periodic review, and the presence of others to keep us accountable can help us to keep our focus clear and undefiled by all manner of ungodly influences.
The Motive for the Self-Watch
Exercising the kind of self-watch outlined above can be a challenge. It takes time, careful and consistent effort, and a willingness to change as indicated. Why should anyone want to go to all this trouble? Out of gratitude to God, pure and simple (vv. 10-16,20).
As we have seen, He holds out great and precious promises to us and is at work within us to will and do according to His good pleasure, so that we might know full and abundant life in Christ. Given this kind of incentive, we should nurture the practice of thanksgiving and express gratitude to God for all He has done, for all He promises to do, by nothing more than sheer grace. If we have no gratitude toward God, or if gratitude does not come easily — even naturally — to us, it may well be that we have never entered the arena of God’s grace in the first place.
They who have come to salvation in Jesus Christ, and have begun to feast on the banquet of precious and magnificent promises spread out for them, will, out of deep gratitude to their gracious Father, work to remember all He has taught and done for them, and to resist any forces, ideas, or influences that might draw them away from Him who watches over their souls and lives with all vigilance, day by day.
Without this kind of self-watch we could easily end up as the next scandalous spectacle, whether our sphere of influence for the Lord is great or small. Paul’s words are apt: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Most of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ today are pretty certain that they are in good standing with Him. It’s the “take heed” part that, apparently, needs some work. The discipline of self-watch can be a powerful resource to aid us in our constant struggle against sin, scandal, and surrender to the enemies of the Gospel.
How do you practice a continuous self-watch over your life? Can you improve what you’re presently doing? Is there someone who could join you in this, to encourage you and hold you accountable?
T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of twenty books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.