Watch you and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.
Watching is never pleasant work; no soldier really likes it. Men prefer even the excitement and danger of the battlefield to the long weeks of patient vigilance, which nevertheless may do quite as much as a victorious battle to decide the issues of a campaign. Now it is just so in the spiritual war. The forces of civilization rendered our soldiers more than a match for all the barbarous courage of their swarthy foes, provided only by constant vigilance they were in a position to use those forces; and even so the omnipotence of God renders the true Christian more than a match for all the forces of hell, provided only he too is sufficiently vigilant to detect the approach of the foe, and sufficiently wise to confront him with the courage of faith when his approach is detected; but if he walks carelessly, or fails to exercise proper vigilance, the battle will be lost almost before the danger is realized, and Faith will forfeit her victory just because she was not ready to put forth all the supernatural powers that she may command. It is, alas! not an uncommon thing to meet with Christian souls that seem to know something of the life of faith, and yet, to their great surprise, find themselves overcome when they least expect it. We observe sometimes a certain tone of petulance in these admissions of failure, as if in their heart of hearts some sort of implication were cast upon the faithfulness of God, although they would shrink from expressing this in so many words. Now, clearly the cause of all such failures must lie with us, and it will be our wisdom to endeavour to discover it; while it is the worst of folly to charge God with unfaithfulness. What are we placed in this world for? Obviously that we may be trained and developed for our future position by exposure to the forces of evil. Were we so sheltered from evil as that there should be no need for constant watchfulness, we should lose the moral benefit which a habit of constant watchfulness induces. We know that it is a law of nature, that faculties which are never employed perish from disuse; and, on the other hand, faculties which are fully and frequently employed acquire a wonderful capacity. Is not this equally true in the spiritual world? We are being trained probably for high and holy service by-and-by, in which we shall need all those faculties that are now being quickened and trained by our contact with danger, and our exposure to apparently hostile conditions of existence. We are to be trained, by learning quickness of perception of danger here, to exercise quickness of perception in ministry and willing service yonder. Besides, Watchfulness continually provides opportunities for faith, and tends to draw us the closer, and keep us the closer, to Him by whom alone we stand. Were we to be so saved from evil by a single act, as that we should have no further need of Watchfulness, should we not lose much that now makes us feel our dependence on Him who is our constant safety? Have we not to thank God for the very daggers that constrain us to keep so near Him if we are to be safe at all? Let us point out what Watchfulness is not before we go on to consider what it is. And
I. WATCHFULNESS IS SOMETHING QUITE DISTINCT FROM NERVOUS TIMIDITY AND MORBID APPREHENSIVENESS — the condition of a man who sees an enemy in every bush, and is tortured by a thousand alarms and all the misgivings of unbelief. David did not show himself watchful, but faithless, when he exclaimed, "I shall now one day perish by the hands of Saul;" and we do not show ourselves watchful when we go on our way trembling, depressed with all sorts of forebodings of disaster. Let me offer a homely illustration of what I mean. I was amused the other day at hearing a soldier's account of a terrible fright that he had during the time of the Fenian scare a few years ago. It fell to his lot one dark night to act as sentinel in the precincts of an important arsenal, which it was commonly supposed might be the scene of a great explosion any night. The fortress was surrounded by a common, and was therefore easy to be approached by evil-disposed persons. The night, as I have said, was as dark as a night could be, and he was all alone, and full of apprehensions of danger. He stood still for a moment fancying he heard something moving near him, and then stepped backwards for a few paces, when he suddenly felt himself come into violent contact with something, which he incontinently concluded must be a crouching Fenian. "I was never so frightened," he said, "before or since in my life, and to tell you the truth, I fell sprawling on my back. Imagine my feelings when I found that the thing that had terrified me beyond all description was only a harmless sheep that had fallen asleep a little too near my beat." Now, dear friends, I think that this soldier's ridiculous, but very excusable, panic may serve to illustrate the experience of many timid, apprehensive Christians. They live in a state of chronic panic, always expecting to be assailed by some hostile influence, which they shall prove wholly incompetent to resist. If they foresee the approach of any circumstances that are likely to put their religion to a test, they at once make up their mind that fiasco and overthrow are inevitable; and when they are suddenly confronted by what seems an adverse influence, or promises to be a severe temptation, they are ready to give all up in despair. They forget that our Lord has taught us to take no anxious thought for the morrow, and has assured us that sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.
II. NOR AGAIN DOES WATCHFULNESS CONSIST IN MORBID INTROSPECTIVENESS, OR IN A DISPOSITION TO CHARGE OURSELVES WITH ALL SORTS OF IMAGINED FORMS OF EVIL. To their morbid sensibility everything has depravity in it; good and generous actions only spring from self-seeking; every natural affection is inordinate; every commonplace gratification a loving of pleasure rather than God. It is surely possible, believe me, dear Christian friends, to emulate the exploits of a Don Quixote in our religious life, and to run a tilt at any number of spiritual windmills, but this is not watchfulness. A clerical brother of mine, alarmed from his slumbers by a policeman who reported his church open, imagined that he had captured a burglar by the hair of his head in the tower of his church, when he had only laid violent hands in the darkness upon the church mop! It is quite possible to convert a mop into a burglar in our own spiritual experiences. Just once more let me ask you to bear in mind that Watchfulness does not consist in, and is not identical with, a severe affectation of solemnity, add a pious aversion to any. thing like natural mirth or cheerful hilarity. I have before my eyes at this moment the recollection of a dear and honoured brother, who, when something amusing had been related at his table, suddenly drew himself up when he was just beginning to join in the hearty laugh, and observed to me with much seriousness, "I am always afraid of losing communion by giving way to levity." I confess I admired the good man's conscientiousness, which I am sure was perfectly sincere, but I could not help thinking that he was confusing between sombreness and sobriety.
III. But having pointed out certain forms or habits of conduct which are not be mistaken for Watchfulness, though they often are, LET US PROCEED TO INQUIRE WHAT WATCHFULNESS IS; we have seen what it is not. And here it may be well to notice that two distinct words, or perhaps I should say sets of words, in the Greek, are translated in our version by the one word — watch. The one set of terms indicates the necessity of guarding against sleep, and the other the necessity of guarding against any form of moral intoxication and insobriety. Both these ideas are presented to us together in a single passage in the first Epistle to the Thessalonians: "Let us not sleep as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they who sleep sleep in the night: and they that be drunken are drunken in the night." Here the two dangers arising — the one from sleep, and the other from drunkenness — are brought before us at once; and the two words, which are each of them usually translated by the English word — watch, are employed to guard us against these dangers. "Let us watch and be sober." These dangers seem to be in some respects the opposites of each other — the one springs from heaviness and dullness of disposition, and the other from undue excitability. The one is the special danger incidental to monotonous routine and a dead level of quiet regularity, the other is the danger incidental to a life full of stir and bustle — a life where cares and pleasures, successes and failures, important enterprises and stunning disappointments, bringing with them alternating experiences of elation or depression, are only too apt to prove all-engrossing, and to exclude the vivid sense of eternal realities. The one danger will naturally specially threaten the man of phlegmatic temperament and equable disposition, the other will more readily assault the man whose nervous system is highly strung, whether he be of sanguine or melancholic habit. In the present passage the call to watch is coupled with the exhortation to pray, and similarly St. Peter warns us "to be sober and watch unto prayer." This suggests to us that Watchfulness needs first of all to be exorcised in the maintenance of our proper relations with God. If only these be preserved inviolate, everything else is sure to go well with us; but where anything like coldness settles down upon our relations with God, backsliding has already commenced, and unless it be checked we lie at the mercy of our foe. Oh, Christian soul, guard with jealous care against the first beginnings of listlessness and coldness and unreality in thine intercourse with God! Not less, perhaps even more, do we need to watch in the other sense which, as I have pointed out, the word bears in New Testament Scripture. Let us not only keep awake, but let us be sober. We need to remember that we are in an enemy's land, and that unless we are constantly breathing the atmosphere of heaven, the atmosphere of earth, which is all that we have left, soon becomes poisonous, and must produce a sort of moral intoxication. How often have I seen a Christian man completely forget himself under the influence of social excitement! But I hasten to say, Do not let us fall into the mistake of supposing that it is only the light-hearted and the pleasure loving that need to be warned against the danger of becoming intoxicated by worldly influences. The cares and even the occupations of life may have just as deleterious an effect upon us in this respect as the pleasures. Many a man of business is just as much intoxicated with the daily excitements arising from the fluctuations of the market or of the Stock Exchange, and just as much blinded to higher things by the absorbing interests connected with money making or money losing as the votary of pleasure can be at the racecourse or in the ballroom. Yet again, Watchfulness is to be shown not only in maintaining our relations with God, in resisting any disposition to be drowsy, and in guarding against the intoxicating influence of worldly excitement; it is also to be shown in detecting the first approach of temptation, or the first uprisings of an unholy desire. The careful general feels his enemy by his scouts, and thus is prepared to deal with him when the attack takes place. Even so temptation may often be resisted with ease when its first approach is discerned; but it acquires sometimes an almost irresistible power, if it be allowed to draw too near. But I spoke a few moments ago of the importance of watching, not only against the beginning of temptation without, but also against any disposition to make terms with temptation within. Here, I am persuaded, lies, in most instances, the secret cause of failure. Balaam was inwardly hankering after the house full of silver and gold at the very moment when he affected to despise it. But there is a danger on the other side, against which we have to guard with equal watchfulness. And it is the danger of incipient self-complacency.
(W. H. Aitken.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.