“The Discipline of Watching” is the 12th chapter in the book The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges, which we’re discussing every Thursday in the “Reading Classics Together” challenge at Challies‘ place. More discussion on this chapter is here.
The epigraph for this chapter is Matthew 26:41: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Just as the Titanic sank because its captain and crew ignored warnings and didn’t employ methods at hand for watching out for icebergs, so we can fall into temptation if we’re not watchful and if we don’t employ the tools God gave us for that purpose.
The first step in watchfulness is knowing our enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Each has unique ways of attempting to lure one into sin.
Probably most of us have the most trouble with the “flesh,” our old nature. Bridges quotes Sinclair Ferguson as saying, “Freedom from the dominion of sin is not…the same thing as freedom from its presence and influence. Indeed, the power of sin remains where the dominion has been banished, and though that power of sin be weakened, yet its nature is not changed” (p. 212). We’re saved from the dominion of sin when we become Christians, but we won’t be totally free from its presence until we get to heaven, so we must be on guard against its influence and pulls. “Our flesh is always searching out opportunities to gratify itself according to the particular sinful desires each of us has” (p. 213-214). Though we can be tempted by most anything, each of us has certain sins we’re more inclined to. Jim Berg, in his book Changed Into His Image, calls them “designer sins.”
We need to know our particular weaknesses in order to watch out for our particular temptations. But we need to be careful of our strengths, too, “because that is where we are apt to trust ourselves and not depend on God” (p. 217). We need to be careful not to let “little” sins slide, because they can snowball into bigger problems before we know it.
All this talk of watchfulness might cause some to wonder, “What about Christian liberty?” Paul urges us not to”turn our freedom into an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:13). We can’t make up a Pharisaical list of don’ts (we can too easily judge our spirituality and everyone else’s by our “lists”), but we need to know that our heart is desperately wicked and will look for excuses to follow its own way. Some helpful guidelines to keep ourselves in check are:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. I Corinthians 6:12.
All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor. (I Corinthians 10:23-24).
“The best defense is a good offense,” as the old saying goes, and “the best offense is meditation on the Word of God and prayer. It is surely no coincidence that they are the only two spiritual exercises that we are encouraged to do continually” (p. 223). “For every temptation that you face, there are specific passages of Scripture that address that issue” (p. 223). We can seek some out, perhaps asking the help of another mature Christian if we don’t know where to look, and then “memorize those verses, meditate on them, and pray over them every day, asking the Holy Spirit to bring them to your mind in times of need. Ask, also, that He will strengthen your will to enable you to obey the word that He brings to your mind” (p. 223). And we can pray, as Jesus instructed His disciples, that God would “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13).
Even with all of that, we sin every day, and we need God’s grace for forgiveness. “The gospel of God’s forgiveness of our sins through Christ’s death frees us to face those sins honestly and bring them to the cross and Jesus’ cleansing blood. The freedom and joy that then come from a cleansed conscience create the desire and give us the right motive to deal with those sins. We cannot effectively pursue holiness without going back again and again to the gospel” (p. 225).
And even though Bridges doesn’t say this directly, it’s implied through the whole chapter that grace doesn’t negate the need for watchfulness. That we can be forgiven for sins doesn’t mean we should not make every attempt to avoid them. Jesus said to “watch and pray” and to pray that we wouldn’t be led into temptation, Paul told readers to “flee youthful lusts,” to do and not to do certain things. We can’t be presumptuous and negligent, thinking that it doesn’t matter if we sin because God will forgive us. Psalm 19:13 even contains the prayer, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me.” But, thank God, when we do fail we can experience His grace and forgiveness.