It happens with alarming, distressing regularity. And it hurts every time. It hurts every time we see a person we love or admire fall into a great sin or deny a precious doctrine. We are always left asking ourselves how it happened. What went wrong? How did we not see this coming? How did they not see this coming?
Every one of these situations is unique and uniquely complicated. And yet there is always an inevitable, terrible simplicity as well. These people failed to carry out a simple task. They failed to maintain an effective self-watch. When Paul wrote to Timothy he said, “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching”—keep a close watch on how you behave and on what you believe. Though Paul spoke to Timothy as a pastor, these words apply to each and every Christian. Are you keeping a close watch?
Keep Watch on Your Life
Think of someone you know who committed one of those grave sins, the kind of sin that disqualified him from ministry or wrecked her home and marriage. Think, perhaps, about the person who was caught in an illicit affair. It’s not like this person just woke up one morning and said, “I think I’ll commit adultery today.” No, that sin was the result of a long relaxing of vigilance. He first allowed his eyes to wander, then allowed lustful thoughts to linger. She began to strike up conversations she knew she shouldn’t have, to go where she shouldn’t have gone, and to linger in the presence of someone she should have stayed away from. Over time these small actions prepared them for that big sin, primed them for that major fall. The sin was so unnecessary, so avoidable. But it became possible, it became inevitable, when they failed to keep a close watch on their behavior, on their life, on themselves.
God calls us to keep a close watch on our behavior and this requires both inner and outer vigilance, knowing ourselves and being known by others.
Inner vigilance is seeing ourselves through the lens of the Bible and believing what we see there. It is reading the Bible in such a way that the Bible reads us. The Bible exposes our hearts, lays bare our motives, calls us to believe and obey. We are to mine the darkest depths of our hearts through the brilliant light of scripture, to know our specific weaknesses and favorite temptations, and to do the difficult work of putting sin to death while coming alive to righteousness.
Outer vigilance is allowing others to see and know us. It is joining in community with others, exposing our hearts before trusted friends, allowing them to have a voice, and believing what they see and say. It is humility expressed in transparency. We keep a close watch on our lives by allowing others to keep a close watch on our lives.
Keep Watch on Your Doctrine
While some fall because they fail to keep a close watch on their behavior, others fall because they fail to keep a close watch on their beliefs. Think about that person who comes to deny a precious doctrine of the Christian faith, whose name is one day splashed across headlines for his new, more progressive kind of Christianity.
This person does not simply wake up one morning and decide to deny the faith or to affirm something utterly contrary to the Bible. This big denial or ugly affirmation follows a long period of drifting. Recently I read of a theologian who has changed his views on marriage and homosexuality. He did not have a major epiphany one day that changed everything. No, he first altered his position on the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, then his view of sin and sinfulness, then his understanding of love. His slide was slow but steady. He failed to keep a close watch on his doctrine and one by one his beliefs eroded until his new position became unavoidable, inevitable.
Once more, we need to maintain both inner and outer vigilance. In this case the inner vigilance is of the same kind—reading God’s Word, believing God’s Word, and obeying God’s Word. It is trusting that God speaks clearly and that very often what he speaks will be contrary to what the culture around us desires or demands. God’s ways are too divine, too other, to play nicely with sinful humanity.
The outer vigilance may come from those who know and love us, but as commonly and importantly it involves immersing ourselves in the historic Christian faith, reading deeply of those who have gone before. After all, while society changes, while social mores shift, the truth remains fixed and certain. It is rare that the church has consistently, historically been wrong on a major point of doctrine. It is only with the greatest caution and overwhelming support that we should depart from what the church has always taught.
Are You Keeping Watch?
Do you see it? Crumbling behavior and crumbling beliefs, a shipwrecked life or a shipwrecked faith, both result from a lack of vigilance. This is why it is your responsibility to “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16). This is why God charges elders to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). God charges every Christian to be vigilant over how you behave and what you believe. Are you keeping a close watch?