A Missionary’s Most Crucial Spiritual Discipline

Ivan McGuire was a professional skydiver. By the time he was thirty-five years old, he had made over eight hundred jumps and worked as a skydiving instructor. On April 5, 1988, he made his third jump of the day, filming another instructor and a student who jumped from 10,500 feet. But when Ivan attempted to deploy his parachute, he made a tragic discovery: he had forgotten to strap it on.

McGuire’s fatal accident illustrates one of the most common mistakes made by full-time Christian workers. While engaged in the glorious work of pointing others to the way of life, salvation, and righteousness in Christ, missionaries and ministers sometimes neglect to personally appropriate the truth in their own lives. To use the words of the apostle Paul, we need to discipline our bodies and keep them under control, lest having preached to others we become disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27).

This is what Charles Haddon Spurgeon described as “The Minister’s Self-Watch.” Spurgeon had in mind the discipline of watchfulness, a practice frequently commended by the Puritans but sadly neglected today.

Watch in the Bible

The biblical basis for watchfulness comes from Jesus’s exhortation to his sleeping disciples in Gethsemane: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41, ESV). The letters of Paul, Peter, and John sound the same note, urging us to exercise moral vigilance and watchful prayer (1 Cor. 16:13; Gal. 6:1; Col. 4:2; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 4:7; 2 John 8).

All believers, regardless of their station and season in life, need to be watchful. The Christian life is a journey, a race, and a battle. As pilgrims, we travel the long winding road from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. As athletes, we’re called to forget what lies behind and, with eyes fixed on Jesus, to cast aside every hindrance to completing the race of faith.

And as soldiers, we must ready ourselves for battle by putting on the gospel armor and relying on the wisdom and strength of Jesus, our Brother, Captain, and King. These biblical metaphors have shaped the Christian imagination for centuries. Implicit in each picture is the need for eyes-wide-open watchfulness.

“Watchfulness is especially crucial for missionaries . . . who bear the unique responsibility of caring for the souls of others as part of their vocation.”

But watchfulness is especially crucial for missionaries (and ministers, elders, and pastors) who bear the unique responsibility of caring for the souls of others as part of their vocation, often amid considerable challenges. While this calling brings many blessings and joys, missionaries also face unique temptations.

Familiarity with spiritual truths can be mistaken for deep, transforming spiritual experience. The work is hard, the labor exhausting, easily leading to physical and emotional depletion. Missionaries also have targets painted on their backs and an adversary set on taking them down. Spiritual warfare is real on the mission field.

Watch in Practice

So, what does this discipline look like in practice?

First, watchfulness involves considering our own hearts and ways. That’s why the Puritan Richard Rogers defined watchfulness as “a careful observing of our hearts, and diligent looking to our ways, that they may be pleasing, and acceptable unto God.”

Jesus often warned his disciples, urging them to “take heed to yourselves” (Luke 17:3 KJV, emphasis added). In another passage, he said, “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life” (Luke 21:34).

“Missionaries have targets painted on their backs and an adversary set on taking them down.”

Second, watchfulness requires paying attention to the Word. As Jesus told his disciples, we are to “take heed,” or pay attention, to what we hear. This exhortation follows the famous parable of the soils (Mark 4:3–20). In this parable, Jesus used different kinds of soil to illustrate the various ways people respond to the proclamation of the Word.

The soils represent different kinds of hearers, only one of which was good: the soil that bore fruit. The other soils represent defective hearers and illustrate how our spiritual enemy, persecution, and worldliness can keep us from rightly receiving and responding to the Word.

“Good soil” hearers, in contrast, are described as those who hear the Word, accept the Word, and bear fruit. The implication is that by failing to give full attention to the Word, we can easily lose it. The enemy can snatch the Word from our hearts. The Word can wither in the burning heat of suffering, or it can be crowded out by worldly cares and desires.

Watch Christ

But, third, watchfulness especially means attentiveness to Christ himself. The only way to run the race before us is by “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2 KJV). The greatest masters of spiritual life recognized and taught this.

In one of his final books, John Owen urged believers to “live in constant contemplation of the glory of Christ,” believing that “when the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and his glory, when the soul thereon cleaves unto him with intense affections, they will cast out . . . the causes of spiritual weakness.” Indeed, only this steady sight on Christ can produce true watchfulness.

“Watchfulness especially means attentiveness to Christ himself.”

Perhaps no one has helped me learn how to look to Christ better than the nineteenth-century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M‘Cheyne. M‘Cheyne once wrote a letter to someone he had never met but whose spiritual case had been made known to him. In his letter to this anonymous, struggling Christian, M‘Cheyne gave the advice for which he is perhaps best known. He wrote, “Do not take up your time so much with studying your own heart as with studying Christ’s heart. For one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ!”

This is crucial. While we’re commanded to watch our hearts, our predominant focus must be on Christ, not ourselves. Missionaries must never forget that apart from Christ, they can do nothing. But when they abide in him and his Word abides in them, they will bear much fruit and the Father will be glorified (John 15:1–8).

Brian G. Hedges serves as lead pastor of Redeemer Church in Niles, Michigan. He is the author of several books, most recently Watchfulness: Recovering a Lost Spiritual Discipline. You can follow him on Twitter.