The Book of Judges gives us a simple story you no doubt remember, but it is one which carries an interesting lesson. During the wars fought by ancient Israel in the time of Gideon, God decided the Israelite army was actually too large to clearly show it was his power that was giving Israel victory, so he told Gideon to diminish the size of his army!
“So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, ‘Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.’ Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The Lord said to Gideon, ‘With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home’” (Judges 7:5-7).
In this story God separated out those soldiers whose behavior would make them more aware of their surroundings and who would be less likely to be ambushed or slow to respond if attacked. Ultimately he could have separated the soldiers in any way – by those with short hair, those with longer arms, or whatever – but the fact that when God selected his warriors, he chose those who would be more alert perhaps carries a lesson for us. Jesus and Paul both stressed the need to watch and be constantly aware, and particularly in three specific contexts where spiritual tactical awareness can help us in our Christian lives.
• Surprise Attacks! None of us expects to be spiritually ambushed at any given time, yet we all know it can happen. Someone says something that makes our temper flare, or something happens that incites lust, greed or any other negative aspect of our human nature. Jesus spoke specifically about the only way to avoid this scenario: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Notice that Christ put watching, being aware, on a par with prayer regarding controlling our human nature. Paul shows that this kind of attack can occur even when helping others: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). The key is clearly being aware in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. If we can learn to look for the first small signs of trouble with our human nature – and to act accordingly when we see those signs – we can often defeat the “ambush” before it defeats us.
• Slow Attacks! Sometimes it’s not the sudden ambush that defeats us; it’s the insidious attack that slowly creeps up on us that is hard to spot. “Be careful,” Jesus warned, giving a specific example of this, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:15). Here Jesus is talking about the negative effect some people can have on us. Like yeast the influence may work slowly, but it is there and grows in time. Sometimes these slow attacks may even be camouflaged – they may come from within our group of friends or even our church. Such attacks may be made through sincere individuals, and we have to be particularly aware to spot them. When Jesus said “Watch out that no one deceives you” (Mark 13:5), He didn’t necessarily mean people with evil intent, but to watch for any type of deception we might experience. In a similar manner Paul warns us to stay aware of divisions which may creep in and finally destroy even those of the church (Galatians 5:15). Christ also gave another example of this kind of attack: “So watch yourselves. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them” (Luke 17:3). Here it is the root of bitterness that we are warned of – a root which may grow slowly, but eventually, if we are not aware of it, it is a root that can strangle our spiritual growth.
• Sidetrack Attacks! Another kind of attack, and one that happens all too often, is an attack that ultimately we ourselves have a part in creating. It’s all too easy to get sidetracked in life by family, health, financial, or other issues. We all have things that seem to demand more and more of our time – and sometimes it’s not even problems, but pastimes or hobbies that can sidetrack us, though the end result can be the same. Notice Jesus’ words in this context: “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch” (Mark 13:33-35). The ones keeping watch at the door in this short parable may be the servants that God gives to guard his congregations (Acts 20:28 and also Hosea 9:8), but ultimately, this warning applies to all of us, and we must all be alert in guarding our own “doors.” We all have this same responsibility relevant to our own lives and those of our families, just as Paul commanded in I Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.”
We need to stay aware of all these types of attack and to keep them in mind when we read Christ’s words in Mark 13:37: “… I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”