It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Ps. 127:2)
My eyes would snap open at 2:30 a.m., and the concerns would already be running laps around my mind. What are we going to do financially if this happens? How should we handle this pastoral situation? Before I could roll over and get back to sleep, my brain would decide this was the perfect time to solve these problems, along with many of the world’s problems. The real problem, though, was that these midnight mental workouts were rarely productive.
The minutes staring at my ceiling would turn into hours, all the while different scenarios would sprint through my mind.
That sort of experience marks my nights too regularly. While everyone periodically deals with a night of poor sleep, finding yourself strangled by worry in the middle of the night should cause us to examine matters at a deeper level. You see, sleep is not merely a physical necessity. It is a theological declaration, and God has designed it to be that way. It is often when we are not depending upon God that sleep becomes scarce.
You are not God.
Sleep is a declaration that we are not God, and He is in control. Psalm 3:5 states, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.” Over in Psalm 4:8, David writes, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” Do you see how the psalm writers link sleep to God’s character and work? Their sleep is rooted in a belief that God is our Sustainer and Protector. To put it another way, sleeping is a testimony that God is God, and we are not.
Laying your head on your pillow each night and closing your eyes to the things of this world forces you to realize that the world continues to function without you. Likewise, parents face the truth that our children are out of our supervision and out of our protection for hours upon hours each night, and yet, they are not out of supervision or protection. There is an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent God who is upholding the entire universe and watching over his people, all without breaking a sweat. To use the words of John Piper, “Sleep is like a broken record that comes around with the same message every day: Man is not sovereign.”
The Spiritual Fight for Sleep
If you find sleep to be an elusive friend in the watches of the night because of spiritual or emotional turmoil, here are two ways to fight for your spiritual health. They won’t be Copernican revolutions for your spiritual life, but the Christian life is often one of regular rhythms and activities that produce small changes over a long period of time.
First, memorize some promises about the Lord’s character and nature that you can meditate upon when you are tempted to sinful anxiety. Consider this passage when you are worrying about the Lord’s provision or faithfulness:
The word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.Psalm 33:4-11
Memorizing Scripture is not a magic sleeping pill. But my fundamental need when I lie awake worrying at night is not sleep, even though my body reminds me how important sleep is. My fundamental need is to stop living under the sinful delusion that I am the Master of the universe who should, or even could, solve every potential problem facing my family and my church. Memorizing Scripture passages like the one above helps me remember that I am prostrate in a bed while there is the Lord in the heavens who neither sleeps nor slumbers nor is affected by the plans of mighty nations. It forces me to recognize who I am and who God is.
A second method for trying to find rest in the middle of the night is to pray. If you’re like me, 95% of those sleepless nights are spent worrying and 5% praying. When I feel emotional or spiritual struggle at night, sometimes the best thing for me is to get out of bed and go spend time in prayer. 2 a.m. is a great time to experience the reality of Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Sleep is theology in motion. It’s a physical word that declares our daily reliance upon God. I pray that you find physical rest through resting in the sovereign Lord of the universe.