A Brief Theology of Sleep
At 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning the world is not dark, but there is no color. Everything is black and white and grey, except for the orange light on the garage across the street that shines through my bedroom window. There is no breeze, and the poplar leaves are caught like a snapshot in stillness. The stars are gone but the sun is not up yet; so you can’t tell if the grey sky is overcast or clear. Very soon we will know.
I sit on the edge of my bed trying to develop a theology of sleep. Why did God design us to need sleep? We sleep a third of our lives. Just think of it: a third of our lives spent like dead men. Just think of everything being left undone that could be done had God not designed us to need sleep. There is surely no doubt that he could have created us with no need for sleep. And just think, everyone could devote himself to two careers, and not feel tired. Everyone could be a “full-time Christian worker” and still keep his job. There is so much of our Father’s business we could be about.
Why did God imagine sleep? He never sleeps! He thought the idea up out of nothing. He thought it up for his earthly creatures. Why! Psalm 127:2 says, “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 in his sleep.” According to this text sleep is a gift of love, and the gift is often spurned by anxious toil. Peaceful sleep is the opposite of anxiety. God does not want his children to be anxious, but to trust him. Therefore I conclude that God made sleep as a continual reminder that we should not be anxious but should rest in him.
Sleep is a daily reminder from God that we are not God. “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). But Israel will. For we are not God. Once a day God sends us to bed like patients with a sickness. The sickness is a chronic tendency to think we are in control and that our work is indispensable. To cure us of this disease God turns us into helpless sacks of sand once a day. How humiliating to the self-made corporate executive that he has to give up all control and become as limp as a suckling infant every day.
Sleep is a parable that God is God and we are mere men. God handles the world quite nicely while a hemisphere sleeps. Sleep is like a broken record that comes around with the same message every day: Man is not sovereign. Man is not sovereign. Man is not sovereign. Don’t let the lesson be lost on you. God wants to be trusted as the great worker who never tires and never sleeps. He is not nearly so impressed with our late nights and early mornings as he is with the peaceful trust that casts all anxieties on him and sleeps.
In quest of rest,