The Godliness of a Good Night’s Sleep

Somewhere near the beginning of my Christian life, I started associating sleeplessness with godliness. And for understandable reasons.

The sluggard of Proverbs has long lived as a vivid character in my imagination — that buffoon who flops on his bed “as a door turns on its hinges” (Proverbs 26:14), who answers his mother’s fourth knock with a mumble: “A little sleep, a little slumber . . .” (Proverbs 6:10). Then, positively, I read of psalmists who prayed at midnight and woke before dawn (Psalm 119:62, 147) — and of a Savior who rose “very early” (Mark 1:35) and sometimes passed the night without a wink (Luke 6:12).

Stories from church history also cast a shadow over my bed. I read with wonder how Hudson Taylor sometimes rose at 2:00am to read and pray until 4:00am (Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 243). George Whitefield, too, was known to begin his day well before dawn, sometimes finishing both his devotions and his first sermon by 6:00am (George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant, 196). And didn’t the Puritans get just a few hours of sleep a night? The post-Puritan William Law seemed to capture the spirit of the godliest saints when he spoke of “renouncing sleep” to redeem the time (When I Don’t Desire God, 160).

Under such influences, I tried many times to carve off minutes and sometimes hours from my nightly routine, attempting to find the smallest amount of sleep I could get without losing essential functions. I greeted many midnights and dark mornings. I experimented with elaborate alarm clocks. I traded my pillow for cups of coffee.

And all the while, I did not always take seriously all that God says about sleep. I did not realize that “sometimes,” as D.A. Carson puts it, “the godliest thing you can do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep” (Scandalous, 147).

Sleeping Saints

For all the biblical passages that hallow sleeplessness, perhaps just as many sanctify sleep. In Proverbs, the same father who warns his son about the dangers of “a little sleep” also assures him that wisdom gives good rest (Proverbs 3:24). Alongside the psalmists who praise God at midnight are others who praise him in the morning after a sound night of slumber (Psalm 3:5).

And in the Gospels, one of the more remarkable images of our Savior is of him in a storm-tossed, wave-battered boat, “asleep on the cushion” (Mark 4:37–38). He could stay up all night when needed, but he was not above taking a nap the next day.

“For those prone to productive self-reliance, the bed is a desk in God’s school of humility.”

Perhaps the most striking endorsement of sleep, however, comes from the simple fact that God made us this way. Scripture gives no indication that our need for nightly rest began in Genesis 3. And in fact, before the fruit was taken from the tree, before the weariness of sin weighed down the world, Adam slept (Genesis 2:21). Sleep, it seems, is no fallen necessity, nor merely a fleshly temptation, but a divine gift. Both then and now, God “gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2).

And therefore, though occasions come when we must renounce sleep for the sake of something greater, Scripture gives us a more positive default posture: in Christ, God teaches us to redeem sleep. He brings our beds back to Eden, where we learn to receive sleep as healer, teacher, giver, and servant.

Sleep as Healer

On nights when sleep seems like a great interruption, like an eight-hour paralysis on our plans, we may find help from imagining our beds as a balm for mind, body, and soul. For by God’s design, sleep halts us to heal us.

Until recently, sleep’s God-given powers of healing were a matter more of intuition than of empirical reality. But sleep scientists can now write volumes about the benefits of adequate rest for the brain and the body. Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, goes so far as to say, “Sleep is the universal health care provider: whatever the physical or mental ailment, sleep has a prescription it can dispense” (Why We Sleep, 108). While we lie unconscious, sleep solidifies our memories and nourishes our creativity; it boosts our energy and staves off sickness.

Which also means that sleep plays a modest but notable role in our spiritual health. As exercise can keep our bodies fit for service, and as nutrition can energize us for good works, so a healthy pattern of sleep can assist our love for God and neighbor — keeping us awake and alert for meditation and prayer, readying us to spend and be spent for others. More than that, good rest also guards us from sins that our sleep-deprived selves might indulge more easily: irritability and impatience, bitterness and lust, cynicism and grumbling.

When the miserable Elijah asked God to take his life, God’s remedy for the prophet’s despondency was first sleep, then food, then more sleep — and then finally words (1 Kings 19:4–6). John Piper, having learned Elijah’s lesson, mentions how he becomes “emotionally less resilient” on little sleep. Therefore, he writes, “For me, adequate sleep is not just a matter of staying healthy. It’s a matter of staying in the ministry — I’m tempted to say it’s a matter of persevering as a Christian” (When I Don’t Desire God, 205).

Nightly, the God who knit these brains and bodies stands beside our beds, ready to retie the day’s loose ends, patch our holes, and wake us up repaired, freshly ready to hear and respond to his words of life.

Sleep as Teacher

As sleep heals, it also teaches. And in a world preoccupied with productivity, sleep teaches lessons we might scarcely learn elsewhere: God, not we, upholds our life (Psalm 121:3–4); his initiative and action, not ours, decisively builds our homes and watches over our cities (Psalm 127:1–2). For those prone to productive self-reliance, the bed is a desk in God’s school of humility.

Like Israel’s weekly Sabbath, nighttime bids us to lay down our to-do lists and cease our striving, reminding us that God can keep our lives running while we lie unproductive. And like Israel’s Sabbath, the lesson is hard learned and easily forgotten. Many of us receive God’s rest reluctantly, even unwillingly, like people searching for manna on the seventh day (Exodus 16:27). Yet the teacher sleep returns again, each night repeating its lesson.

As if to reinforce the point, God tells us stories where he works wonders during our deepest slumber. In Eden, Adam falls asleep a bachelor and wakes to find a bride (Genesis 2:21–23). Later, a similar “deep sleep” falls on Abram, and in the darkness, God makes great and solemn promises, and seals his gracious covenant (Genesis 15:12–21). And then still later, as the disciples’ heavy lids close on their Savior’s anguish, Jesus wrestles and prays and wins the victory in Gethsemane alone (Mark 14:40–42).

To be sure, we ought not presume that God will fix our shoddy work while we sleep. In all likelihood, the weeds the sluggard should have pulled today will still be there tomorrow, a little taller for his negligence. But for those who are tempted to eat “the bread of anxious toil” (Psalm 127:2), these images of God’s tireless care, his sleepless provision, powerfully remind us that he can do far more in our sleeping than we can do in our waking.

Sleep as Giver

Of course, we may acknowledge sleep as healer and teacher yet still find ourselves lying down begrudgingly. Medicine and lessons may be necessary, but necessity rarely makes patients and pupils rejoice. Scripture, however, speaks of sleep not only as needed, but also, for God’s people, as “sweet” (Proverbs 3:24; Jeremiah 31:26).

Like food, sleep falls among those good gifts “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3); it is one part of the “everything” that God “richly provides” for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17). And therefore, we sleep Christianly when we not only humble ourselves to get the sleep we need, but also when, as Adrian Reynolds puts it, we “wake up after a good night, stretch and cry out, ‘Thank you, Lord, for the good gift of sleep’” (And So to Bed, 38). Sleep is a generous gift from a generous God.

Beyond bodily refreshment, however, God invites us to experience sleep as gift on a far deeper level. We catch a glimpse in Psalm 31:5, a common bedtime prayer in Jesus’s day: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” At night, God gives us the privilege of giving to him our very selves, including all the cares that feel so vexing and troubling, so discouraging and distracting. There at our bedside he takes them — takes us — and safely keeps us while we sleep. And there is no sweeter place to sleep than in the sovereign hands of God.

“God can do far more in our sleeping than we can do in our waking.”

Jesus, who would pray Psalm 31:5 before his great and final sleep, enjoyed this gift every day during his three decades on earth. How else could he sleep through the storm? How else could he rest while surrounded by so much need, while threatened by so many foes? Only because he nightly handed his spirit into his Father’s care, and received from his Father a peace that surpassed the biggest troubles of today and tomorrow.

Sleep as Servant

Sleep as healer, sleep as teacher, sleep as giver — these three give us abundant reason to actively seek a good night’s rest. In light of them, many of us may need to acknowledge how much sleep we really need and to consider some basic tips for falling asleep and staying asleep, especially in our caffeinated, sedentary, digital world.

But the aim of Christian sleep goes further still. As followers of the Savior who sacrificed his sleep for us, we do not pursue a good night’s rest at all costs. We do not take this healer, teacher, giver and set it up also as master. Rather, we receive sleep with a soul that stands ready, at all times, to forsake sleep when love calls.

Perhaps a friend in need asks for a late-night phone call, or a small-group member needs an early-morning ride to the airport. Perhaps a child cries from down the hall, or a spouse just needs to talk. Perhaps hospitality ran late, or some crucial decision requires a midnight consultation with our Lord. Either way, in the face of such needs, we kindly thank sleep for its services and then dismiss it as the servant God made it to be.

When we leave our beds to walk in love, we do not leave our God. His help is stronger than sleep’s healing, his wisdom deeper than sleep’s teaching, his generosity greater than sleep’s giving. He can sustain us in our sleeplessness and, in his good time, give again to his beloved sleep.