The Sovereign Hand of Sleeplessness

I am on the red-eye flight to school-aged children, and I’m weary of the tiredness.

Fellow parents of young children know what I mean by this, with their own recent memories of recurring nights in which each little person in the house seemed to need something, desperately, between the hours of midnight and five o’clock.

But even if this is not your situation, you probably have some other form of exhaustion breathing down your neck right now. The job with relentless billable-hour expectations. The endless ream of readings, exams, and papers due soon. Or the aging body that never seems to be fully rested anymore.

Fighting off stress, worry, and anxiety can become a nightly battle even when one does manage to go to bed early, making it difficult to get the mental peace that often serves as a precursor to physical peace.

The lack of rest feels like an enemy, and to some extent, it is. The dysfunction of a fallen world guarantees that we will never have quite enough hours in the day, that our bodies too often won’t cooperate with our desire for rest, and that we will feel our physical limitations deeply.

Sleep Is a Gift from God

Sleeplessness can leave us vulnerable to temptation and weakness. Modern pundits tell of the consequences of accumulated restlessness on the mind, body, and soul. God has designed our bodies to need rest; the gift of sleep reminds us that we are not sovereign, that we are not omnipotent, but that God is both of these, and more, to us his children.

The gift of sleep is really a gift of dependence, an invitation to trust the God who “will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4) and who “gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). So sleep, and the need for it, is good. And we should seek to get enough rest as far as it depends on us to do so.

But then what do we do with sleeplessness? There are seasons, sometimes long ones, in which we cannot seem to get the desired amount of sleep in spite of our best efforts. Perhaps working the graveyard shift doesn’t allow for quite enough rest overall, or there is extra schooling, or a second job on top of normal work hours, or chronic illness, or several small people at home who can awaken any number of times during the night for any number of reasons.

I recall one night in particular after our third child was born in which each of our children paraded into our room, one after the other, all night long, needing bed sheets changed, nightmares soothed, infant tummies filled, and I no longer remember what else. It felt planned. It wasn’t, of course.

Actually, it was, but my children were not the masterminds. My sovereign God (and yours) has ordained every night of my life, just as he has ordained my every day. He is the author of the number of times I wake each night, just as he is the author of each one of the days of my life, be they blissful, benign, or “bad.” And so whether I wake one time or six on any given night, he knows that, and he has, in fact, designed that night as part of my life, for my ultimate good, and his ultimate glory.

God at Work When We Can’t Sleep

The God who has accomplished my salvation, from start to finish, is the God who ordained it before the beginning of the world (Ephesians 1:4–5). Will the God who chose me from before the beginning of time forget me, now that it is the middle of the night and I can feel every ounce of energy I had stored for tomorrow draining away?

The answer is an emphatic no. And here is the solution to the practical dilemma of exhaustion, the place where exhaustion becomes a steering wheel that drives us toward God in a different way than sleep does. Sleeplessness causes us to look away from ourselves — our capacity, our resources, our energy reserve, our mental acumen, our physical strength, and our careful planning and scheming — and it causes us to rely solely on him who “does not faint or grow weary” (Isaiah 40:28). It is there, in the middle of the night, with the baby — or computer, or hospital IV, or mental stressor — that we find ourselves coming to the end of ourselves. And the end of ourselves is a very good place to be.

The reason we fear sleeplessness so much is because we know that we will come face to face with our limitations, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities. We will find we are not all-sufficient, that we cannot provide what we need to get through the next day. But “fear not,” our Father tells us, “for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

God himself is the only All-Sufficient One. He always has been. He always will be. He brings sleeplessness into our lives so that we will remember this. In this place of exhaustion, we find God’s grace to be ever present.

Tired and Trusting

A morning in which I can barely pry my eyes open is an invitation to run — run, not walk — into the arms of my Father, who has promised never to leave me or forsake me, who has given me his Holy Spirit, who has promised that if I seek first his kingdom and his righteousness in this day of sandpaper eyes and aching muscles, that all these things are mine – including the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control that Jesus purchased at the cross.

So I rest in this: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). No longer is a good day one in which I wake up well-rested. A good day is one in which I can look back at the end of it and see God’s provision in my lack, his sufficient grace in my moments of weakness, his forgiveness to cover my failures, and more of his joy, laughter, kindness, patience, and love coming out of my mouth than I would have dared to dream when I dragged myself out of bed that morning. Tired, but happy, in Jesus is a good place to be.

Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:30–31)