When God Withholds Sleep

How to Handle Restless Nights

2:40am. The red numbers glare at me through the darkness of the room, taunting me to try to get back to sleep. As I toss and turn, trying to get comfortable, my mind clicks on like the rooster just crowed. Before I know it, my thoughts are off and running, trying to figure out the carpool schedule for the week, or calculating when I’ll have time to finish a task, or replaying a difficult conversation. Eventually I’m left feeling exhausted and frustrated at the same time. Doesn’t God give sleep to his beloved (Psalm 127:2)? Why has this become a routine trial for me?

“One day our sleeplessness will be exchanged for perfect rest in eternity.”

Sleeplessness has been the thorn in my flesh for a handful of years. Somewhere in the midst of waking up in the night to nurse babies or care for a sick child or tend to someone who had a nightmare, my sleep cycles were significantly altered. Being a mom has trained my ear to wake up at the slightest noise, and once I’m up, my mind turns on, and it’s hard to shut back down.

Awake in the Night

Whether the cause is children, evening work shifts, or anxiety, the battle with sleeplessness is a common trial. I’ve tried natural remedies, exercise, limited screen time, reading, and even prescription medicine to try to solve the problem. But most of the time, nothing seems to have a long-lasting effect. A frequent prayer request of mine is for better sleep. Some nights, that prayer is answered. I feel like a new woman when I sleep continuously for six or more hours. I’ve grown to be deeply grateful for a good night’s sleep. But the majority of the time, consistent sleep through the night has been a struggle — a struggle that can leave me feeling exhausted and discouraged.

At times, the words of Psalm 127:2 have stung: “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.” In my worst moments, I’ve questioned God’s love for me. Why would he make this promise and then allow me so many restless nights?

But what if God shows his love for us not only through the gift of sleep, but through the gift of sleeplessness? Might he use sleepless nights to draw us closer to himself? To depend on him each moment of the day?

When Nighttime Falls

If you’ve struggled with setting your mind to rest and falling asleep at night, you’ve likely experienced some pre-bedtime anxiety. Another restless night could make it difficult to care for your children, make it through the board meeting with your eyes open, or have the clarity of mind for an interview.

But as nighttime falls, God already knows our needs. Jesus reminds us not to be anxious about our life (Matthew 6:25–34) — and that includes the next eight hours. If God cares for the tiniest creatures around us, how much more will he care for us? Worrying profits nothing, but robs us of peace, joy, and often, more sleep.

“Our hope isn’t in a perfect eight hours of sleep, but in a faithful God whom we can trust to sustain us the next day.”

Instead of drowning in the cares of tomorrow, we can meditate on the promises of God to care for us. God already knows how many hours of sleep we need in order to function the next day. He is our good and faithful Father. We can trust him with our sleep, or lack thereof. We can lie down to rest, entrusting ourselves to the One who never slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4), and asking him to fulfill for us the words of David, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

Midnight Battle

Maybe you’re like me. I usually have no trouble falling asleep. The events of the day and four children leave me completely exhausted at bedtime. It’s those middle-of-the-night noises that rouse me awake and get my mind running like the engine of a car. What can we do in such moments? We’ve prayed for a good night’s rest, but here we are again, awake.

Psalm 119:147–148 gives us a picture of how we might fight our midnight battle:

I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night,
that I may meditate on your promise.

It’s easy to wake up and begin trying to solve our biggest problems, or at least the dinner menu for the week. Why not instead join the psalmist in crying for help? Rather than letting our minds carry us away from our much-needed sleep, perhaps we might pray that God would help us entrust our worries to him. And whether sleep comes or not, we can meditate on his promises instead of dwelling on our problems.

Another psalmist wrote, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” When we open our eyes in the middle of the night, we might ask the same question. From where does our help come in the darkest hours of the night? “[Our] help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1–2).

Our hope isn’t in a perfect eight hours of sleep, but in a faithful God whom we can trust to sustain us the next day. He promises to give us strength in our weakness and provide us with his all-sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Bleary-Eyed Morning

My constant prayer to sleep through the night has caused me to lean into the promises of God like nothing else has. In the midst of my bleary eyes and lagging body, I’m pushed to rely on Christ for strength. My lack of good rest has made me depend on God in ways that I wouldn’t if I normally got seven hours of good sleep.

“What if God shows his love for us not only through the gift of sleep, but through the gift of sleeplessness?”

I find myself dependent on him for strength to get up and serve my family when I really want to stay in bed another hour. Dependent on him for patience with my kids when I am feeling extra irritable. Dependent on him for self-control when I’m tempted to consume a mountain of sugar and caffeine to keep going. Dependent on him for the time and focus needed to finish a project or prepare for Bible study. In each of these moments, there’s a beauty to seeing our own inadequacies and realizing our need for the grace of God to uphold us.

Our joy does not come from the strength of a full night of sleep, but from the strength that God gives us in himself: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion” (Psalm 84:5).

Our Past and Future Hope

Jesus can sympathize with our sleeplessness. The night before his crucifixion, he spent an agonizing night awake in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading with God for the cup to pass (Mark 14:32–42). His own friends and disciples failed him by falling asleep when he asked them to stay awake to pray. The daunting events of the forthcoming day kept Jesus awake throughout the night. He understands our angst, our weariness, our frustration. His sleepless night came on the cusp of him facing the most excruciating event of all time — taking on the sin of the world.

And because of his great love and sacrifice, we have hope that one day our sleeplessness will be exchanged for perfect rest in eternity. As our earthly bodies battle fatigue, we remember in heaven we’ll no longer be tired. God will give us new bodies that will be perfectly rested in him.

In the meantime, God has a purpose in our sleeplessness. He can use our weakness to make us dependent on him, showing us his love and care with each passing minute of the day. He can use our weariness to push us to lean on him as the all-sufficient, all-wise, and all-powerful God, and to know that when we are weak with sleeplessness, then we are strong in him.