This episode will launch on the evening of the Fourth of July, so many Americans will be sleep-deprived tonight, which is timely, because we have an email from a listener named Ashley who writes in to ask how much sleep is a sign of personal laziness? And how little sleep is a sign of faithless arrogance. “Hello Pastor John! My question for you is about sleep. I have heard opposing opinions ranging from some saying that sleep is a very necessary humbling reminder of our mortality to the others explaining that we must sacrifice everything, including sleep, to be able to utilize our time on earth to glorify the Lord. What are your thoughts on this? Is it more glorifying to God to utilize his gift of rest through sleep or to capitalize on the time we have to go sleep-deprived in order to more fully serve him?”
I wonder if it might be helpful to compare this question to questions about food and fasting. Is food good? Should it be enjoyed? Should we regularly eat a healthy diet? But on the other hand, is fasting or not eating good? Are there times when for the kingdom we will skip meals?
And the answer is surely that God does give food as an absolute necessity for life. You can’t live without food, and you can’t live without sleep. And he does approve of our enjoyment of the food (1 Timothy 4:4; 6:17).
Sleep Is Good
He commends the goodness of rest to his disciple. “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). So, both are surely true. Sleep is good. Sleep is humbling. Sleep is a parable of our helplessness and of our utter dependence on God. Sleep is a gift. But sleep is not the absolute good. And in a world with desperate need on every hand, the aim is not to maximize our comfort in this life or even our health in this life, but to love people and do as much good as we can.
“God uses us to advance his kingdom, but not in such a way that we should feel indispensable to his purposes.”
We see this played out in Jesus’s life and his teaching. “Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). So, he got up early in the morning. That means he did not sleep out, or sleep in, like we might say. Or Luke 6:12, “In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.”
Now, I don’t know how much he did sleep that night, but when ordinary sleep was called for, he skipped it for kingdom reasons. And yet Jesus had such peace with God and composure in this world that he could sleep right through the storm (Luke 8:23). So, it seems that if Jesus did lose sleep in one part of the day, he would catch up in other parts with sleeps in storms.
Jesus describes — this is interesting — he describes the work of the kingdom like this: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (Mark 4:26–27).
Now, what is the point? God is the decisive worker. That is the point. God is the decisive seed sprouter and grower of fruit. And the advance of the kingdom is not finally dependent on us. God uses us to be sure, but not in such a way that we should feel indispensable to his purposes. He can do it, thank you very much, without us. And so, it should relieve us of a God complex or a Messiah complex.
“Ask yourself: Am I getting less sleep because the Lord is truly leading me, or am I simply testing him?”
Take Paul, for example. He knew that. He knew that God was decisive. Nevertheless, there were numerous situations in Paul’s life where he had to forgo sleep for the sake of the kingdom. He says in 2 Corinthians 6:4–5, “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”
Or again, 2 Corinthians 11:25–26, “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst.” So, Paul didn’t quit the ministry because it was exhausting. He found a way to press on.
And, then, of course, lastly, there is the wonderful Psalm 127:1–2 where God, again, is the decisive worker in all our work. Here is what it says: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”
And then here it comes: “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.” You can build a house, you can watch over a city, and you can skip sleep. And all of it will be in vain, unless the Lord builds the house, the Lord watches over the city, and the Lord keeps you up by his call and his strength for his purpose.
So, the question always will be: Am I getting less sleep because I am truly being led by the Lord and sustained by the Lord in humble faith, or am I presumptuously jumping off the temple and testing the Lord to see if he will catch me and keep me from getting a heart attack?