Imagine a drug that helped you lose a stone in weight over the course of a year, reduced your chances of being overweight by 42% and increased your daily alertness by a third.
Consider a new medicine that, in some women, reduced breast cancer by up to 38% and cut road deaths by 8,000 per year across the world. What would you pay for it? What would it be worth to the National Health Service?
Such a treatment does, in fact, exist. It’s been around since God made humankind. We’ve been staring it in the face for too long and it’s time to recognise that God made humanity with an inbuilt health-improvement facility.
It’s called sleep.
Sleep is increasingly despised, however. Whatever else you may think about Margaret Thatcher, the fact that she apparently survived on four hours sleep a night is a cause for admiration. Think of all you could get done, if only you slept less. In fact, this is precisely the way some people organise their days. The only way to fit in work, leisure, housework, socialising and church is to reduce the time you spend asleep.
But physically and spiritually, that’s a false economy. The NHS recommends that adults need between six and nine hours sleep per night in order to function well. Sleep is not just a question of recharging for the next day, however. It is hugely more profound.
Sleep is first mentioned in the Bible right at the very beginning of time. Sleep has a distinct purpose – from it comes the creation of woman. ‘So the lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man’ (Genesis 2:21-22). Adam is delighted as he then sings a song about his new bride. That was one good night’s sleep.
HE GIVES AND TAKES AWAY
God is often portrayed as the author of sleep in the Bible. The one who caused Adam to sleep in the garden grants us rest and recuperation. Yet he is also the instigator of the disrupted night. Head back with me to the days of the Persian empire. King Xerxes is on the throne. History tells us he was a ruthless king – and with an adviser such as Haman, it’s no wonder. Haman hated the Jewish people. He hated them because another of the king’s advisers, Mordecai, refused to honour him as he thought he deserved. Haman’s hatred for Mordecai spilled over into a hatred for the Jewish race as a whole and he determined to wipe them out. He ‘looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes’ (Esther 3:6).
This is not just a one-man vendetta against another people. What is at stake here is the very existence of the people of God through whom God has promised to save and rescue. No Jews, no Jesus. No Jesus, no redemption. No redemption, no glory. This could change everything.
SLEEP REQUIRES US TO PUT OUR LIVES AND WELL-BEING INTO THE HANDS OF OUR HEAVENLY FATHER; IT’S AN EXPRESSION OF FAITH
But Haman eventually gets his comeuppance when he is hanged on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai. What you may not have noticed about this story is that it all hangs on one tiny detail: ‘That night the king could not sleep’ (Esther 6:1). This is the moment when things begin to unwind for evil Haman and come good for the hero, Mordecai. As the king wrestles with his sleeplessness, he’s reminded that Mordecai has saved his life. Haman unwittingly gives his enemy Mordecai all the king’s honour and recognition.
WHEN SLEEP ELUDES US
What are we to make of this sleeplessness? God keeps us awake if needs be. Even mighty King Xerxes – who was a power-crazy madman – had to live under God’s rule. And that included his sleeping and waking.
A third of us (and 50% of those aged 65 or older) will at some time face the struggle of sleeplessness, according to Bupa. Insomnia is more commonly experienced by women and may present as a chronic, daily problem, or be a frustrating season that sporadically returns. If God is sovereign over all of life including sleep, how should we respond?
There are often well-documented medical reasons why people cannot sleep. Insomnia can be triggered by stressful or deeply emotional life events, psychological illness such as depression, or certain medications. There’s nothing unspiritual about seeking professional help for such problems, and doctors are well trained in spotting and helping to deal with such sleep issues.
Nor should we dismiss some of the very practical things we can do to help aid quality sleep. Consider the temperature of the room, what you do before you sleep (avoid screens including TV, computers and mobile phones), how dark your bedroom is, the kind of bedding you use and the consistency of your sleep habits.
But what if sleep is still elusive? Painfully, that is the case for many. If God is for us, why does he let us struggle through sleepless nights and even seasons? Wonderfully, the Bible is honest about how this struggle feels. ‘When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted’ (Psalm 77:2). This is not an all-nighter at the prayer meeting; this is Asaph’s insomnia-fuelled anguish.
Doing battle with insomnia
Lauren Gate, an ordinand at Anglican training college Ridley Hall, Cambridge, has experienced two bouts of insomnia in the past four years, and has since had some struggles with poor sleep. She can correlate her insomnia to emotional or anxiety-provoking life events.
As well as taking sleeping pills prescribed by her GP, Gate has tried to develop prayerful coping strategies for her sleeplessness. A friend advised keeping a Bible by her bed, and when she first began to find that she couldn’t sleep, she would turn to the Psalms. ‘Psalm 91 talks about God’s protection during the night; I would read that continually,’ she says.
The Lord’s Prayer has also become a meditative go-to prayer when she wakes in the small hours. ‘Sometimes it’s simply about resetting my mind,’ she says.
Gate has begun to actively pray for her sleep last thing at night. She tries to avoid ruminating on why her sleep is sometimes poor, prayerfully giving her anxiety to God as a whole. ‘When I first struggled with insomnia, and before I went to the GP about it, I used to fight it. I’d try and work it out and fix it,’ she says. ‘But you just can’t. Sleep is an act of surrender.’
She has started to see the value of resting, even if sleep is apparently impossible. ‘I’ve resigned myself to just lying there. Even if I just have my eyes closed, that’s ok,’ she says.
Gate has begun lighting a candle during the day and offering to God the things in her life that she can’t change. ‘I notice that when I do this, I sleep better,’ she says.
SPIRITUAL EXPLANATIONS FOR SLEEPLESSNESS
The Bible is straight with us about some of the spiritual reasons we might not be able to sleep.
Your sleeplessness may be a question of trust and contentment. Sleep requires us to put our lives and well-being into the hands of our heavenly Father; it’s an expression of faith. Put more simply, we all know that anxiety can keep us awake; according to The Sleep Council, almost half of Britons say that stress or worry keeps them awake at night. One of my favourite books, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (CreateSpace), was written by the Puritan preacher Jeremiah Burroughs (1600-46). Even its title convicts me! We need to learn to be content in all circumstances. There is a sense in which the ability to sleep is a mark of this godly contentment.
For others, sleep itself may have become an idol. Most idols are, in fact, good gifts in the wrong place: sex, money or possessions, for example. When these are elevated and worshipped, they can take the place of God. For those who are particularly struggling to get a good night’s rest, sleep may fall into this category.
It’s possible that our sleep is disturbed because the God of the universe wants to do business with us. This is the testimony of scripture: occasionally people are kept awake because there is something to be resolved. It may be something that needs to cross our path – much like King Xerxes’ restless night. It may be a past issue to resolve – Psalm 77 is a good example.
However, even though many Christians struggle to sleep well from time to time (and some battle this affliction regularly), we shouldn’t ignore the Bible’s overall witness: sleep is a gift to be cherished and valued. It’s a gift to ask God for. And it’s a gift to thank him for when we have received it.
THE LAST ANAESTHETIC
Just as God administers the first anaesthetic, he also delivers the last; it’s a beautiful piece of biblical symmetry. Death is the last great certainty. Everyone, whether they like to think about it or not (and plenty of people do not), will one day face the end.
We have lots of euphemisms that we use today to describe death. We say people have ‘passed on’ or, simply ‘passed’. Listology.com lists a further 101 common expressions for it, but there’s a word missing from their list that the Bible unashamedly uses to describe death. It’s sleep.
Both the Old and New Testaments describe death in this way. We see it slightly less clearly in the Old Testament because of the way our Bibles translate Hebrew words and expressions. But fast-forward into the New Testament and the picture language is clear. ‘Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
As Job points out, God is sovereign over even the length of our lives: ‘A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed’ (Job 14:5). But if we are thinking in biblical categories, when that final day comes we should not just think of it as death, but sleep.
What you didn’t know about sleep
The average Briton goes to bed at 11.15pm and gets six hours and 35 minutes of sleep per night*
Only 1% of Britons are in bed before 9pm*
Men appear to sleep better than women: a third of men say they sleep well most nights*
The Guinness Book of Records will not recognise a record for staying awake because it’s so dangerous
Dream jobs that really do exist include being a duvet tester for department store John Lewis and a bed tester for the Travelodge hotel chain
*Source: The Sleep Council
AN ECHO OF OUR FINAL REST
Just as the Lord administered the first anaesthetic to Adam, so he will administer the last one. Those who have ‘fallen asleep’ in Jesus (to borrow another of Paul’s phrases, see 1 Thessalonians 4:14) will wake up fully alive in his presence. Just as one might wake from an operation, cured from whatever problem got us there in the first place, so the sovereign God will one day cause us to sleep from our labours on this earth and, in Jesus our saviour, wake in his presence for all eternity. So sleep is not just a marvellous restorative; it is a picture of the final sleep. It displays to us something eternally beautiful.
WAKING OR SLEEPING, THY PRESENCE MY LIGHT
There’s one final, remarkable truth to grasp on sleep: there is one who never sleeps. He doesn’t need to. As the psalmist so memorably puts it: ‘He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’ (Psalm 121:3-4)
When we pray, we have his complete focus. When we sing his praises, the aroma reaches one who is fully awake. Even when we are not paying attention to him, he is paying attention to us. When we are asleep, he watches over us.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that God, who initiates the first sleep and grants us our last, is also there in every moment in between. His lack of sleep is precisely the reason we can go to bed each night calm and peaceful in the sure and certain knowledge that he is with us. We can benefit from the recuperation sleep brings because he is our wide-awake Father.
So, enjoy God’s wonder treatment. There is no prescription charge. There is no best-before date and there are no side-effects.