Why Our Need to Sleep is a Theological Issue

Why Our Need to Sleep is a Theological Issue August 21, 2018
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For the last few months, I have been using an app called Moment to track the amount of time I spend on my phone. It has been tremendously helpful to see how many hours I can fritter away staring at things I won’t remember in five minutes.

One interesting thing the app does is that it tells you how long you “slept.” Of course, it has no way to track when you drifted off to sleep and when you woke up, but it does keep up with the last time you touched your phone before bed and the first time you pick it up in the morning. The average user of this app “sleeps” 6 hours and 48 minutes a night, which is less than most experts say we need each night.

It has been no secret that Americans sleep less than our forefathers did. Stress, caffeine, television, and the internet work together to deprive us of one of our most basic necessities. Unfortunately, we trick ourselves into thinking we don’t need sleep. In fact, we are tempted to see ourselves as weaker for needing sleep. When I was in Seminary, there seemed to be an unspoken competition to see who could go the longest on the smallest amount of sleep. Not sleeping to study for Seminary classes almost seemed to be more spiritual.

We even seem to have biblical evidence for our lack of sleep. The writer of Proverbs tells us to, “Go to the ant, O sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” This passage shows us that excessive sleep must be renounced and the one who fails to get out of bed will ultimately come to poverty. This passage rebukes laziness, but when we read this passage to the exclusion of others, we fail to grasp everything the Bible teaches about sleep.

You need to sleep more than you realize. Your need for sleep is profoundly theological and speaks volumes about where we place our hope and trust. Scripture gives us three reasons why we need to stop our striving to get ahead or our ceaseless desire for entertainment and go to sleep.

We Need Sleep Because We are not God

We often fail to think about what our daily habits say about our view of ourselves and our view of God. When we push ourselves morning to night seven days a week for months on end, we demonstrate that we have a messiah complex. We think the world will fall apart if we are not constantly doing something.
In our relentless drive to produce and provide, we face a horrible dilemma. We cannot keep driving without sleep before we start terrible and lashing out at the people around us. We were not made to function on a lack of sleep. The Psalmist says in 121:4, “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Only God does not need sleep. He is the one who made the world and who sustains the world. The world would fall apart if he took only a moment off, but we are not him.

Much to our chagrin, we find that the world continues to function quite well while we sleep. Sleep reminds us that God is God and we are not. John Piper said this as only he can, “Sleep is a daily reminder from God that we are not God. Once a day God sends us to bed like patients with a sickness. The sickness is a chronic tendency to think we are in control and that our work is indispensable. To cure us of this disease God turns us into helpless sacks of sand once a day.”

We Need Sleep Because it is God’s Gift to Us

We also need to see sleep as a gift from God he freely gives us out of his love for us. Psalm 3 and Psalm 4 each seem to have been written by David during difficult times of distress. In Psalm 3, he spoke of the many foes rising against him, and from the title of the Psalm, he was likely running from his son who wanted to take his throne.

He prayed to the Lord in Psalm 4 and then addressed men asking why they would turn his honor into shame. In both cases, he appeared to be in danger. The last thing you want to do when you are in danger is to go to sleep. You can hear David thinking, “if I go to sleep I will be killed.”

While we might not face things this life-threatening, we think we must stay up later or get up earlier to do any number of things because we believe they must be done by us this moment or terrible things will happen. Look at what David said in Psalm 3:5-6 and Psalm 4:8. “I lay down and slept; I woke again; for the Lord sustained me. I will no be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.” “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

While David feared for his life he laid down and slept, then he woke up because the Lord kept him and protected him. In Psalm 4, he expressed that he could go to sleep in confidence because the Lord would make him dwell safely. In each case, sleep was an act of faith on David’s part, acknowledging that God was the one who sustained him and not him by himself.

We Need Sleep Because our Restless Toil is Foolish

In Psalm 127:2 we read, “It is vain that you rise up early and go to late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” We work hard, stress ourselves out, stay up late to make up for procrastination, over schedule, and think we have to do it all. In the process, we make ourselves miserable, sick, unproductive, and more vulnerable to Satan’s schemes.

God offers us sleep. It seems so simple, but we refuse this gift from a lack of faith. We must repent of our idolatrous notion that we, our family, our friends, and the world need our constant activity. No one around us is ultimately dependent upon us.

Instead of working hours without end, get up in the morning and faithfully work during the day. When you are done, come home, eat, and relax with your family. Read a good book or sit down and have a conversation. Then at the end of the day, go to bed and get the sleep you require. You will wake up in the morning to find that God was working even when you weren’t. And he proved equal to the task.

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  • Rob Westwood-Payne

    A great reminder Scott. I particularly appreciate the time you’ve taken to set out the biblical basis for sleep and rest. By the way, I’m currently on the new iOS 12 public beta, and I have been challenged by the statistics about my phone and tablet use from Apple’s new feature, Screen Time. I find the limits you can put on it to be valuable in terms of boundaries.