About sleep: do you find that the great secret (if one can do it) is not to care whether you sleep. Sleep is a jade who scorns her suitors but woos her scorners.
C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady (27 November 1953)
I read recently that if someone has significant trouble sleeping three or more nights a week, he is officially aninsomniac. I qualify—and that news kept me awake later that evening.
In case you are gifted with the grace of falling asleep the moment your head hits the pillow, you need to know something about those of us who endure the night. Being sleepless through the night is miserable. Perhaps Job is the chief insomniac of the Scriptures:
When I lie down I say, “When shall I arise?”
But the night is long and I am full of tossing till the dawn. (Job 7:4)
Insomnia is different from both sleep and non-sleep. Insomnia is not a subset of being awake, nor is it a form of sleep. It is more like the Old Testament concept of Sheol, the place that is hard to define and where no one wants to go. Insomnia is that murky world halfway between the aliveness of midmorning and the wished-for deadness of 1:30 a.m. It is not exactly hell, but when you go to the land of sleeplessness, you can see flames of Gehenna if you stand on your tip-toes. In the words of Poppy Z. Bright, The night is the hardest time to be alive and 4:00 a.m. knows all my secrets. But before we think about insomnia, we must consider sleep.
Sleep. My dictionary’s first definition for the noun sleep is The state of not being awake. The third definition says, Same as death. We are supposed to sleep about one-third of our lives. A good night’s sleep rejuvenates body and spirit—as I vaguely remember. Sleep is the place we find rest. When we get a good night of sleep, the world looks pretty good in the morning. We are ready to take on the day. But you might have noticed that sleep gets mixed reviews in Scripture.
If we sleep too much, the Bible calls us a sluggard. The sluggard turns on his bed the way a door turns on its hinges. He sleeps in, complaining that there is a lion in the road. When he wakes up for breakfast, he is too lazy to bring his hand from the dish to his mouth. He’d rather be back in bed, sleeping. The sluggard, in the Proverbs, is a very close cousin of the character called the fool. Neither is industrious; neither fears God.
On the other hand, sleep is also presented in the pages of Scripture as a blessing from God. Sleep gives rest not only to our body, but to our soul as well. When David, fearing for his life, was on the run from his son Absalom, David slept! And his sleep put the strength of his woes in perspective.
I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around. (Psalm 3:5-6)
Sleep is such a great gift from God that at least one psalm seems to recommend going to bed early and sleeping in:
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. (Psalm 127:2)
I hate insomnia, and I am jealous of those who don’t understand it. I’ve had people tell me, Just roll over and go to sleep. Clearly these sleepers are challenged by different monsters. But I digress…. Although I desperately wish I were among those who sleep without hindrance, I’ve learned over the years to tease some good out of my restlessness.
First, insomnia carries with it the potential blessing of watchfulness and prayer. Many of the Puritans spoke of the discipline of watchfulness. By watchfulness they meant, essentially, paying attention to your spiritual life, paying attention to your relationship with God. The best watchfulness and the best prayers are, indeed, uttered not in the misty hours of the night. We watch and pray best when our mind and our body are fully awake. Nevertheless, I’ve shared many great hours with God in middle of the night. As I toss and turn I pray for our church, for people in our church, for my family. And I pray I might get back to sleep.
Second, insomnia contains the hidden opportunity of listening. I will often ask, at 2:37 a.m., What is it, Lord that you want to teach me in this season of life? And sometimes God speaks. Sometimes he tells me about my weaknesses and his strength. Don’t think me too weird, but sometimes I actually listen to God speak audibly. I really listen to his voice. No kidding. I plug in my iPod and listen to the New Testament read to me by a professional. And sometimes, not always, I am encouraged by a chapter or even an entire book of the Bible that I might not otherwise have heard.
Third, insomnia compels me to yield, once again, to the God I love. As I toss and turn, I remind myself that every good gift in my life is from my heavenly Father. Even the good gift of sleep. Puritan Joel Taylor wrote a helpful poem-prayer on sleep. Its beginning boldly states a great promise for this insomniac to claim:
Thou hast promised thy beloved sleep;
Give me restoring rest needful for tomorrow’s toil…