In scripture, the theme of sleep is a recurring one that serves to provide some insight into how we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and can serve to represent a range of spiritual modes, from complete trust in God to lack of devotion. Let us consider the nature of sleep to help us further understand not only its physical but spiritual implications.
With all our modern knowledge and technology, there remains a certain curiosity and mystique surrounding sleep which perhaps persists from ancient times. In some ways, sleep represents a kind of vulnerability, a yielding of normal control and awareness while at the same time seeming to have the potential to allow us access to information and perceptions that some claim transcend consciousness. But what is sleep, really, and how does it benefit us? For a moment imagine trying to understand sleep from an outside perspective.
In an episode of the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the nearly omnipotent alien being named “Q” was consigned to experience a mortal life among the crew of the 24th century starship Enterprise due to the fallout of some of his previous antics (Q tends to be a force of chaos -- or at the very least unmitigated mischief -- in the universe). Having never before been constrained by a physical existence, Q is forced to endure the mundane and tedious aspects of a biological being. Following an unfamiliar experience with his body, Q inquires in a somewhat disturbed and perplexed tone to Captain Picard - Q: I’ve been entirely preoccupied by a most frightening experience of my own. A couple of hours ago, I realized that my body was no
longer functioning properly. I felt weak. I could no longer stand. The life was oozing out of me. I lost consciousness.
PICARD: You fell asleep.
Q: Oh-- terrifying. How can you stand it day after day?
Sleep can indeed seem strange as a biological mechanism. It renders us seemingly helpless but appears to be necessary for various reasons. Society and science have long held that sleep is an essential component of normal, healthy development in an individual. One can readily observe ample scientific evidence that indicates sleep is crucial for allowing our bodies and minds to rest and rejuvenate sufficiently.
Physically, muscles relax and expand, tissue growth and repair occur, energy is restored, and growth hormone is released.
Mentally, events and ideas are sorted and processed, memory linked to learning is organized and reinforced, and the subconscious exploits an outlet for expression of otherwise suppressed impulses. It turns out, we are quite active during this supposedly dormant period, so it may not seem unusual that a person could feel rather tired following a phase of sleep. For the most part though, sleep is regarded as an opportunity for rest and recovery. Beyond its physiological and psychological affects, its spiritual consequences can be revealed by briefly examining how the Bible characterizes its quality and impact.
In scripture, the ability to sleep well often correlates to a stable and dedicated reliance on God to provide one’s needs in life, including in this context rest. The following are a few of the various verses that help to illustrate this notion (all NASB):
“I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustains me.” Psalm 3:5
“In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8
“When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” Proverbs 3:24
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
It is likely that we have all experienced circumstances that interfere with our capacity for restful sleep, or indeed any sleep. Anxiety plays a large role in the sense of burden upon our heart and soul that we sometimes suffer. There may be instances where this is unavoidable, but there are also times when we, against better judgment or counsel, find ourselves compelled to encumber our minds with fruitless apprehension and agonizing. It can indeed be quite an effort to fully exercise the prescribed exhortations to “fear not” or “be still” or “be anxious about nothing.”
This is not to say that everyone who suffers from sleep issues are necessarily spiritually negligent or deficient. There can be any number of causes for sleep disorders, some of them rooted in physiological imbalances or complications. However, if an individual finds that they are regularly experiencing bouts of worry, dread, or nervousness that ultimately prevent their mind from gaining opportunity to enjoy some time of release and surrender, they may benefit from examining the guidance and encouragement in the scriptures regarding worldly concerns.
One of the greatest contrasts in the Bible of how sleep exemplifies spiritual well-being is between the stories of Jesus sleeping during a storm (Mark 4:35-41) and the disciples falling asleep in the garden (Matthew 26:36-46). On the one hand, Jesus slept peacefully while a fierce storm raged outside the boat. On the other hand, the disciples failed to remain awake with Jesus while he was agonizing over the impending horror of the crucifixion and taking on the sins of the entire world. One might be tempted to speculate that in the second instance, Jesus was not “preaching what he was teaching” because he was allowing anxiety to dominate his mind. Perhaps a better interpretation would be to realize that there may be times when it is appropriate to remain attentive (and conscious) and actively engage in a conversation with God over a serious matter. Rather, what Jesus was doing was following the recurring counsel of scripture to lay his burdens down before God his provider.
As any believer should agree, God provides in many ways. When it comes to sleep, or lack thereof, whether it be through counseling or medication, it may be possible to address whatever potential shortcomings that are being experienced. The ultimate recourse should of course be our relationship with the God who created us, since we have the privilege of seeking solutions from him through his Spirit and his Word.
An infamous story in our family is how I slept through hurricane Andrew. While my wife and I and our 3-month old son hunkered down in our laundry room as the storm raged around us, she fretted and contemplated every manner of ensuring our safety, as any sane mother would. As for myself, well, clearly, some of us may possess a more sedate perspective in certain circumstances. The air was hot and still, I was exhausted, and my own mind had concluded that there was nothing else that could be done in the midst of that scenario. As one might imagine, my wife was not amused when the sound of my snoring teased her ears in spite of the dread looming over us. The reader can be assured that it was not that I was in some way more spiritually mature -- I was simply tired, and I have for much of my life possessed the talent of being able to fall asleep without much prompting. I consider it a blessing. My wife does not necessarily share my enlightened view of the matter.
Ultimately, sleep, as with so many of the qualities of physical reality in this universe, can be considered a gift to help make this life more bearable and even enjoyable. As with any gift, sleep may remain elusive for some, difficult to attain for others, and even abused by still others.
(Apparently, there is such a thing as “too much” sleep, which has been evaluated by both The Bible and science.) Sleep, like so many other things in life, should be a blessing, and we may want to consider the appropriate and effective use of it as we strive to balance all the dimensions of our existence.