In many ways, sleep is a strange and puzzling phenomenon. We know what it is to have deep and restful sleep and to wake refreshed. We know what it is to have too little sleep. We know what it is to have plenty of hours in bed and yet not wake feeling refreshed. But often we don’t really understand what makes the difference between them.
One thing, though, is clear: you and I do need sleep; it’s a fundamental mark of our mortality. And the psalmist rebukes us when we behave as if we don’t:
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. (Ps. 127:2)
It’s the Lord who “builds the house” and “watches over the city” (Ps. 127:1)—the great project of building the people of God. In this age, that project is Christian gospel work. And it’s in this context we hear the rebuke to sleeplessness arising from “anxious toil.”
The Bible doesn’t rebuke us when we work hard for Jesus; such hard work is consistently commended in the Scriptures. Notice, for example, the refrain of those commended in Romans 16. Nor does Scripture rebuke those who make sacrifices for Jesus and his gospel. Paul himself experienced sleepless nights necessitated by mission (2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27).
The rebuke of Psalm 127 is to those of us whose sleeplessness is caused by anxious toil—burning the candle at both ends because we won’t trust God for the work.
Seen through this lens, sleep is an expression of trust in God. You and I sleep because we don’t believe the project of building the people of God rests on us. We sleep because we know God never does.
How strange it is for us to be proud of our energy and ability. One day we feel we can conquer the world. A sleepless night later we’re reduced to gibbering, incoherent wrecks. It’s what one of my sons calls a “pinprick grace,” a reminder of our fragility.
But what we mustn’t do is burn the candle at both ends of the night because we won’t trust God. Certainly there are times when an early morning start is needed. But don’t think we can follow that with a late night of working and another early start, so that late nights and early starts become endemic to our pattern of work.
That would manifest a refusal to trust, a cocky imagining we’re somehow superhuman, a cut above our ministry colleagues. Like the manna in the wilderness, rest is an exercise in trust.
Unsocial Ministry Hours
One of the challenges of ministry is that pastoring often involves unsocial hours. Whether we’re “full-time” pastors or not, we need to be with people when people are free to be with us. That may mean evenings and weekends. So it’s not easy to be in full control of our sleep patterns.
But we need to be careful.
We need to look at the regular shape of our week and ensure there’s ample time for sleep. God may or may not give us good sleep—that’s his sovereign choice—but if we don’t allow time for sleep, he can’t give us the restorative slumber we so need.
It’s worth considering how best to wind down later in the evenings, perhaps avoiding stimulants before bed, keeping away from flickering screens, caffeine, or things that stimulate the mind and heart too much. Just as a runner winds down after a race, so we need to wind down after the day, to commit persons and troubles on our minds to the one who doesn’t sleep—and then go to rest.
And if you’re married, make sure you leave pastoral struggles and burdens outside the bedroom door. Intentionally share and pray together before heading to bed. The husband who says, while dropping off to sleep, “Oh, I forgot to tell you about my conversation with . . .” can, with one sentence, ruin his wife’s sleep—and vice versa. Either share it earlier and pray about it together, or save it until the morning.
Four Ways to End a Day
- Give yourself a few quiet minutes to look back on the day and pray for those whose burdens you share, either on your own or with your spouse. Do this before getting ready for bed.
- Then do something that’ll help you wind down. Perhaps an episode of a not-too-emotionally demanding TV series, or a chapter of a book unrelated to your work or Christian service. Something that will slow your body and mind toward sleep.
- Keep a pad of paper beside your bed, so when urgent or important things pop into your head, you can make a note to deal with them the next day—and then forget about them for the night.
- End the day by looking back at a Bible verse you began the day with, as a reminder of a truth about God.
The God who watches over his people “will not slumber . . . he will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:3–4). He’s ever watchful, ever wakeful; he never needs to doze off and never loses his watchfulness for a second.
This is a wonderful assurance.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice by Christopher Ash, with a foreword by Alistair Begg. Available from The Good Book Company and through Amazon.