“Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is go to sleep.” Maybe you’ve heard that before. Perhaps you’ve nodded your head in agreement, seeing your sleep-needs validated. Maybe you’ve scoffed in disgust, wishing your life afforded you the luxury to sleep more. I’ve had both reactions.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved sleep. Sometimes I wake up in the morning excited for when I can sleep again. I can sleep pretty much anywhere. I like naps. I have a system for how I fall asleep at night. For the most part, I’ve slept pretty well throughout my life.
Until I couldn’t.
I slept well throughout my life. Until I couldn’t.
After the birth of my third son, I started dealing with severe insomnia. It wasn’t uncommon for me to sleep two or three hours a night for weeks on end—and this after he was sleeping well through the night.
I loved sleep, but it was elusive. I needed sleep, but every night the clock taunted me, a vicious reminder that my kids would wake up soon and my chance at sleep would vanish.
But even as that season of my life ended, other things crept into my sleep patterns. Suffering and relational conflict led to sleepless nights. Even the pandemic brought anxiety back to the forefront, and though I hit the pillow exhausted each night (thanks to virtual school, working part-time, and other mom tasks), sleep still taunted me. My body begged for it, but my mind wouldn’t let me take it.
This year has brought unprecedented sleep trouble to many people. We’re more stressed, overwhelmed, and fearful than ever before. Parents are overworked; children live in a constant state of uncertainty with school; employees are isolated from each other. Not to mention that pastors and ministers are trying to serve people they can’t lay eyes on.
Two Truths for the Insomniac
So what’s a Christian to do when sleep is elusive? Thankfully we aren’t the first to struggle with sleeplessness. There are two verses I’ve clung to when I can’t sleep.
The first verse is Psalms 127:2:
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.
There’s nothing I can do to get sleep. But there’s a lot I can do to make it hard to go to sleep! It reminds me there are habits and routines I can adopt that remind me that my productivity, like my sleep, is a gift from the Lord.
And sometimes forgetting the former affects the latter. For me, this means stopping work at a certain point each night. It means putting my phone away. It means practicing Sabbath rest so I can see that only God can establish the work of my hands (Ps. 90:17).
But this verse also presses me to see that sleep is a gift—one I can’t earn or can’t give to myself. I’m as dependent on God for sleep as I am for everything else. Which leads to the second verse:
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isa. 40:31)
What do you do when you believe and practice Psalm 127:2, but sleep doesn’t come? You wait for your God (Isa. 40:31). And then you watch him work.
Insomnia is horrible. It is a form of suffering that lays us utterly bare before the Lord. We completely depend on him to show up. Sometimes he shows up by letting us fall asleep; sometimes he shows up by stripping us of self-sufficiency, making us see that he takes weary people and sustains them even when all earthly things fail them.
In every case, we’re forced to wait on him to do what we can’t do for ourselves.
Insomnia Showed Me I’m Not God
At first, when I was functioning at high capacity on limited sleep, I leaned on my gifts, not the God who gave them to me. This whole sleepless night thing isn’t so bad, I’d think. Look at all I can do on such little sleep!
Pride crept in and took up residence in my heart. But God has a way of humbling us, and persistent insomnia was my humbling. What I could press through after a few sleepless days became impossible after a few weeks. Pretty soon, I realized I couldn’t keep up.
We need sleep. But what we need more than anything is to be stripped of sinful pride and to be made more like Christ. What we need more than anything is for God, in all his glory, to carry us even when the hours of sleep aren’t enough to get us through the day.
What we need is to see it isn’t by our power that we’re able to accomplish things, but by the power of Christ that works through us (Zech. 4:6; 2 Cor. 12:9). If insomnia does that for me, then this is my acceptance of my weakness.
We need sleep. But what we need more than anything is to be made more like Christ.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we are insufficient people waiting on an all-sufficient God who never slumbers or sleeps, who doesn’t feel the deep need our bodies feel in those sleepless nights (Ps. 4:8; 121:4). He doesn’t need it. But we need him.
Insomnia might taunt us, telling us that God has forgotten us in the darkest hours of those endless nights. But he reminds us, through his Word, that he’s not sleeping. He’s working. He’s holding us up, both when he lets our droopy eyes drift into sleep and also when sleep is hard to come by. In our sleeplessness, we wait on him.