While you were sleeping

While you were sleeping


I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.

Psalm 3:5

It’s one of the “status games” I most detest. Like the “I’m just so incredibly busy” line, the “I survive on less than X hours of sleep a night” ploy is a popular past time – particularly amongst us males. It’s as if our manhood rests (excuse the pun) on how little sleep we require. The inference is that to be really productive and high-performing, I should learn to do with less snoozing and more working.

Perhaps there’s a market here for some tee-shirt slogans: “Proud to be an insomniac!” “Sleep is for lazybones!” Or maybe “Real men don’t sleep!”

In a twisted and ironic way, to proclaim that we comfortably get by on less shut-eye than the average person, is something many feel proud about.

The “Christianized” version of this might well be built around an over-emphasis on a number of Proverbs warning us of sleeping too much. Like:

So how long are you going to laze around doing nothing?
How long before you get out of bed?
A nap here, a nap there, a day off here, a day off there,
sit back, take it easy—do you know what comes next?[1]

It’s the kind of goading a teenager might hear from his mother. “Sleep all day, son, and you’ll end up poor.”

But is a lack of sleep really something to aspire to or even boast about? Maybe for many of us, it’s not getting enough sleep that we should be most concerned about?

Born to sleep

When I was born, two activities dominated my time: eating and sleeping. In fact, I started life sleeping up to twenty-two hours a day. I can’t remember anyone accusing me of being lazy. (Actually, I can’t recall much at all from those early days!)

Of course, if I were still sleeping my life away a few years later, my parents would have been very worried. Through the growing up years, my need for sleep – indeed my whole sleep patterns – changed dramatically.

Eventually, like most maturing humans, I came to spend around a third of my life sleeping. Which brings us to a very important question:

Why have we been made to need sleep? Why did God make us this way?

While you were sleeping

In spite of huge advances in science over the past century, sleep remains one of the more mysterious aspects of our lives. I guess that shouldn’t surprise us too much – we are, after all, comatose through these vital hours of potential research! So most of what has been discovered about our sleep is a result of measuring brain and body activity while subjects are asleep. David Randall, author of the book, Dreamland, posits that: “Sleep isn’t a break from our lives. It’s the missing third of the puzzle of what it means to be living.”[2]

So here’s some of what we do know:

  • There are five stages or levels of sleep (drowsiness, light or true sleep, two stages of deep sleep and REM).
  • Most of our dreaming occurs during REM (Rapid Eye Movement).
  • REM sleep is often described as a “waking brain in a paralysed body”, prompting some scientists to speculate that this is nature’s way of us not acting out our dreams.
  • The two stages of deep (or Delta) sleep are when our bodies and brains are least active – everything slows to a crawl.
  • When sleeping healthily, we go through these stages several times a night – in roughly ninety-minute cycles.
  • It is normal to wake up several times a night (or at least return to semi-consciousness) at the end of each cycle – though this may be as brief as turning over or changing position.

Why we need sleep

So why do we need sleep? Maybe it’s because God just needs a break from us?

While there are still no definitive answers to this question, there are lots of clues as to why sleep is critical.

Some of these stem from our knowledge of what happens if we don’t sleep – or at least, get enough sleep. Our memories suffer, we develop significant concentration lapses, and our bodies and minds age faster. Worse still, ongoing, chronic sleep deprivation eventually drives us mad and kills us.

There’s good reason to believe that sleep allows our bodies to repair, rejuvenate, and restore themselves. However, it’s not just our bodies that need the sleep. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Archibald Hart, notes that, “…the major beneficiary of sleep is [actually] our brain.”[3] Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, a professor of neuroscience who has studied sleep for decades, puts it this way, “The brain doesn’t turn off when we go to sleep; it just switches channels.”[4]

I like that imagery. It helps give me a sense that something very important is going on in my brain while my body sleeps. Whatever it is, it’s really critical to my well-being. Perhaps it’s a bit like what a parent does once all the kids have gone to bed. They get to do all the work that isn’t possible the rest of the day because there is now energy available to focus on other important tasks. Pack away all the books and toys, review and debrief what’s gone done that day, plan what is going to happen the next day …these are critical tasks that, if not done, will over time seriously erode the family’s well-being. Not that the kids are aware of this. When they wake up in the morning they probably won’t have a clue that Mum or Dad have been working while they were sleeping! Just like me and my brain.

So it’s clear something quite profound is happening to us while we sleep. David Randall speculates that, “All of those things that add up to what you consider you – your creativity, emotions, health, and ability to quickly learn a new skill or devise a solution to a problem – can be seen as little more than by-products of what happens inside your brain while your head is on your pillow each night. It is part of a world that all of us enter and yet barely understand.”[5]

How does sleeping allow all this to happen? We’re not exactly sure. But the more science discovers about sleep, the more we realize there’s a lot more to our “shut-eye” than can be observed with the naked eye.

I don’t know about you, but these little insights into what goes on in my sleep are fascinating – and they remind me how incredibly put together we are as humans. We are truly complex beings. The Psalmist says it well:

“You know when I sit and when I rise…You discern my going out and my lying down…I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! …[and] when I awake, I am still with you.”[6]

God has made us to sleep. Therefore we can safely assume that he has done so for some very important reasons – even if we are only mildly aware of its significance in our lives. The prophet Jeremiah gains a taste of what God intends for our sleep when he writes: “I’ll refresh tired bodies; I’ll restore tired souls. Just then I woke up and looked around – what a pleasant and satisfying sleep!”[7]

Sleeping disorders

Sadly though, a lot of people don’t sleep well. In fact, tiredness is a perpetual state for many. Some are sleep-deprived because of their life stage or circumstances – parents of young children, menopause, shift work, old age, etc. Others suffer from various recognized sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. However, increasingly many experience acute sleep deprivation because of their lifestyle and habits. And it’s not just a problem for adults. A recent study discovered that schoolchildren in NZ are among the most sleep-deprived in the world. 69% of 9 and 10 year olds were identified by their teachers as being adversely affected by not getting enough sleep![8]

So how much sleep do we need? While there is no magic number, studies indicate that most adults require between seven and nine hours sleep a day. The truth is that each of us needs however many hours sleep ensure we don’t feel exhausted or tired. While this will vary from one person to the next, it’s likely to be more than many adults think they need. Dr. Thomas Roth of the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders Center contends that, “The percentage of the population who only need five hours of sleep per night, rounded to a whole number, is ZERO.” My experience is that many of us underrate how much sleep we really need. (Though I think it’s also true that we can easily underestimate how much sleep we actually are getting. Sometimes it can feel like we’ve been awake all night, when the truth is that we’ve been out to it for longer than we imagined.)

Insomnia (the inability to sleep well and regularly) affects an increasing number of people, though not all sleeplessness is acute – ongoing and seriously debilitating. This alarming growth in insomnia and the myriad of diagnosed sleep disorders,[9] suggests that something is not right with our lifestyles.

At least some of the blame can be fingered at our “24/7” culture, that has all but decimated the natural work/rest rhythms of life. It started with that wonderful invention – the light bulb, which enabled us to do things at night that previously could only be done while the sun was still up.

However, it all escalated with the technology revolution, which introduced a multitude of electronic devices into our lives – accessible at the drop of a hat. As a result, night and day have become even less differentiated, so that now we can be watching a movie into the early hours of the morning, checking our emails at 3am or texting at the oddest times of the night. We burn the candle at both ends, without realizing the huge cost to our physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual well-being. This inevitably leads us to be in “sleep debt”, which is as bad for the body and mind as financial debt is for the bank account.

Scientists tell us that we have an in-built “circadian clock” that drives the 24 hour cycle we are designed for. Melatonin is a chemical in our bodies that regulates our clock. Its presence brings on drowsiness. How much melatonin the body produces is somewhat dependent on our exposure to light. So during the daytime, levels of melatonin are generally low.[10] But get this: artificial light has the same effect as natural light, meaning that if our bodies are exposed in the middle of night to significant brightness, melatonin will be suppressed and we will fail to feel tired. It’s like the data we are feeding our brains is scrambling and confusing them.

No wonder I struggle to sleep with a host of light-emitting devices around me – computers, cellphones, TV’s and digital clocks. Too much light-stimulation at the wrong time can throw my circadian clock out of equilibrium.

God made the natural rhythms of night and day, work and rest, winter and summer, for a reason. We ignore or run roughshod over them at our peril.

Of course, our chronic sleeplessness can’t all be blamed on over-exposure to light and electronic devices. There are several other factors that “wire” us – including anxiety, stress, and caffeine. Then there are external ingredients such as restless partners, sleeping in rooms that are too hot or not ventilated enough, uncomfortable beds, and noise. They can all make a big difference to the quality of our sleep.

And then there are erratic sleep patterns. Like the presence of artificial light, not settling into a regular bedtime can have devastating effects. It throws our circadian clock out of kilter. For the spontaneous and free-spirited among us, I realize this is not something we really want to hear. The idea of becoming more regulated in going to bed and getting up may not appeal, but the key point is this: erratic sleeping patterns aren’t good for us. If God has made us to function best through a regular cycle of work, rest and sleep, then we owe to God (and to ourselves) as his trustees, to manage our patterns as well as we’re able.

God never sleeps

What I do find comforting is the knowledge that while I sleep, God continues to be fully alert. Interestingly, the very first mention of “sleep” in the Bible is in Genesis 2 and it tells the story of God’s ongoing creative activity while Adam is “out to it”:

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.[11]

The Psalmist tells us that God “…will neither sleep nor slumber.”[12] The Message puts it even more starkly – “…your Guardian God won’t fall asleep. Not on your life!”

While humans are made for sleep and rest after a day’s labour, God is always actively working on creation’s behalf. This means we can have confidence that God will take care of us, even as we sleep. The Psalmist picks this up when he notes: “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.”[13]

Numbers of time through the scriptures we see this activity reinforced. One example is found in Acts 12:6-8, where, “Peter…was sleeping between two soldiers” when God caused an angel to rescue him from the hands of Herod and likely execution.

So if we were designed for daily sleep, but God never sleeps how should this affect the way we go to sleep and wake up?

Again the Psalmist expresses it well by declaring that, “If God doesn’t guard the city, the night watchman might as well nap. It’s useless to rise early and go to bed late, and work your worried fingers to the bone. Don’t you know he enjoys giving rest to those he loves?”[14]

We see this perfectly displayed in the incident where Jesus is sleeping in the boat while a storm rages and the disciples fret.[15] The fishermen are beside themselves with anxiety and can’t understand why Jesus would be so calm and unperturbed.

At its core, going to sleep is an act of trust. Can we put aside the concerns and unfinished business of the day, believing that God will continue to work on our behalf and to protect us? When the stress of unresolved issues and impending deadlines are buzzing round our heads at a fast pace of knots, it is a real challenge to leave them for another day. However, could it be that one very tangible way God looks after us while we rest is by designing us so that our minds and emotions can be restored and rewired.

Two evening prayers express simply this act of trusting God for our sleep. One is an old prayer from the Book of Common Prayer: “O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows
lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is 
hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.
Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest,
and peace at the last. Amen.”

The other, a more recent one, is written by Vicki Hollander: “As I close this day I come before You, Lord.
 I now release 
all my fears, all my concerns from this day.

Soothe my body, my mind, my spirit.

Aid me move into deep and renewing rest.”

Is there a time to resist sleep?

There is a time to sleep. But there’s also a time to stay awake. Several times in Scripture we are made aware that sometimes we encounter situations where snoozing needs to be put aside for working and praying. The most obvious example is Jesus’ request to Peter, James and John in the garden of Gethsemane. Faced with the ultimate test of his obedience to the Father, Jesus asks them to pray for him while he prepares for the battle of his life. However,

When [Jesus] came back to his disciples, he found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, “Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert; be in prayer so you don’t wander into temptation without even knowing you’re in danger. There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there’s another part that’s as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.[16]

In an eerie precursor to Peter’s subsequent denial of Jesus, Matthew notes how three times Jesus finds Peter, James and John asleep. They simply don’t seem to comprehend the magnitude of the moment. Jesus is left to prepare for his impending arrest, trial and death, alone.

Peter and co had a lot in common with the Old Testament character, Jonah. Seeking to avoid and run from God’s instructions, he ends up sleeping in the midst of a great storm that threatens to break apart the ship he is on. Jonah’s actions (or lack of) are symptomatic of his avoidance of responsibility and unwillingness to do as God has commanded him.[17]

Unlike Jonah, David was able to sense when he needed to be alert. In one of his psalms he writes, “I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the LORD.”[18]

Of course, knowing when to break our regular patterns of sleep is not easy. When should we go to bed trusting God to continue working on our behalf while we rest, and when does the importance or urgency of the situation demand that we be alert and active in prayer and work? The Bible doesn’t present any clear answers to this ongoing tension, all of which suggests that we are to exercise discernment, as watchful and responsive disciples.[19]

Wayne Kirkland is married to Jill and they live in Upper Hutt, New Zealand. They have three adult daughters. In previous lives Wayne has been a youth worker, part-time car dealer and writer and administrator for Signpost Communications. Wayne is the author and co-author of several books, including “Light from a Dark Star”, “Where’s God on Monday?”, “Soul Purpose” and  “Just Decisions”.

Read more of Wayne’s ruminations on his website http://www.ruminations.co.nz/

[1] Proverbs 6:9-11 (echoed in 24:33-34).

[2] Randall, 29.

[3] Hart, 30.

[4] Quoted in Hart, 50.

[5] Randall, 28.

[6] Excerpts from Psalm 139 (NIV).

[7] Proverbs 31:25-26.

[8] The international study was conducted by Boston College. See “Technology a factor in keeping young people awake longer” in NZ Herald, 10 May, 2013.

[9] There are now an estimate 75 identifiable sleep disorders!

[10] Though interestingly, a “circadian dip” occurs in early to mid afternoon – which is why we often feel a little sleepy then, and why in some countries a midday siesta is encouraged.

[11] Genesis 2:21.

[12] Psalm 121:4 (NRSV).

[13] Psalm 3:5.

[14] Psalm 127:1-2.

[15] Matthew 8:23-27.

[16] Matthew 26:40-41. Luke, in his account, is a little more sympathetic to the three disciples when he adds, “sleeping because of grief” – see Luke 22:45. Mark also records the incident (Mk 14:32-42).

[17] See Jonah 1.

[18] Psalm 132:4-5 (NRSV).

[19] Some Christian traditions have developed practices such as prayer vigils, to coincide with particular times of the church calendar.