The Gift of Sleep: Capturing the Biblical Vision of Rest
Caffeine. Late-night TV. Smartphones. Sugar. After-hours work e-mails. What do they have in common? With stunning success, we use these things – and more besides – to regularly rob ourselves of a good night’s sleep. But the problem is deeper than entertainment, technology, or any chemical stimulant.
In a society geared for productivity, sleep suffers. It may seem outlandish for us to discuss sleep as something to be done “to the glory of God.” Yet anything that takes up nearly a third of our time in this life ought to be committed to God’s glory rather than regarded as a necessary evil or professional liability. When we take a biblical perspective on sleep, we will abandon popular misconceptions and offer praise to God for the gift of restful slumber. The Bible presents sleep as a gift that helps us glorify and enjoy God as creatures bearing His image.
Sleep is a Gift
Imagine yourself walking through the door of your home after a long day. The sun has set. Crickets chirp as a warm breeze sneaks over the threshold behind you. You kick off your shoes and head to the bedroom to get some shut-eye. But as you lie down, thoughts run through your head of everything else you “should be doing instead.” Casting those thoughts aside, might you gratefully receive your rest as a gift?
In Hebrews 4, God gives us a picture of spiritual deliverance through the analogy of physical rest. Just as people who are asleep have entered into their slumber, believers, through faith in Christ, are entering into the spiritual rest which the Father has prepared beforehand for them.
Now consider the man who resists sleep, and refuses to enter into rest. This resistance is akin to disobedience against God. It is by rebellion that people fail to enter into God’s rest when we read, “those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience.” So what does obedience look like?
The author of Hebrews drew from Psalm 95 to answer this question. “Do not harden your hearts.” The Psalmist directed God’s people to lay aside rebellious ingratitude, and to express thanks with humble worship. Our Deliverer is “a great God and a great King above all gods.” We surrender to Him because He is absolutely trustworthy.
God Watches, We Surrender
We lay down at night, trusting our infinite God to keep us in His care. Pastor Adrian Reynolds expresses this idea poignantly: “the willingness to lie down and sleep is itself an expression of trust in the sovereign hand of God. Nothing is going to happen to me that He does not determine.” We are to trust God completely, regardless of our situation.
Rest generally is a form of creaturely surrender to God the Creator. The universal need for regular times of rest testifies to humanity’s great need for God as both Protector and Sustainer. Through soaring mountain ranges, immeasurable ocean depths, and the immensity of cosmic space, God impresses us with a sense of His awesome power. Yet through the frailty of the human condition, God helps us to understand His invisible attributes by way of contrast rather than by direct analogy. Men must rest from their labors while God works out His will unremittingly in Providence. Men are dependent whereas God depends upon nothing. Men must sleep, but God is ever watchful.
Physical rest also provides daily occasion for thanksgiving. Though we have nothing else, to awake in the morning full of life is to open our eyes to God’s praiseworthiness. Rising in the morning to a symphony of life in a home full of children, or to the delicious smells of a hot breakfast, or to a house kept safe through the night should drive us to our knees in thanksgiving to God for His gracious favor.
Sleeping in Humiliation, Waking in Exaltation
We are called to follow Christ, and this includes following Him in His humiliation as a Man. Paul explained to the Philippians, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.” What does this have to do with sleep and rest?
The Westminster Larger Catechism describes Christ’s humiliation as “subjecting himself to…infirmities in his flesh, whether common to the nature of man, or particularly accompanying that his low condition.” Consider the account of Jesus sleeping through a gale. Being fully God, Christ needed no sleep. Being fully man, however, Jesus was tired and in need of sleep. Yet He could rest assured that His Father would preserve Him and exalt Him over all Creation once His work on Earth was done. When the anxious disciples woke Him up, they caught a glimpse of Christ’s exalted glory as He placated the waves by His Word.
Just as humiliation in this life precedes exaltation in the next, so too does rest produce vigor. Reynolds describes such rest as “part of our created humanity, a good gift from God to be treasured and enjoyed; an earthly picture of a spiritual reality.” Humiliation in this life leads to eternal exaltation with Christ, in whom we are blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
At least three sinful patterns hinder godly rest. Slothfulness involves overindulging in sleep. Gluttony involves overindulgence in other things which are otherwise good in moderation. Both slothfulness and gluttony generate escalating restlessness, temptation, and self-indulgence. They divert us from taking pleasure in a moderate use of things necessary for life, which should cultivate happiness and holiness in our pilgrimage through this world; such things should not enslave us to sin.
There is a third sinful habit, however. The neglect of sleep manifests self-reliance. We are frequently guilty of workaholism or procrastination, resulting in this abuse of sleep. Habitual and voluntary lack of discipline in daily activity leads to over-exhaustion, burn-out, and a whole host of physical and mental problems.
The neglect of physical rest may indicate destructive self-reliance on our part. Are there things that need doing around the house? Always. Are there work deadlines approaching? Constantly. Is there schoolwork to be done? Probably. At this point, Kevin DeYoung reminds us, “Going to sleep is our way of saying, ‘I trust you, God. You’ll be okay without me.’”
Of course, we fail – even in our sleep! Praise the Lord that His grace in Jesus Christ – who lived and slept perfectly on our behalf – is sufficient. But we mustn’t soon forget that when we treasure sleep as a gift, we accept rest with ease and gratitude. To God be the glory, even in our sleep! Our task is to glorify God by accepting the good gift of sleep as we make our pilgrimage through this world to our heavenly home, holy rest stops included.
*This post is an adaptation of the an article titled, "Resting in the Sovereignty of God: The Spiritual Benefits of Peaceful Slumber," published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, vol. 8, no. 2 (July 2016).
Zack Groff is a M.Div. student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. A graduate of Temple University (B.A., ’12) in Philadelphia, PA, Zack is a candidate for the ministry under care of the Philadelphia Metro West Presbytery of the PCA. He and his wife, Jocelyn, have three children. Zack is a Philly native, and serves full-time with the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) on the Metro Philadelphia area leadership team. He is also a professional guitarist. Zack has a great deal of experience sleeping, having spent the better part of a third of his life doing it.