From The Attentive Life
When we are sleep deprived, it is difficult to pay attention: to God, others, and ourselves. According to the Harvard Health Review, a recent survey found that more Americans are sleeping less than six hours a night, and sleep difficulties visit 75 percent of us at least a few nights per week. And it reported that sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, and the inability to be attentive.
Younger ministry leaders often come to Charlotte for a several-day retreat. When I advise them to take both long walks and lots of naps, they usually look surprised. But they are almost instantly relieved, because all of them come very tired. They are so constantly wound up that they become worn down. When we debrief at the end of the retreat, almost invariably they tell how naps and long walks have renewed them.
Is sleep a spiritual exercise? Yes, because we are not just spiritual beings. We are embodied spirits. Only God does not need sleep. (“He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep,” said the psalmist, (Psalm 121:4). But even he rested one out of seven days. God loves our bodies; he made them. And he made us to need sleep, both for our bodies and for the renewal of our souls.)
The prophet Elijah, after pouring himself out in prayer to God to validate his message against the false prophets, and seeing God answer with fire, was on such a spiritual “high” that he ran twenty miles in exhilaration, (1 Kings 19). Then when he heard that the wicked queen Jezebel was out to get him he fled to a desert place and in total exhaustion asked God to let him die. God’s remedy? Sleep! He put Elijah into two long sleeps, interrupted only by rousing him to eat and drink. It was after this prolonged sleep that Elijah was led to the mountain where he could hear God’s whisper, (1 Kings 19).
Sleep is also a spiritual exercise because it is an expression of trust. Going to sleep is a way of admitting that we are not God, that we are very human, and that we can leave the universe (and our own small worlds) overnight in the care of the God who runs the universe (and our own small worlds) overnight in the care of the God who runs the universe. He “gives sleep to his beloved,” said the psalmist, (Psalm 127:2). Or, as it can be translated, “He provides for his beloved during sleep.”
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.