This last week I had a nightmare: I dreamt I couldn’t sleep. In my dream, I rolled and curled and tossed through the short night. And then I woke up, unsure of how much I’d actually slept, if at all.
I have long lain awake through the night, but the worst was the year I traveled in Africa. My husband and I were traveling from Cairo into the heart of the Congo and then to the Kenyan coast. I couldn’t rest from the start. We drove nearly every day, stopping at a new spot or clearing at night. The ground was lumpy no matter where we made camp. Our two-man tent was claustrophobic, and the nights were short and hard.
One night, as we began the three-week crossing of the Sahara, a camel spider as big as a crab appeared in our campground before scuttling off into the dark. I closed the tent and checked the zipper obsessively from then on. Yet another reason to worry. Once we reached the heart of Africa, there were more anxieties. We were behind schedule. The rainy season was beginning, and one evening we were stuck up to our axles in black muck. I prayed for sleep each night, and it would come as fitful and unsettling as that dream. I could not rest because I felt utterly powerless.
Almost 30 years later, I still struggle with sleep. And though my life circumstances have changed completely, I still feel vulnerable at times. Like so many, my schedule is filled with responsibilities, meetings, and ministry. My sons run to youth group, wrestling practice, and piano lessons—all of which are squeezed between homework and church. We scurry from one event to the next, through fatigue, until we tick off every item on the list. Self-discipline and determination fuel me through every busy day, but at night, such powers fail. No amount of either can lull me to sleep.
And my work life? So much like yours. Our work is bleeding over into our leisure, our weekends, our vacations. And yes, we’re tired. We’re not getting enough sleep. Fifty to 70 million adults in the U.S. have sleep or wakefulness disorders. And while grownups need an average of eight hours of sleep a night, nearly one third of us make due with just six.
So here we are in our collective insomnia—millions of us alone on our pillows, staring into the dark. We take pills to help our bodies do what we’re keeping them from doing. At the root, I believe our sleep crisis is a faith crisis. It takes faith in God to close our eyes and loosen our grip on the conscious world. It is our own limits and helplessness that often keep us awake.
Real rest comes only when we believe God is who He says He is and recognize who we are—mere dust. We are dependent beings who will die without food, water, and sleep. But the recognition of these limitations need not lead to despair and sleeplessness. Rather, it is a relief to know we don’t hold the world, even our own little corners of it, in our hands. God is over all our needs and delights in providing them for His children. Here, then, humility leads us to rest when it moves us to the omnipotent One who made and redeemed us—the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps and who will never let us go.
Faith and humility are in short supply these days. But even those in the presence of Jesus struggled with the same. On a hillside after pronouncing blessing upon the thousands gathered, Jesus spoke to their still fretful hearts, urging them, “Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25). He showed them the lilies, the birds, the grass of the field. “Are you not worth much more than they?” He chided lovingly (vv. 26-30). “Each day has enough trouble of its own” (v. 34). And the night? What of it? When we take these words to heart, then the night, too, can be free from the troubles of the day.
At the root, our sleep crisis is a faith crisis. It takes faith in God to close our eyes and loosen our grip on the conscious world.
Paul took up the theme as well. Imprisoned and powerless, just when he should have been exhausted with worry, he wrote to encourage his fellow believers and us, saying, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6 niv). Why not? What can we do when we feel so overwhelmed? The apostle tells us: “In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” As we lie on our beds at night, we can transfer our anxieties to God Himself, who welcomes them. Invites them, even, because He alone can carry them.
Sleep is the ultimate act of faith. Not the faith that moves mountains, but the kind that can make a bed on any mountain—no matter where it is. But it’s about more than a better night’s sleep; it takes faith and humility in our waking hours as well. We will not sleep at night until we learn to rest throughout the day. This includes times when we stop to rest in who God is, in all He has already accomplished on our behalf, and all He will do tomorrow. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” the prayer goes. And if we have practiced rest in Him all day, we can indeed. We can sleep because God is always awake.
We can let go of our worries because Christ will never let go of us.
We can cease from our warfare because Christ has already won the battle.
We can lay our yoke down because Christ has taken it up.
As our eyes close, we can say as Julian of Norwich once did, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”