I have two daughters. One is four years old, and the other will be two in March. Most nights, at least one of them will wake up needing a bottle or a diaper-change or comfort from a bad dream. And rare is the day when my wife and I get to sleep in past 6:00 a.m.
We are tired a lot of the time.
A few months ago, my wife was expressing her fatigue to a friend of ours. “It’s like we need to just go to bed right after we put the girls down!” The friend suggested that we do just that, even one night a week.
About this same time, I started reading James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God, in which he ends the first chapter with a few pages on sleep as a spiritual discipline. He writes about the studies that show we need to get about eight hours of sleep each night. He writes about how the average American sleeps for under seven hours a night. He writes about how the study participants “felt happier, less fatigued, more creative, energetic and productive” when they slept an average of 8.5 hours a night.
Smith also points out the need for sleep as a foundation to the other spiritual disciplines:
Everything we do in our lives, including the practices of spiritual formation, we do in and with our bodies. If our bodies are not sufficiently rested, our energies will be diminished and our ability to pray, read the Bible, enter solitude or memorize Scripture will be minimized.
I was starting to be convinced we needed to work harder to get the sleep our bodies were telling us we needed.
Sleeping and Surrendering
So Taryn and I prioritized sleep over doing some of the chores around the house. We stopped trying to fit in a movie after the girls went to bed. And we’ve noticed a difference not just physically and emotionally but also spiritually.
For example, I’m not very comfortable with the notion of a God who loves me just because. I want to earn my salvation. I want to get right with God because of something I’ve done. But that’s not how God works, exactly. I’m learning to believe that God doesn’t love us because of anything we can do. He loves us “while we were still sinners” because we are his creation (Romans 5:8). We are saved from deadness not because of anything we’ve done, but by acknowledging Christ’s work on the cross on our behalf. Surrendering to my need for sleep helps me stay in tune with this truth.
As James Bryan Smith says:
You cannot make yourself sleep. You cannot force your body to sleep. Sleep is an act of surrender. It is a declaration of trust. It is admitting that we are not God (who never sleeps), and that is good news. . . . The disciplines are not ways to earn anything from God, but wise practices that allow God to teach, train and heal us. Sleep, therefore, is a kind of “anti-discipline” discipline.
What’s Most Important?
Getting enough sleep also helps me come to terms with my limited resources. I have enough to do for three lifetimes, but I only have one. As I accept my limitations by sleeping for a third of my days, I’m forced to prioritize my time and make sure what I’m doing is the most important thing for me to be doing. While this is difficult, it’s really a blessing. Who wants to spend their life doing stuff that ends up not really mattering?
I believe God is active in the world today, telling the story he’s been telling since the beginning of time. And I believe we each have a role to play in God’s story. If we are to take our part in God’s story, we must first begin with the full-being dependence on him signaled by surrender to our need for sleep.
Sleep on This
The Jewish day begins at sundown. I think there’s something profoundly accurate about starting out with winding down. If we are to act in God’s kingdom, we must first stop being active. If we are to “go and do,” we must also develop the habit of treating our bodies according to how God has made us.
Kurt Bullis is the Editorial Director of urbana.org and, yes, a committed sleeper.
You might also be interested in Kurt's tips on how to get more sleep, and on Jess's advice for holistic, healthy living.