Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27
When Jesus said this, he flipped around the world’s understanding. What he was saying is that God’s rules are not a burden to be lived under, but a tool that draws us to Him. Specifically, he is talking about the practice of “resting.” Like most nine year-olds, though, we view sleep as something we have to do, and so we begrudgingly turn off the television, plug the phone in and head to bed because we have to rather than seeing sleep as a gift from God.
Most of us live “Wired & Tired” lives. We maximize every opportunity. We thought it was cool to stay up late when we were kids. We bragged about pulling all-nighters in college. We promote employees who can burn the candle at both ends. We celebrate (and medicate) those who function on four hours of sleep. We think if we can push ourselves a little bit further then we will get better, faster, prettier, richer, whatever+ier.
In so doing, we fail to find adequate rest, so we turn to coffee and other stimuli to keep us wired all day. We want to be our own gods in charge of our own destinies, so sleep gets in the way. Therefore, we created light bulbs, late night TV, instant internet, coffee and other stimulants to keep us from sleep. As a result, we live these wired and tired lives.
This self-reliance, however, causes us to miss one of the most critical spiritual disciplines. The spiritual discipline of SLEEP.
Our sleep is a theological claim of our insignificance. Sleep shows we are mortal and finite. It is when our brains and bodies stop trying to control the situations of life and let go. It is when anxiety, worry, fear, shame, guilt and all the other things that keep us awake are finally released, if only for a few hours. Do you see how deeply theological sleep is yet? Sleep is a need we have. Sleep reveals our insignificance…and when we sleep we boldly claim that the world will continue on without us. Psalm 121 reminds us that our help comes from the Lord–the one and only one–who never sleeps.
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
Sleep is the ultimate moment of surrender to the Lord.
Think about it, how do you make yourself sleep? You cannot.
We have a child who frequently comes out of his room because he cannot sleep. Like my parents would do with me, I just tuck him back into bed and tell him to sleep. Because there is no technique, no method, no action steps you can take to go to sleep. In fact, the more you think about getting to sleep, the less sleep you get. You sleep when you stop worrying about sleep.
I used to sleep miserably before any long race or endurance event. The night before the race, I would toss and turn and count down the 15 min increments thinking if I just fell asleep now then it would be great…well now it would be okay…well now I need to sleep. And I would toss and turn all night. Then one day I read in Runner’s World that a study had shown that it really does not matter how little sleep you get the night before the race (what matters is the week leading up to that night)–whether true or not–it did an amazing thing. I now sleep really well the night before a race. Why? Because the pressure had been taken off. I was absolved of the anxiety and worry that a lack of sleep would hinder my performance.
You cannot make yourself sleep, all you can do is create environments that make sleep possible.
This is why sleep, rest and Sabbath are such central pieces of the Bible.
Ex. 20:8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Psa. 62:7 “On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.”
Mat. 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Heb. 4:9 “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God…”
In my ultramarathon training I have learned the mathematical formula that “stress+rest=growth.” As one friend advised me, he would rather be undertrained and healthy than overtrained and ailing going into a big race. Therefore, we not only need to stress our bodies, but also view ‘rest’ as just as legitimate as the workout. As a result, I have done a very subtle thing in my training logs; I no longer write “off days” but “rest” on the days I do not run. Why? Because it reminds me these are not “days off” of my plan, but essential parts of my plan.
In fact these REST days are the building blocks for the rest of the week.
If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, before you can worry about love, community, emotional resiliency, spiritual maturity, belonging and self-actualization you have to get right by putting the basic foundations of sleep, eating and exercise into place. Without adequate sleep the house crumbles. But by placing sleep as the first brick, you can build a new life…a resilient life.
Cheryl, a young woman who is a member of our church, hit rock bottom three years ago. She told me her story over breakfast at the local IHOP. Sitting in a trailer in Caliente, Nevada, three hours north of Las Vegas, strung out on crystal meth, an insidious drug, she cried out to God for help. She had not slept in ten days and was fearful someone wanted to kill her. The combination of drugs and sleep deprivation were driving her crazy, literally. If this went on much longer she would die. ‘I felt it in my gut,’ she said, pointing to her stomach. ‘I knew I was dying.’
How did she get to this low point? It began two years earlier after she had dropped out of community college and was working full-time at Pep Boys, an automotive supply store. There, she met a guy and moved in with him. This was the beginning of her downward spiral. He boyfriend, Sam, had severe anger problems, which caused him to lose one job after another. Each time, they moved a little farther from home, seeking the next pot of gold. Eventually they ended up living in a trailer park in this small town. ‘It was a dead end,’ she said.
One afternoon, whiling away the hours with friends, one of them brought out a pack of crystal meth. Not wanting to disappoint them and not having the inner resources to say no, she smoked the drug and was hooked. She now lived for the next high. So here she was: far from home, addicted, lonely and living with a verbally abusive boyfriend who cheated on her. She thought to herself, how did a girl from Orange County and a good home end up in a trailer park strung out on drugs?
‘Although, my mind was messed up on the drugs, I knew in my heart that this was not how it was supposed to be.’
‘So what did you do?’ I asked.
‘One day,’ she continued, ‘after not sleeping or eating well for ten days, I did something I have never really done. I prayed. I asked God to help me sleep, which would keep me alive. I said to God that if he kept me alive for the night I would leave this place.”
Right after she prayed, she lay down and fell asleep for the first time in a week and a half. The next day she was still alive. She could not believe it. So she packed up all her stuff…left her boyfriend, the drugs and her old life behind.
*The Deep Church
When I read this dramatic story, I was struck by how simple her prayer was. “Lord, let me sleep.” In that plea, God transformed her life. The act of sleeping was the first step towards a radically new life.
People fighting depression often talk about 3am as the most devastating time. In the physical darkness is when the emotional and spiritual darkness overwhelms. Sleep deprivation is a known torture device…just ask any new parent. We all are like Cheryl in desperate need of that simple prayer, “Lord, let me sleep.” From there we rise into a new day filled with hope.