Editor's Note: The following was originally published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, 8, 2, 2016
By Zachary Groff
The increasing use of electronic devices in modern societies presents an old, spiritual problem in a new, more technologically advanced form. Laptops and smartphones have emerged as co-belligerents alongside electric lighting, late-night television programming, sugar, and caffeine in the long war against the singular benefits of restful sleep. For tech-savvy Americans, personal experience confirms what academic studies have observed repeatedly: “night-time use of screen-based gadgets has a bad effect on peoples’ sleep.”1 As influential as new technology may be, voluntary sleep deprivation and neglect is primarily related to the spiritual sickness of pride rather than exclusively to the unique challenges presented by modernity. As one correspondent for NPR put it, “I live and report in New York City, and there is definitely a kind of pride or resignation here about lack of sleep.”2
Understanding the activity of sleep as something other than an inconvenience is of the utmost practical importance to Christians in all walks of life. In a society that values maximum productivity, and in a culture that exalts so-called “short sleepers,”3 the biblical injunction to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) in relation to sleep may seem difficult to apply. But sleep is a God-ordained means of both sustaining people physically and humbling them spiritually, enabling them better to glorify Him. In sleep, we not only prepare for the day ahead, but we admit tacitly our inescapable dependence on God as our creator and sustainer. My purpose in this article is to explore how sleep, perhaps surprisingly, helps men and women glorify and enjoy God as creatures bearing His image.
Sleep as a Gift from God
Sleep is an instrument of general revelation in that God makes known to every man and woman their common need for God’s protection every night. Our bodies are part of the creation that testifies to God’s existence and present activity; the universal physical need for sleep testifies to our great need for God as both our protector and our sustainer. Paul wrote forcefully in Romans 1:20, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” The frailty of the human physical condition reveals His invisible attributes by contrast rather than by direct analogy. As Albert Martin observes, “It is an established fact of general revelation and nature that optimum physical health is most likely maintained with concern” for physical needs such as exercise, a nutritional diet, and “adequate rest.”4
God gives us a picture of spiritual rest through the analogy of physical sleep. Just as people who are asleep have entered into their slumber, believers, through faith in Jesus Christ, are entering into the spiritual rest prepared for them beforehand by the Father.5 Following this analogy, consider the voluntary insomniac who actively resists sleep and does not find adequate rest. In biblical terms, resistance to the things of God is disobedience against His righteous laws. It is on account of their disobedience that unbelievers fail to enter into God’s rest: “they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief ” (Heb. 4:6b).
What does obedience to the gospel look like? Furthermore, can we apply the principle of that restful obedience to physical sleep? Hebrews 4 builds on a rich redemptive-historical background which can help us understand the kind of disobedience that is in view and the obedience which accompanies the rest promised in Christ. The author of Hebrews (4:7b) appeals to King David’s admonition in Psalm 95, “Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart.” The hardening that David warned against is that which the sons of Israel were guilty of at Massah and Meribah in Exodus 17:1–7. They tested the Lord by grumbling against Moses and demanding that he provide water for them. The Israelites’ grumbling exemplifies obstinacy and ungrateful insubordination towards God. The converse of such insubordination is joyous praise and humble worship of God as “a great God, and a great King above all gods” (Ps. 95:3), who exercises control over all that He has created. David thus exhorted the people, “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:6–7). David called believers to submit to God in faith, resting worshipfully in His sovereign care for them.
font-size: 11.0pt;">Believers surrender to God because He is uniquely qualified to receive their absolute trust. Infinite in His holiness, God is set apart from all things, “a great King above all gods” (Ps. 95:3b). One expression of His infinite power, holiness, and goodness is that “Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). The people of God literally lay their heads down at night, trusting their infinitely good God to keep them in His care. The believer submits daily to God’s design when he closes his eyes in restful slumber and trusts his Savior to preserve his soul. The act of sleeping illustrates the surrender of the creature to the Creator. Adrian Reynolds articulates this dynamic well when he writes, “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.”6 The believer places his trust in God unconditionally, regardless of whether God has decreed for him to wake in the morning or to enter into glory that very night.
As a believer prepares to go to sleep, he should reflect on the spiritual significance of actively entrusting himself into the Lord’s care. Puritan Henry Scudder (1585–1662) referenced Proverbs 3:21–25 and 6:21–22 to encourage his readers to trust in the Lord at each day’s end. He directed his audience to “fall asleep with some heavenly meditation, then will your sleep be more sweet, and more secure…and your heart will be in a better frame when you awake.”7 Those who resist such wise counsel refuse to trust God, who created them as physical beings in need of sleep. Scudder offered a disconcerting alternative: “though you have God to watch when you sleep, you cannot be safe, if he that watches be your enemy.”8
Surrender to God through Sleep
Scripture uses descriptions of physical rest to illustrate the wisdom of surrendering to God’s providence. Though Job’s friend Zophar falsely diagnosed the cause of Job’s affliction, he provided generally good advice when he directed Job to repent of iniquity.9 By doing so, Job would experience security in God’s favor. This finds its physical expression in sleep. Zophar claims, “And thou shalt be secure, because there is hope; yea, thou shalt dig about thee, and thou shalt take thy rest in safety. Also thou shalt lie down, and none shall make thee afraid; yea, many shall make suit unto thee” (Job 11:18–19). He that truly trusts in the saving grace of God will not only be assured in his mind and become secure in the Father’s care, but he will reflect that assurance in his life in experiencing daily physical rest.
Sleep also provides a daily occasion of thanksgiving. Even if a man has nothing else, to awake in the morning full of life and breath provides him with great cause for gratitude to God. Rising in the morning to a symphony of life in a home full of children, or to the delicious smells of breakfast, or to a house kept safe overnight should drive a man to his knees in thanksgiving to God for His unmerited favor. Scudder insisted, “In the instant of awaking let your heart be lifted up to God with a thankful acknowledgment of his mercy to you…. For, while you sleep, you are as it were out of actual possession of yourself, and all things else. Now, it was God that kept you, and all that you had, and restored them again, with many new mercies, when you awaked.”10
Sleeping in Humiliation, Waking in Exaltation
As Scudder suggested above, sleep necessarily proves human weakness. When practiced rightly, sleep also expresses humility, paralleling the spiritual humiliation with which every believer must come to terms at the foot of the cross. Paul called the church to “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him” (Phil. 2:5, 8–9a).
The Westminster Larger Catechism states that the Mediator between God and man must be human in order to “have a fellow feeling for our infirmities” (Q. 39). It defines Christ’s humiliation as including “subjecting himself to…infirmities in his flesh, whether common to the nature of man, or particularly accompanying that his low condition” (Q. 48). In one notable incident, Christ is recounted in the Gospels as having slept in the midst of a storm!11 Even while bearing the most basic physical weakness “common to the nature of man,” He rested securely in perfect confidence that the Father would preserve Him in sleep. After quelling the tempest, Christ famously reprimanded His disciples by inquiring where their faith was that they should be so fearful in the midst of the storm.12
Just as spiritual humiliation in this life blossoms into perfect spiritual exaltation in the next, so a night of healthy sleep produces a morning of physical and mental vigor. Prefiguring Christ’s example of sleeping in the storm, King David characterized sleep as an expression of trust in God. In the midst of Absalom’s rebellion, David wrote, “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me” (Ps. 3:5). David continued this theme in song: “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8). As Reynolds summarizes rightly, “This peace about going to sleep expresses a trust and confidence that God is in control and watching over us.”13
Reynolds further describes sleep as a “part of our created humanity, a good gift from God to be treasured and enjoyed; an earthly picture of a spiritual reality.”14 Sleep is especially a gift to Christians. It anticipates, by way of analogy, the promised rest described in Hebrews 4. Sleep gives us a daily opportunity to entrust ourselves to the care and provision of the Lord, surrendering to God through the course of our lives.
With a clear picture of what sleep is—a gift of God rather than an inconvenience—we can now move forward to explore the need for and uses of sleep in greater detail.
Sleep is Necessary
The deleterious effects of sleep deprivation on our bodies are perennial objects of study to researchers in medical fields ranging from neuroscience and psychology to immunology and cardiology.15 Beyond a doubt, healthy sleep is a basic physical necessity for human well-being. Calvin’s clear injunction applies to us today: “For if we must live, we must also use the necessary instruments for life.”16 Understanding that sleep is a gift from God, Calvin’s follow-up statement applies to us with equal force: “the use of gifts of God cannot be wrong, if they are directed to the same purpose for which the Creator himself has created and destined them.”17 Yet a man’s need for healthy sleep habits extends beyond physical requirements. Just as with other divine gifts that are common to all people, there is great spiritual benefit in sleeping properly. Scudder described sleep as that “which being taken in its due measure, is a restorer of vigour and strength to your body, and a quickener of the spirits.”18 It is a divine gift to be used wisely and well, to both physical and spiritual ends.
A Physical Need
Maintaining healthy sleep patterns nightly is the foundational means by which we sustain stable and productive energy levels in our work and ministry. Martin observes that the first step for Christian ministers who seek to achieve healthy physical practices is to “beware of seeking to serve God in the office and functions of the ministry as through you were a disembodied spirit, rather than a creature of flesh and blood.”19 This warning applies equally to all Christians in every vocation. Though Martin’s immediate aim is to encourage ministers to establish healthy physical disciplines for godly living, his ultimate goal is to prevent spiritual burnout, partly due to neglecting physical needs. He writes, “Ministerial burnout ordinarily occurs as a result of neglecting the fundamental mental and physical disciplines ordained by God for our general well-being.”20 Men must recognize that they are physical, not merely spiritual, beings. Only God is a “Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”21 By way of contrast, men are embodied souls. We are finite, temporal, and mutable. Sleep serves as a reminder of the frailty of the human condition, and of our need for God. Sadly, for many, it is a relatively ineffectual reminder quickly squelched by our unreasonable aspirations of improving productivity.
Presenting the Full-Orbed Gospel in Our Sleep
The act of sleep should remind believers of the gospel—namely, of God’s gracious deliverance of His people through Christ out of spiritual deadness. Awaking from sleep provides a picture of the Spirit’s work of regeneration, our experience of sanctification, and a reminder of the promise of future resurrection. In his directions for meditation immediately after waking in the morning, Scudder wrote, “[I]t will be useful to think upon some of these: I must awake from the sleep of sin, to righteousness…. Think also of your awaking out of the sleep of death, and out of the grave, at the sound of the last trumpet, even of your blessed resurrection unto glory, at the last day.”22 Reynolds adds, “[W]hen we wake up and thank God for a good night’s rest we should be thanking Him that one glorious day we will wake in His presence for all eternity.”23
In addition to being a physical necessity and a spiritual reminder, sleep also plays an important role as an instrument of progressive sanctification. Just as healthy sleep patterns implicitly declare the sovereign care of God, they assist in the important work of mortifying sins like anxiety, paranoia, doubt, stress, and unwarranted crankiness. As D. A. Carson affirms, “[I]f you are among those who become nasty, cynical, or even full of doubt when you are missing sleep, you are morally obligated to try to get the sleep you need.”24 This strong rebuke is not only for the rebellious unbeliever seeking to fight against God’s clear designs for human physical well-being. The danger of compromising the value of one’s Christian witness by the consequences of curtailing sleep should cause believers to consider Carson’s words. Martyn Lloyd-Jones provided a cautionary description of the over-wearied well-doer when he wrote, “They are moving in the right direction but the trouble is that they are shuffling along with drooping heads and hands and the whole spectacle and picture they present is the very antithesis of what the Christian is meant to be in this life and world.”25 As Carson suggests, one remedy to such burdensome weariness is restoring healthy, balanced sleep regimens.
Lastly, healthy sleep patterns not only help believers “die unto sin,” but they also empower them to “live unto righteousness” by the effectual work of God’s free grace.26 Establishing a healthy routine of rest promotes diligence, productivity, faithfulness, temperance, purity, and self-control in every aspect and area of life. As Kevin DeYoung notes, “If my goal is God-glorifying productivity over a lifetime of hard work, there are few things I need more than a regular rhythm of rest.”27 Recognizing that “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure,”28 it is not unreasonable to expect to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit in the lives of believers by means of caring for the body faithfully. We cultivate “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22–23) in our lives partly by proper care for the whole person, both in body and in spirit. To quote Carson again: “We are whole, complicated beings: our physical existence is tied up to our spiritual well-being, to our mental outlook, to our relationships with others, including our relationship with God.”29
Sleep Under Attack
In order to examine how sleep can be abused and how such abuses violate God’s law, we will explore slothfulness, gluttony, and neglect in relation to sleep, and how they manifest the effects of pride on people’s sleep habits.
Slothfulness involves overindulging in sleep. It is a parody of what sleep should be. As Scudder counselled, “You should sleep only so much as the present state of your body requires; you must not be like the sluggard, to love sleep.”30 DeYoung clarifies the biblical meaning of the term “sluggard”: “When Proverbs talks about the sluggard lying on his bed, it has in mind the kind of person who would rather starve than strive, the person who would rather receive a handout than put his hands to work.”31 The slothful man uses sleep irresponsibly with no plan to work productively and to worship God. He fails to regard sleep as something to be planned for and respected in its appropriate time and place. Slothfulness is ultimately an expression of sinful self-gratification and irresponsibility; these impulses flow from a prideful disregard of God and His mandate that we work as unto His glory. Commenting on Proverbs 20:13,32 Reynolds writes, “Don’t spend all day in bed—get up and do some work! Sleep here is an idol because it supplants the command to work.”33 Lethargy is the result of persistent slothfulness. This leads to restlessness, temptation, and further occasions for sin.
Gluttony is the sinful overindulgence of lawful things, especially with respect to food, alcohol, entertainment, and other things we consume. When allowed to grow in our lives unhindered, these influences consume time, vitality, and reputation. Martin writes, “Scripture does demand that we deny bodily appetites that are inordinate and irregular…lest through the corruption of remaining sin they lead into a course of sin.”34 Like the slothful man, the glutton does not esteem sleep as something to be structured purposefully as he goes about his daily activities. He might, for instance, give no consideration to allowing his body to slow down as he lifts a shot of espresso to his lips late in the day. He might choose to watch another hour of television programming when he should be preparing for bed. Overindulgence in otherwise good things can hinder restful, productive sleep.
Slothfulness and gluttony both exemplify the “scattered, frantic, boundary-less busyness”35 that has defined much of the American experience in the early twenty-first century. Like slothfulness, gluttony will put us on a hedonic treadmill of restlessness, temptation, and more self-indulgence. This pattern of escalating sinfulness is rooted in a prideful rejection of God’s warnings to seek moderation and balance while enjoying His good gifts in this world. As noted by Calvin, taking pleasure in moderate use of the things that are necessary for life should cultivate happiness. 36
The neglect of sleep is another danger. Essentially, neglect manifests sinful self-reliance. Though present in slothfulness and gluttony, neglect is seen most clearly in the workaholic who neglects healthy sleep patterns in order to accomplish tasks that seem to require immediate attention. This “workaholism,” when accompanied by the neglect of sleep, leads to over-exhaustion, burn-out, and the inability to strike a healthy balance in life. Self-imposed sleep deprivation is a grave infraction of God’s moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments.37 As the Puritan Thomas Vincent observed, the sixth commandment requires “[t]he nourishing and refreshing our bodies in a sober and moderate use of meat, drink, and sleep.”38 When we reject God’s clear direction to pursue bodily health, we implicitly place ourselves above God as the authority on what is right and wrong in our lives. More directly, neglecting sleep in vain self-reliance may express destructive self-aggrandizement and self-glorification. As DeYoung writes, “God made us to need sleep, and when we think we can survive without it, we not only spurn his gift (Ps. 127:2); we show our mistaken self-reliance…. Going to sleep is our way of saying, ‘I trust you, God. You’ll be okay without me.’”39 Reynolds puts it similarly by writing, “the willingness to lie down and sleep is itself an expression of trust and faith in a sovereign God.”40 In summary, slothfulness, gluttony, and neglect of healthful sleep patterns are born of the age-old desire to dethrone the Father in order to enthrone ourselves.
In order to honor God through sleep, we must recognize that we should devote the entire day to serving and glorifying God. Diligence in work leads to ease in resting at the right time. Healthful eating throughout the day also has the effect of enabling the body to shut down in due time, and to rest without hindrance. By depending on God as described above, we can establish self-control, which helps us to maintain proper sleep regimens. By recognizing the spiritual significance of sleep, we take a fresh approach to slumber by regarding it as a cause for thanksgiving rather than as an inconvenience or “necessary evil.”
Sleep provides us with a daily reminder of several universal spiritual realities. The primary reminder is that we are created beings dependent upon an infinite, ever-wakeful and watchful God. As such, we should receive sleep with gratitude as a divine gift and neither neglect nor abuse it. For Christians, this is especially important since God calls us to worship and glorify Him as He renews us in every aspect of our being after His image. This doxological motivation for taking care of our bodies must accompany us as we travel through this world to our heavenly home—rest stops included.
1. “To Sleep, Perchance,” The Economist, May 16, 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21651112-screens-bedtime-harm-sleep-effect -biggest-teenagers-sleep (October 15, 2015).
2. Margot Adler, “In Today’s World, the Well-Rested Lose Respect,” National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18155047 (October 15, 2015).
3. Melinda Beck, “The Sleepless Elite,” Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2011. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703712504576242701752957910 (October 15, 2015).
4. Albert N. Martin, You Lift Me Up: Overcoming Ministry Challenges, Reprint edition (Scotland: Mentor, 2013), 109.
5. Hebrews 4:1, 3, 5, 6, 10, 11.
6. Adrian Reynolds, And so to Bed...: A Biblical View of Sleep (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2014), 42.
7. Henry Scudder, The Christian’s Daily Walk (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1984), 96.
8. Scudder, The Christian’s Daily Walk, 94.
9. Cf. Job 11:13–15.
10. Scudder, The Christian’s Daily Walk, 29.
11. Matthew 8:24; Mark 4:38; Luke 8:23.
12. Matthew 8:26; Mark 4:40; Luke 8:25.
13. Reynolds, And so to Bed…, 42.
14. Reynolds, And so to Bed…, 10.
15. Cf. Janet M. Mullington et al., “Cardiovascular, Inflammatory and Metabolic Consequences of Sleep Deprivation,” Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases 51, no. 4 (2009): 294–302; David F. Dinges et al., “Sleep Deprivation and Human Immune Function,” Advances in Neuroimmunology 5, no. 2 (1995): 97–110; Michael W. L. Chee and Wei Chieh Choo, “Functional Imaging of Working Memory after 24 Hrs of Total Sleep Deprivation,” The Journal of Neuroscience 24, no. 19 (May 12, 2004): 456–67.
16. John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, trans. Henry Van Andel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 83.
17. Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, 86.
18. Scudder, The Christian’s Daily Walk, 96.
19. Martin, You Lift Me Up, 104, 119.
20. Martin, You Lift Me Up, 103.
21. WSC Q. 4.
22. Scudder, The Christian’s Daily Walk, 29–30.
23. Reynolds, And so to Bed…, 58.
24. D. A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010), 147, as quoted in Kevin DeYoung, Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2013), 97.
25. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure, reprinted edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 191–92.
26. WSC Q. 35 reads, “What is sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
27. DeYoung, Crazy Busy, 92.
28. WCF 5:3.
29. Carson, Scandalous, 147, as quoted in DeYoung, Crazy Busy, 97.
30. Scudder, The Christian’s Daily Walk, 96.
31. DeYoung, Crazy Busy, 94.
32. DeYoung, Crazy Busy, 92.
33. WCF 5:3.
34. Carson, Scandalous, 147, as quoted in DeYoung, Crazy Busy, 97.
35. Scudder, The Christian’s Daily Walk, 96.
36. DeYoung, Crazy Busy, 94.
37. Prov. 20:13 cautions, “Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty; open thine eyes, and thou shalt be satisfied with bread.”
38. Reynolds, And so to Bed…, 54.
39. Martin, You Lift Me Up, 110–11.
40. DeYoung, Crazy Busy, 98.
41. Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, 84.
42. WSC Q. 41 reads, “Wherein is the moral law summarily comprehended? The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.”
43. Thomas Vincent, “The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly Explained and Proved from Scripture,” Westminster Shorter Catechism Project, http://www.shortercatechism.com/resources/vincent/wsc_vi_068.html (October 16, 2015).
44. DeYoung, Crazy Busy, 95.
45. Reynolds, And so to Bed…, 26.