God Wants You to Get Some Sleep
Goodnight kittens. Goodnight emails unwritten. Goodnight clocks. Goodnight inbox… Goodnight worrying about weight loss. Goodnight demanding boss. Goodnight test for which I need to cram. Goodnight Instagram.
So goes Goodnight Smartphone, a modern-day rewriting of the classic bedtime story Goodnight Moon. The invention of the light bulb has kept Americans awake at least one or two hours later, and now today’s glowing devices are interrupting the six or seven hours of shuteye adults average each night.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control declared sleep deprivation a public health problem, with 30 percent of adults getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night.
You can see it in their eyes. The dark circles of a mother who hasn’t slept more than a few hours since baby was born, who squints and smiles through the fatigue that has become her new normal. The glassy eyes of a workaholic who isn’t sure if she should be embarrassed or proud of her latest all-nighter. The heavy lids of the friend whose depression or chronic pain won’t let her get a solid eight hours.
Arianna Huffington, who narrates the new Goodnight Smartphone book, has dedicated her post–Huffington Post life to getting the tired people of the world to go to sleep, rest, and take steps to prevent burnout.
The author of The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time and founder of the new site Thrive has been labeled a “sleep evangelist”—apt terminology given how much our zzzs impact our spiritual lives, particularly as women.
Even as Americans trade sleep for digital distractions and rest for caffeine, researchers have discovered more than ever about the significance of sleep.
Their findings agree with the age-old adage of the psalmist: “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” Sleep—as experts preach—is incredibly good for us. Thrive is littered with articles showing how sleep keeps us healthy, makes us more efficient leaders, and increases our productivity.
As Huffington says, “The phrase ‘work-life’ balance assumes they’re in opposition, and I believe they rise and fall in tandem. When I do great work, my life is better. When my home life is better, my work is better.”
The advice is universal, but her framing is particular relevant for today’s Lean In generation of working women and do-it-all moms.
A 2013 study published in the American Sociological Review examining the relationship between gender, family makeup, and working hours found that women tend to get more sleep overall—given that women who stay home have time to nap during the day. However, researchers agree that women also have worse sleep quality than men.
“Getting up to take care of others, a task disproportionately performed by women, is highly disruptive to sleep and may reduce overall sleep quality,” wrote University of Michigan sociologists Sarah A. Burgard and Jennifer A. Ailshire.
There’s more bad news, sleepy sisters. Sleeplessness hits women harder than men and is more closely correlated with health risks.
“Poor sleep certainly had a more profound effect on women than on men,” said researcher Edward Suarez, from the Duke University Medical Center, who found significantly greater increases in stress, anxiety, depression, diabetes, and heart disease among women with poor sleep.
As he explained in Shape magazine, men’s testosterone rises after a bad night of sleep, staving off some of the negative effects of sleepless stress. Women’s hormones don’t have the same benefits; in fact, menopause and other hormonal phases actually exacerbate our trouble sleeping.
Overall, women are 20 percent more likely to be insomniacs and suffer worse from it than men, according to Aric Prather, whose “heart and soul study” on sleep quality was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.
It’s apt that even secular professors note the soul dimension to our sleep. Should Christians seek a theology of sleep in Scripture and tradition, they’d find more evidence than I can summarize in a single article. God has certainly not overlooked the hours he designed us to spend in bed.
In The Rest of God, pastor Mark Buchanan notes that by starting at sunset, sleep kicks off each biblical Sabbath. Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior reminds us that “one of the most dramatic events in the ministry of Jesus—and a great test of the disciples’ faith—begins and centers on Jesus’ sleeping through a storm.”
“Not only does Jesus admonish us through this story to have strong faith, but his example teaches us also to sleep well,” said Prior, a self-proclaimed early bird.
Sleep brings us all—early birds and night owls, tiny babies and busy grown-ups—to the same place: tucked under our flannel sheets, fancy duvets, and security blankets each night. It’s a universal human vulnerability. Theologian Charles Spurgeon summed it up, “God gave us sleep to remind us we are not him.”
Beneath a God who never slumbers, Christians view sleep as a sign of our limitations. It is also a great gift; like hunger, it points to a God who meets our needs and cares for us. “God made sleep as a continual reminder that we should not be anxious but should rest in him,” wrote John Piper.
A few Christians have gone as far as suggesting that getting more sleep is among the ways Christians can serve the body of Christ and our communities. Back in 2013, Tish Harrison Warren, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, mused about the kind of countercultural routines that would force onlookers to conclude, “Those Christians sure are well-rested.”
And author Lauren Winner explored the broad benefits of sleeping more in “Sleep Therapy,” a 2006 piece for Books and Culture:
Not only does sleep have evident social consequences, not only would sleeping more make us better neighbors and friends and family members and citizens. Sleeping well may also be part of Christian discipleship, at least in our time and place.
The unarguable demands that our bodies make for sleep are a good reminder that we are mere creatures, not the Creator. For it is God and God alone who "neither slumbers nor sleeps." Of course, the Creator has slept, another startling reminder of the radical humility he embraced in becoming incarnate. He took on a body that, like ours, was finite and contingent and needed sleep. To push ourselves to go without sleep is, in some sense, to deny our embodiment, to deny our fragile incarnations—and perhaps to deny the magnanimous poverty and self-emptying that went into his Incarnation.
Such theological arguments for sleep may have personal perks for the well-rested. Preliminary findings from Christian sociologist Brad Wright—who teaches at the University of Connecticut and runs a study on spirituality through an iPhone app—indicate that good sleep correlates with their faith lives.
“The more people feel like they had ‘quality sleep,’ the more they feel close to God,” he told CT’s Behemoth. “But there seems to be no effect when you look at the actual hours of sleep people got—the results are essentially the same for four or five hours of sleep as they are for nine or more hours.”
Wright also found that participants were more spiritually aware in the mornings.
In an article published in the Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, Biola University theology professor Jason McMartin references Brother Lawrence and other Christian leaders who suggest that spiritual growth occurs “not only as the result of sleep, but during sleep.” Since we cannot control what we do or think during sleep, at the very least it provides an apt analogy for relying on God and not ourselves for sanctification.
Other than a handful of exceptions, I have not fallen asleep before midnight in several years. It’s partly a holdover from my single years, then from keeping in touch with my Army husband when he was overseas, then from being on separate schedules when he worked nights. But it’s become my rhythm. I find myself doing my best grocery-shopping, house-cleaning, and, yes, article-writing when the rest of the world is dreaming.
My instinct is to grumble about the undeniable evidence against my own routine. But as much as up-all-night has become my normal, I still feel the effects. It’s one thing to admit that sleep matters, even for a night owl like me, and another to adjust your life to make sleep a priority—which means saying no to all the things that could get done in the late hours.
“Like most spiritual disciplines, to be most effective, sleep requires both a change in attitude and a change in habits,” wrote Joe Carter, who listed a range of helpful tips and tricks for better “sleep health” over at The Gospel Coalition.
He also quoted D. A. Carson:
Sometimes the godliest thing you can do in the universe is get a good night’s sleep—not pray all night, but sleep. I’m certainly not denying that there may be a place for praying all night; I’m merely insisting that in the normal course of things, spiritual discipline obligates you get the sleep your body need.
Yet prayer itself can signal us to the time of day, linking our spiritual practices with routines of everyday life. Praying the hours or the daily office draws from the set prayer times in Judaism and the early church and lays out prayers for dawn, early morning, mid-morning, noon, afternoon, evening, bedtime, and midnight.
The bedtime prayer, called Compline, begins, “May the Lord Almighty grant me and those I love a peaceful night and a perfect end.” (As Winner admitted, “It is sheer hypocrisy to pray with my community for a peaceful night and a perfect end if I know I am going home to put in three or four more hours answering email.” Touché.)
McMartin at Biola emphasizes trust as the most significant scriptural theme associated with sleep. Indeed, it’s a trust so basic we learn it as children when we recite the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”