We spend roughly a third of our lives sleeping — more than any other single activity. But while many of us are happy to thank God for a good night’s rest, we may not necessarily see anything particularly spiritual about this enormous segment of our lives.
As it turns out, the Bible actually has quite a bit to teach us about the spiritual significance of sleep, says Biola professor Jason McMartin. McMartin, who teaches systematic theology and theological integration in two of Biola’s graduate schools, recently researched and wrote about the subject in an article titled “Sleep, Sloth, and Sanctification,” published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care. In it, he suggests that sleep can bring glory to God and that we can even grow spiritually because of sleep.
Biola Magazine connected with him to learn more.
Jason, many people probably think of sleep as a spiritually neutral activity — like hitting the pause button on our lives for eight hours. But you say that we can actually bring glory to God while we sleep. How so?
We glorify God by making known his greatness. Human sleep illuminates God’s nature by means of contrast and difference. Humans must sleep and can die if they do not. God’s sleeplessness shows his independence; our sleepfulness reveals our dependence. We cannot not sleep; God cannot sleep. God is blessed in himself, which includes his self-existence and independence. He has the source of life and joy in himself (1 Thess. 1:9; Ps. 36:9; John 1:3–4; Jer. 32:36–41; Zeph. 3:17) and is in need of nothing to possess these things. Sleep brings glory to God by showing that we are not blessed in ourselves and must receive blessing from God’s hand. If we are to possess existence, life, joy or anything at all, we must receive them from God as gifts of grace. Appropriately then, we glorify God in sleep without being able to help it. Sleep shows my creatureliness in contrast to the Almighty Creator who gives me life.
Scripture has more to say about sleep than people might realize. What are some of the basic themes that emerge in the biblical passages dealing with sleep?
In Scripture, trust emerges as the basic theme concerning the spiritual significance of sleep. For example, in Psalm 4, the context is crop failure, but the psalmist emphasizes that God alone provides safety in which one may rest. The grammatical construction of Psalm 3:5 implies a habitual pattern of trust in the Lord that allows for easy and restful sleep. Psalm 127 expresses trust in God for success in one’s endeavors of building a house, guarding a city and growing a family. Sleepless activity will not ensure that our efforts will be rewarded. Jesus models trust for us by sleeping in the midst of a storm (Mark 4:35–41). The Good Shepherd causes his sheep to lie down in places of abundance and security (Ez. 34:14–15; Ps. 23; Mark 6:39; John 10:1-18); submission to that guidance and provision is an expression of trust.
Many of us associate sleep with comfort and safety, but that often wasn’t the case in the biblical world. How might recognizing that difference help us to better understand what the Bible has to say about sleep?
The authors of Scripture often use sleep as a metaphor for death. Many times and cultures other than our own envision a close connection between the two, since the night hours may bring genuine threat to one’s person. A vivid example of this comes from Psalm 3, where the context is David’s flight from Absalom. Surrounded by enemies, uncertain of whom he could trust, waking up in the morning is attributed to God’s sustenance. Elsewhere in Scripture we see the potential for death and evil to befall one while sleeping. Samson, though complicit, meets the beginning of his downfall while asleep (Judges 16). David resists an opportunity to have a spear put through Saul’s head while he is sleeping (1 Sam. 26). Dying at the hands of one’s enemies, having possessions stolen or having one’s livelihood disappear are all dangers the night may bring. Though we may not face the same dangers, all of us are vulnerable while sleeping. We can connect our lives to the biblical message by considering the obstacles we do face with respect to sleep.
In your article, you draw an interesting analogy between sleep and spiritual growth. In what ways can sleep help us to think about the process of spiritual growth?
One potentially agonizing truth about sleep is that you cannot pursue it directly. If you try to do so, you will likely fail: “OK, I’m going to go to sleep now. No, really. Now I’m going to go to sleep — right now. Ready, begin!” Direct routes are counterproductive. So we must try indirect routes, and an entire industry eagerly waits to assist us. Yet, one can try all the indirect routes (aside from medication) and not produce sleep. Sleep does not follow of necessity. Sleep, like our very existence, is a grace. It is a gift. It is given and not earned. Likewise, spiritual growth is largely indirect. Formation practices set the context and conditions for growth to happen, but do not directly produce the growth. Growth in Christ requires effort, but it is the grace of God’s activity that engenders results and not our earning. As in sleep, we must be patient in spiritual growth when all of the conditions are in place, but the intended outcome does not happen.
Beyond helping us to understand spiritual growth, in what ways might sleep actually contribute to spiritual growth?
One way to engage sleep as a spiritual practice is simply to endeavor to get enough of it. We put ourselves in a better position to do the hard work of loving others when we relinquish control in sleep. We have all experienced the impatience and irritation that comes from lack
Second, we can gratefully receive sleep as a gift that reinforces the loving grace of being a creature. When we sleep, we must trust that we will continue to exist and be safe, that we will indeed wake again in the morning. I cannot control the outcome of my life through my work; more work does not ensure more security or control. I cannot make myself selfsufficient by avoiding sleep in order to work (Ps. 127:1–2).
Some theologians have suggested that growth can occur not only as the result of sleep, but during sleep. I’m not sure how we could know this was happening, but it does seem that our ability to sin is severely curtailed while we’re sleeping.
Are there any spiritual dangers associated with sleep?
One spiritual danger of sleep is the deadly sin of sloth, which is not the mere laziness or the excess of sleep. In the Christian tradition, sloth was apathy toward or avoidance of one’s relational commitments. In our culture, we tend to use workaholism, busyness and activity as means of slothful avoidance, which often results in not getting enough sleep. For others, a slothful approach to sleep manifests as lazy apathy or disengagement. Some have thought that we may be susceptible to demonic influences while sleeping, perhaps in the form of dreams.
What biblical counsel might you offer to someone who has trouble getting enough sleep?
Sleep eludes us for many reasons. We are holistic beings, composed of bodies and souls. Nothing we do is merely physical or merely spiritual. We ought to consider all angles. Sometimes sleep problems are primarily physiological, and we should consult with medical experts or review the National Sleep Foundation’s tips for sleep hygiene. We should consider the spiritual role that caffeine, use of electronics, entertainment, workaholism and food play in our lives. We may be using these to exert control or bring comfort. We should entrust ourselves to God for his provision and protection, so that even in the midst of our enemies, we are able to sleep.
Many Christian practices can support healthy sleep. Scripture meditation and prayer are activities that we may do in our beds as our first and last conscious actions of the day (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2; 4:4; 63:6). For example, we might focus on the beauty of Christ as we drift off to sleep, or thoughtfully recite the Lord’s Prayer before we get out of bed upon waking. Of course, we may also have troubling circumstances or relational commitments (e.g. young children) in which it is appropriate to avoid sleep in order to watch and pray (Matt. 26:36–46).
In your time studying the biblical treatment of sleep, did any particular passage or story become especially meaningful or impactful to you?
Psalm 127 became particularly meaningful as an important reminder that the outcomes of my efforts are not entirely up to me. This means that (1) I can refrain from excessive attempts at controlling things, (2) I can give due credit to God for the good outcomes that have come about, and (3) I can place disappointments within a broader kingdom perspective. It helps me to seek the Lord for every aspect of my responsibilities, commit the results to him and get a good night’s sleep under his watchful care.
Download McMartin’s journal article “Sleep, Sloth, and Sanctification” for free from Biola’s Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care at journals.biola.edu/sfj.
Jason McMartin (’97, M.A. ’99) is an associate professor of theology at Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology and Talbot School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in religion from Claremont Graduate University and serves on the pastoral team at Maple Evangelical Church in Fullerton.