Americans aren’t getting enough shuteye. That’s the conclusion of a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that nearly nine million Americans take prescription sleeping pills and such prescriptions have tripled for people younger than 45. Of course, occasional sleepless nights are normal for nearly everyone and sometimes insomnia is caused by uncontrollable factors like physical pain or nightmares. But can a lack of sleep indicate a spiritual problem? Does the Bible say anything to guide us in our sleep patterns? You might be surprised to learn that the answer is yes to both questions.
First, several passages in Scripture’s wisdom literature suggest that inability to sleep may reflect a lack of trust in the Lord. In Psalm 4:8, David is able to sleep amid life’s trials because of his confidence that the Lord alone made him “dwell in safety.” Similarly, Psalm 127:1-2 teaches that the Lord watches over His people. Therefore, we need not “eat the bread of anxious toil” or “in vain . . . rise up early and go late to rest,” thinking our security depends entirely on our frenzied labors. Indeed, God “gives to his beloved sleep.” It brings to mind the time Jesus slept in a boat during a storm on the Sea of Galilee. In contrast to His frazzled disciples, Jesus’ sleep was an expression of trust in His heavenly Father (Mark 4:35-41). Of course, there are times when sleeplessness is appropriate given the weightiness of our circumstances, and too much sleep may also reflect a lack of trust in the Lord, as when depressed or worried people sleep to avoid facing their troubles. But finding ourselves routinely unable to sleep due to worry indicates a need to trust God, and not to pop Ambien.
Scripture also says that too much sleep may reflect laziness. Consider Proverbs 6:9-11, which asks sarcastically, “How long will you lie there, O sluggard?” and warns that one who sleeps when he should be working will come to poverty. In contrast, the Proverbs 31 woman routinely rises early to work in her home (Proverbs 31:15). Just as failure to rest can indicate a lack of faith in God’s provision, refusal to work when we’re tired can indicate a lack of drive and work ethic.
Finally, the Bible teaches that there is a time to sacrifice sleep for a greater spiritual good. Jesus regularly rose early to pray and even prayed all night on occasion (Luke 6:12), recognizing that sometimes communion with God is more necessary for His children than physical rest. The night before Jesus’ crucifixion, for example, He told Peter, James, and John to pray that they would “not enter into temptation.” When they fell asleep instead, the Lord rebuked them and said there would be other times for sleep (Matthew 26:36-46). Their abandonment of Jesus during His arrest and trial was a result of their choice to sleep rather than seek God.
Where does all this leave us? For one, the Bible doesn’t say how much sleep we should get. Seven to nine hours may be a medical recommendation, but there’s no scriptural prescription for the number of hours we should spend in bed. Still, rest should characterize God’s people. (Not like the Chicago woman who routinely woke up at 1:30 a.m. because of worry over work demands and told NBC News that sleep eluded her because, she “was at wit’s end.” And not like the millions of Americans who throw off their bodies’ natural sleep rhythms by using their computers, smartphones, and tablets before going to bed.) Primarily, the Bible speaks of rest as a condition of the soul, characteristic of believers whether they are awake or asleep (see, for example, Matthew 11:29 and Hebrews 3:7-4:13). But Scripture also teaches that a soul resting in Christ normally shouldn’t find sleep elusive. At the same time, a resting soul should be disciplined to sacrifice sleep when necessary to earn a living or render service to God.
So next time worry keeps you awake or depression makes it hard to get out of bed, consider opening your Bible before you head to the medicine cabinet. There you’ll find the comforting voice of Jesus urging, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).