By Joey Royal
I’ve been recently diagnosed with a sleeping disorder. It left me tired, foggy-headed and suffering various symptoms which have nothing in common except for the fact that they were all caused – or at least aggravated – by prolonged sleep deprivation. I won’t say more about that, except to say that I’m receiving treatment and have lately been waking up more rested than I have in a long time. Because of this experience I’ve been reflecting on the phenomenon of sleep, and in particular on how the Bible’s description of sleep can illuminate our understanding of what it means to be a creature of God.
Sleep is a funny thing. It’s so vital to our life, yet so mysterious. It leaves us so vulnerable, and yet paradoxically gives us strength. It’s the precondition for the bizarre psychic phenomenon we call dreaming, the meaning and purpose of which eludes us. We spend a third of our lives unconscious, and yet understand so little of why we need to, or precisely how sleep sustains the vitality that makes our waking lives possible. Nonetheless, God has made us in such a way that we must regularly sever our conscious link with the world in order to be repaired and renewed. We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
In many places, the Scriptures connect sleeping with human vulnerability. After all, what could be more vulnerable than being unconscious and unaware of your surroundings for hours at a time? The act of sleeping leaves us vulnerable to various kinds of danger, as when Samson is sheared and captured (Judges 16:19), or when Saul is exposed to attack but spared (1 Samuel 26:7). Given the great vulnerability involved, it’s no surprise that sleep is often compared to the most extreme form of vulnerability: death (1 Kings 1:21; Job 14:12). After all, a sleeping body looks an awful lot like a corpse, and the act of falling asleep requires trust that one is going to wake up the following morning, an outcome which is never certain for any of us. Every night there is always the possibility that we descend into sleep for the last time.
There is also a vulnerability that comes from not sleeping, as those who suffer from insomnia know all too well. There are countless forces that conspire against a good night’s sleep – worry, grief, pain, work, digestion, drugs, poverty, conflict, illness, and so on. Research has shown that even one sleepless night adversely affects our mental and physical health, and that people who sleep poorly are more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and other afflictions that slowly break down our bodies and minds. Human life, fragile and finite though it may be, is created by God to work best according to certain rhythms, and submitting to those rhythms makes human flourishing possible. Sleep is a gift to be surrendered to and received in thankfulness, if and when we can get it.
However, like any gift, it can be abused, and thus Scripture also connects sleep with sin, particularly apathy, laziness and idleness. These forms of inactivity most often arise from defects in our character or from habits that shape our behaviors and thought patterns away from productivity and creativity and toward ennui, boredom, and loss of hope. The Christian tradition, following the Bible, has roundly condemned all this as sloth. Wisdom literature is especially strong on this, particularly the book of Proverbs (6:9; 10:5; 19:15; 20:13). But we also see this sort of thing in the New Testament, as when Jesus warns believers to be alert lest he find us sleeping upon his return (Mark 13:35-36), or when Paul contrasts “nighttime” activities like sleepy indifference and drunkenness with “daytime” activities like sobriety and vigilance, leaving no ambiguity as to which patterns of life should characterize people who await the Lord’s return (1 Thessalonians 5:4-10). To live in this “sleepy” way is to invite ruin in all its forms.
All of this is to say that to be human is to be caught up in a world of danger, of limits, of temptation, and even failure. The scriptural description of sleep touches on all of this, because the Scriptures are about everything; there is no part of human life that is left untouched and unaddressed by the Word of God. No surprise then that Scripture also links sleep with divine encounter. This kind of sleep is often designated “deep sleep”, as when God creates Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:21), or when he speaks into being the destiny of Abram and his descendants and enacts his covenant with them (Genesis 15:12-20). Jacob too meets God while sleeping (Genesis 28:10-17), as does the prophet Daniel (Daniel 8:18; 10:9) and also Joseph, the legal father of Jesus (Matthew 1:20-23). Sometimes these encounters occur in dreams, sometimes through visions, but in each case something significant is disclosed to the sleeper which involves the outworking of God’s salvation. The contrast that emerges is of an endlessly active God and a comparatively passive human recipient. Would we expect anything less from the God of Israel, who “will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4)?
Jesus ties all these threads together when he raises Jairus’s daughter, a young girl who has recently died. Surrounded by mourners wailing and crying, Jesus tells them all that the girl is “not dead but asleep” (Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52). Since the girl was clearly dead, we should not interpret this as a statement about her but as a statement about Jesus, and specifically about how he embodies all the power and authority of God. To put this another way: the power of God wakes people up. This is certainly true in a general sense, in that every new morning is a gift from God, but it’s also true in much broader sense. The power of God wakes people up from lives of sin and indifference, and the power of God wakes people up from death – “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14).
These are but snippets of a larger thread that is weaved all throughout the Scriptures. The phenomenon of sleep simultaneously denotes the frailty and failure of fallen humanity, as well as the hope of God’s Word, which speaks sure promises into being and raises little girls to life. It is at once a gift to be relaxed into, a way of life to be avoided, and the annihilation of our very existence. But none of it is outside the scope of God’s providential care, and so we can and should confidently pray that wonderful anthem from the service of Compline: “Preserve us, O Lord, waking, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”
The Rt. Rev. Joey Royal is a suffragan bishop for the Diocese of the Arctic in the Anglican Church of Canada.