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When sleep her balm denies…

November 2020 | by Stephen Rees

The Covid-19 epidemic and the changes it has brought have affected us all in many ways. Some of them were immediately obvious, some less so. Some of us have been more directly impacted than others. But I suspect that most of us would say that our lifestyle has changed significantly.

During the early days when the lockdown was very strict and far-reaching, the majority of us were confined to our homes for most of the day, rarely speaking to anyone. Inevitably, that impacted on the way we worked, the way we shopped, the way we took exercise, the way we ate, the way we entertained ourselves – and the way we slept. And though some of the stricter regulations no longer apply, many of us have not yet returned to what we once thought of as our normal way of life.

Losing our routines

Before lockdown, most of us had some stable routines in our life. That included the times we got up and the times we went to bed. For those who went out to work regularly, or who sent children to school, it was a necessity. You had to be up in time to get the bus to work or to make the children their breakfast before they left. If you stayed up too late in the evening, you would oversleep in the morning and might miss the bus.

Even those of us who didn’t have those daily duties had some regular commitments in the diary which gave our lives a fixed framework. So, you had things you regularly did in a morning. Monday morning, phone mum at 9:30. Tuesday morning, shopping in town at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, meet up with so-and-so for coffee at 10 a.m. And you had things to do in the evening. Monday evening, take the children to their gym class. Tuesday evening, prepare your Sunday-school lesson. Wednesday evening, midweek meeting at church.

Living in such a framework, it was natural to have regular, habitual, bed times and getting up times. But for some of us at least, lockdown changed all that. Most of the framework was removed. You could no longer meet up with your friends. You could no longer get into town to shop. Your children’s gym class was cancelled. So was the Sunday-school. Suddenly, the map of your week became an empty sheet with very few fixed points. There was nothing particular to get up for on most mornings. So you might as well sleep in. And there was no need to get to bed by a particular time. So you might as well sit up watching the late night news programme.

Lockdown disrupted many people’s sleeping habits. It also made it difficult for people to find sleep when they wanted to. I can think of at least three reasons.

Sleeplessness and its causes

The first is anxiety. Doctors reported unprecedented levels of anxiety among their patients during lockdown. It’s hard to get to sleep when anxious thoughts are crowding into your mind.

The second is lack of physical activity. We sleep more easily when we’re physically tired. But if the activities that normally tire you out were cancelled and have not been resumed, then you may well find that you lie awake unable to sleep.

The third comes back again to the loss of routine. We normally fall to sleep more easily if we have a wind-down time to relax before going to bed. But for many of us, the loss of routine took away that needed break. So it became normal for us to go to bed with our minds still racing from films we’ve watched, late night conversations over Zoom, or the last unfinished clue in the Times crossword. So we struggled to sleep.

Lockdown certainly played havoc with many of the routines in my household. It disturbed our sleeping patterns. And from things that various friends have said to me, I’m sure that that’s true for a significant number of you.

Of course there are many other reasons why any individual may be missing out on sleep – and most of them have nothing to do with lockdown. I suspect that most people at some point in their life suffer through lack of sleep, either because of circumstances – a crying baby or noisy neighbours – or simply because their brain refuses to switch off when they lie down to sleep. Whatever the reason, sleeplessness can be a severe affliction that affects many believers. As you read the Psalms, take note of all the occasions when one of the psalmists complains that he’s deprived of sleep – you’ll be surprised how often they come.

Sleep: God’s gift to us

Have you ever wondered why God invented sleep in the first place? The Bible tells us that God himself never sleeps. ‘He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’ (Psalm 121:3-4). He is always conscious, always alert, always aware of what is happening, always thinking. And because he has made us in his image, we too are conscious, thinking beings. Yet his design included a mechanism by which our conscious, thinking selves are shut down at regular intervals. He ordained from the beginning that everywhere on earth there would be periods of light – day, and periods of darkness – night (Genesis 1:3-5). And he created us in such a way that we instinctively feel a need to sleep while it’s dark and to wake when light returns.

The Bible seems to suggest that in the world to come we shall not need sleep. Sometimes this is pictured as the abolition of night. ‘His servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more…’ (Revelation 22:3-5). Sometimes it’s pictured as a wakefulness that overrides night. ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation… Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple…’ (Revelation 7:14-15).

That’s in the world to come. But here in this world, God’s plan for us is that we sleep, and that we sleep at regular intervals.

Why? Perhaps it is because we are only capable of ‘digesting’ a certain amount of experience at a time. We need our life to be chopped up into small sections, each of which has its own challenges and difficulties, joys, and achievements. We would find it almost impossible to read a book if it were a continuous stream of words without divisions into chapters and paragraphs. However attractive the scenery we see through the windows of the train, we find long journeys difficult if there are no stops at stations.

Jesus urged his disciples, ‘Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble’ (Matthew 6:34). A night’s sleep shuts off the trouble of one day. We’re able to start a new day afresh. He told us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matthew 6:11). Regardless of how the previous day went, we know that it’s over and we look to God to provide for all we need for the new day. And we’re glad when we see that provision. The writer of Lamentations acknowledged that the Lord’s mercies ‘are new every morning’ (Lamentations 3:23). Each morning he was able to wake up and give thanks for a new day and fresh evidences of God’s kindness.

All these verses show us that God intends us to live ‘one day at a time’ and he marks off one day from another by the interval of sleep. If, for whatever reason, we miss our sleep, it becomes much harder to think of each day as a new day, with new joys, new opportunities, new challenges, new sorrows. The days blur into one another.

Lack of sleep – and its effects

Regular sleep is a gift from God which we easily take for granted – until we’re deprived of it. Researchers tell us that the average adult needs six to seven hours sleep every night. And the more regular it is, the more beneficial. Those who are deprived of regular, quality sleep are prone to develop life-shortening physical illnesses including, for example, heart disease. And there seems to be a circular relationship between lack of sleep and psychiatric disorders. When we’re struggling to sleep we become depressed and anxious. When we’re depressed or anxious we struggle to sleep.

Lack of sleep impacts on every area of life. If we’re tired and yawning, unable to concentrate, we will find it hard to talk with people and listen to them. We’re liable to become irritable and impatient. So our relationships suffer. And that includes relationships between husbands and wives, or parents and children.

When our brains are tired, we make mistakes. We become easily confused. Our judgement is impaired. There are reasons why train drivers or airline pilots are restricted in how many hours they can work without rest! Lack of sleep impacts upon any work that we are doing.

And of course, lack of sleep may have a direct impact on our spiritual life. How hard it is to read God’s Word or to pray if we’re having to prop up our eyelids. How hard it is to concentrate – or feel interested – in a long sermon. How hard it is to feel any enthusiasm for the Lord’s work or any delight in God himself.

It is true that some believers have turned sleeplessness into an opportunity for meditation and prayer. Some of the greatest Bible prayers were born from sleeplessness. Take Psalm 102 as an example. The psalmist bewails his inability to sleep: ‘I like awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the household’ (v. 7). And yet the whole Psalm is testimony to the fact that a believer, in that condition, may be helped by the Holy Spirit to pray powerful and visionary prayers.

Thank God if that has been your experience. And by all means try to use those sleepless hours well. But don’t feel guilty if you have tried to pray and have found your mind so tired and confused that it’s been impossible to put together a coherent thought or sentence. That too has been the experience of many earnest believers.

Four hints for the sleepless

Let me offer four pieces of advice for any of you who have been struggling either because you find it hard to sleep or because your circumstances mean that it’s difficult to get regular, uninterrupted sleep.

(1) If over past months you have let your daily routines slip – including your bed times and getting up time – re-establish your routines without delay. The new schedule may not be exactly the same as the old, but it’s vital that you have some schedule! Decide what times you need to get to bed at night, decide what time you should be up in the morning. Fix regular meal times and exercise times. Put back in place some regular appointments – things you do at the same time every week. Decide when the best time is each day for personal prayer and Bible reading and write it into your schedule. I’m pretty sure that with such regular routines in place, even if we spend fewer hours in bed, we’ll sleep better and get up feeling more rested.

I’ll add this. Don’t get discouraged if you find it hard to stick to your new routines – if for example, you find you’ve overslept one morning. Habits take time to become established. It will probably be several weeks before your new routine becomes natural to you. But, with God’s help, it will.

(2) If at all possible, avoid making major decisions when you’re suffering from lack of sleep. I’ve already said that when you’re short of sleep, your judgment is likely to be impaired. It’s much harder to think objectively and clearly when you’re tired. So if you can put off those vital decisions, do. And if that’s not possible, if decisions need to be made, be very cautious. Look for advice from wise friends whom you can trust – they’re more likely to see things clearly than you. And pray that the Lord will overrule and not allow you to make damaging mistakes.

(3) Remember that times when we’re deprived of sleep can easily become times of temptation. Satan can use our weariness to tempt us in many ways. It’s possible to reach a stage of tiredness where we lack the motivation to do anything that requires positive action. Instead we take the path of least resistance. So, for example, we may finish up watching unhelpful things just because it feels like too much effort to switch off the TV or the computer. Many have confessed that it was when they were at a low ebb through sleeplessness that they drifted into sexual sin. A man may get involved in an affair not because he was actively seeking it but because he couldn’t summon the energy to resist the temptation. However tired you may be, be alert – and cry to God the moment you’re aware of the first stirrings of temptation.

(4) Don’t be afraid to consult a doctor if your inability to sleep continues. Sure, if your sleeplessness is caused by some particular situation that you need to sort out, it’s not medicine you need – you need to get on and sort out the problem! But there may be medical reasons why you can’t get to sleep. A doctor may often be able to pin down a cause for sleeplessness and to offer either a remedy or at least some relief. The Lord has provided us with skilled doctors and effective medicines. There is nothing unspiritual about making use of his good gifts!

And one for the rest of us

Finally, one last hint for those of you who enjoy the blessing of regular, uninterrupted, restful sleep. Never forget that it is God’s gift. ‘He gives to his beloved sleep’ (Psalm 127:2). If you are one of the people to whom he’s given that gift, thank him for it often – and be aware that there are other believers from whom he’s withheld it. Remember them in their struggles, sympathise with them in their temptations, offer them practical help if you can, and above all ask the Lord to give them grace to help in their time of need.

All Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport