When You Can’t Sleep
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves. I’m the host of Where Life & Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, where we’re seeking to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church. I love it when scripture gives us ways to transform our understanding or our framework for some particular kind of suffering. And the kind of suffering I’m thinking about is one I can imagine almost every listener is going to be familiar with, at least on some level, and that is the suffering of being awake in the middle of the night. It’s a form of suffering that scripture helps with and it’s one I’ve struggled with over the years. I probably would say I deal with mild insomnia, on a somewhat regular basis. I certainly know most people to whom that would apply, that have it significantly worse than I do, but I’m definitely not on the better half of sleepers. I watched my dad go through actually a number of years, decades of living with fibromyalgia, which meant that he usually did sleep, but his sleep was extremely unrestorative and unrestful, and he had to nap every afternoon. It was way worse than anything I’ve dealt with. But anyway, all that to say, I’ve watched the experience of sleeplessness throughout a lot of my life and had some time to think about it.
And I imagine any of you who have struggled know the usual remedies, the usual things that are suggested for people to do. And the vast majority of them, all the ones I can think of off the top of my head, there’s probably some wacky stuff out there, but all the normal stuff you hear is right, good stuff. And you should do it. No screens right before bed is helpful. Having a pre-bedtime rhythm. For example, usually I read a novel for maybe 15 to 30 minutes before I go to sleep, depending on when I manage to get in bed with my book. And I just find it so helpful to disconnect from the day, leave the day behind. I love to read. So, reading a novel, it’s not a discipline for me, it’s I finally get to read my novel at the end of the day. And it’s nice to just unplug my brain and move into a different place. And that helps me tend to shift into sleep mode, go to bed at the same time every day, wake up at the same time. Actually, if you have to pick between the two, the waking up at the same time is actually probably even more helpful. A lot of times you’ll hear, don’t lie in your bed forever, tossing and turning, get up, do something else, go read a novel, go take a little walk, whatever. And I tend to find that a good idea. Obviously, if these are all severe episodes for you, go to a sleep clinic, get checked out, see if you have sleep apnea, whatever the case may be.
Or another experience that many of us will have in life is the experience of being a parent and being up, not because you can’t sleep in the sense of my body won’t let me, but in the sense of somebody else’s body is not letting me sleep. I actually remember, well, I have three children and I think I probably started thinking about this with my first/oldest daughter. But it certainly helped me with all three, when I’d be up in the middle of the night, rocking and carrying them and trying to get them back to sleep. But just thinking, you know what? There’s going to come a day when I won’t be able to solve all of their problems by simply picking them up and holding them and singing to them, and walking around, carrying them. Their problems are going to get more complicated as life goes on. And I will wish that I could simply pick them up and hold them in my arms and rock them, and that would be enough, even if it takes an hour or two, and even if they’re crying the whole time, that, that answer would be one I will probably look back on nostalgically. I preach that little sermon to myself quite often in the wee hours of the morning, with small children who were struggling to sleep. Anyhow, that’s all good stuff. And I recommend all of it, go for it.
But really none of that, of course, is going to guarantee good sleep every single night, because your bladder or your children, or a thunderstorm, or a bad dream is going to knock you out of sleep at least from time to time. And that means you’re going to need to be prepared to face nights when you can’t sleep. And here is where scripture has really come alive for me in this particular experience. Because I want to propose that you and I, that we would fight to treat sleeplessness a bit differently than we probably instinctively do, which is to curse it and shake our fist against it and get stressed out by it. I want to actually, I aspire to this, I’m still wrestling here, don’t get me wrong, but I invite you to aspire with me to see it as a sweet chance to connect with the Lord in a highly undistracted, highly direct, and really highly intimate way.
Talked a little bit about my own experience here. Often, I usually don’t have that much trouble getting to sleep. Usually, for me, it’s I wake up in the middle of the night for whatever reason and I can’t get back to sleep for a couple of hours. This has happened to me often enough that I know my pattern. And usually, if I’ve been up for more than about five minutes, at least with a certain level of rising to consciousness, and it tends to be about a two hour delay before I can get back to sleep, maybe a touch more. So, the issue for me is basically I wake up for whatever reason, and even just a couple minutes go by, but my brain starts to turn on. And I start thinking about the next day or just the things that are swirling or hanging over me. So, my brain turns on to start thinking about life and getting moving into “what needs to happen” mode and “what’s going on” mode. And then add to that, the stress of, and “I’m not sleeping, I really want to go back to sleep.” And there’s a certain stress of “I’m struggling to go back to sleep. Am I going to be able to get back to sleep? What happens if I don’t get back to sleep?” I sense that both of these two thought patterns of my brain turns on and starts swirling on anxiety, and I’m stressed about not getting back to sleep itself. Sleeplessness itself becomes my thing that makes it hard to sleep. I think both of those are pretty normal. That’s my experience of people I’ve talked with.
Now, my initial instinct has tended to be to lie in bed. As I said, I’ve tried at times getting up, getting out of bed, read a novel, go for a walk, go back to bed, and those have sometimes helped, but I began over time to realize that this really was a chance to pray. And I remember one particular night, a couple of years ago where I was awake middle of the night, I was so stressed. I knew what my day, the next day held. And I was sitting here being like, oh, all I want is to go back to sleep. And I was getting stressed out that I wasn’t going back to sleep and thinking about how my already hard day was going to be so much harder if I couldn’t sleep. And I just realized, I’m sitting here and I have this chance to have, if you will, a daddy son date. Or if you’re a woman, a daddy daughter date. There’s this chance, nothing else is bidding for my attention at this moment. I can’t really be doing anything else. And whether I lie here in bed or whether I get up and sit in the living room, or sometimes I’ll even just go sit in the shower and let in the dark with the warm water, just physically trying to be in a calm and small space. But all with the goal of just, I actually want to treat this as an opportunity to spend some time with my Lord, with my heavenly father, to speak to Him about what’s on my mind and what’s on my heart.
And part of what triggered that for me was an article I had read a number of years ago when I first started my counseling training, on Psalm 119, written by my colleague, mentor, friend, and our previous executive director at CCEF, David Powlison, who wrote about Psalm 119 and about how it’s incredibly focused on suffering. We think of it as a psalm about scripture, and I won’t go through the whole psalm. But he talks about just the incredible connection that you witnessed between the Psalmist and the Lord, this “I-you” dialogue that runs out throughout the whole psalm, as the psalmist speaks of his sufferings. And David used the example of having severe insomnia because of jet lag, one time when he was on a teaching trip to, I believe it was Korea. And he talked about reading in the middle of the night, Psalm 119:147-48 and others. But it says, “I rise before dawn and cry for help. I hope in your words, my eyes are awake before the watches of the night that I may meditate on your promise.” And he talked about how that transformed that particular episode of sleeplessness. And because that seed had been planted in me by my teacher, there was this category for, you know what? I have the opportunity here as I lie in bed or as I sit on the couch, just to bring Him what is on my heart. And it’s caused me to think that so much of what keeps us up in the middle of the night is that struggle with anxiety. It’s our brain beginning to turn on things to try to troubleshoot and problem solve and get on the hamster wheel of what’s going on and how is it going to all work out.
And the funny thing is, that anxiety, those situations that we worry and fret about, they’re actually the best possible launchpad for a really good conversation with the Lord, for pouring out your heart to the Lord about what really matters. So, our goal on a sleepless night is actually to speak directly to the Lord saying, “Lord, I am scared about…” “Lord, I am troubled by…” “Lord this is weighing on my heart,” rather than trying to solve the problem as we lie there and toss and turn. Our goal is to speak directly to Him saying, “Lord, I know who you are. Oh, my soul, remember again who He is.” This is the strong one. This is the Lord who is good. This is the God who will walk with me through my day tomorrow, no matter how tired I am. This is the Lord who has faithfully watched over his people, who does not slumber or sleep, but watches and keeps us, even the watches of the night. This is the God who cares for me and invites me to cast all my anxieties on Him, as 1 Peter 5:7 puts it.
Now, all of this doesn’t make it wrong to get up and read a novel or drink a glass of milk, or even to get some extra work done with the time, but whatever you do in the middle of the night, we want those things to happen prayerfully. We want to spend time with the Lord, even as we do those things. And let even a bit of work or a glass of milk, or sitting down for novel, be done with just a sense of, okay, Lord, I’m trusting my work, I’m trusting my time, I’m trusting my day tomorrow into your hands.
I found myself using the phrase, when in the middle of the night I wake up, one of the first things I now have go through my head is just say, “Well, one of two things, and they’re both good, is going to happen. One of two good things is going to happen. Either, A, I am going to fall asleep fairly quickly and I’ll get sleep during the next couple of hours. Or B, I’m going to get some really rich time with the Lord. I’m going to get some dedicated, less distracted time, some time where other things just aren’t clamoring for my attention in the same way.”
Let me close with this. Psalm 127:2 says, “In vain, you rise early and stay up late toiling for food, for he grants sleep to those He loves.” Now that initially may sound like, “I’m not sleeping, because I’m anxious and now I’m sinning. And if God really loved me, he would give this or I must just be doing everything wrong.” But my invitation to us of how to respond to this verse of Him granting sleep to those He loves is this: God allows us to sleep. He invites us to sleep out of love, because we can trust Him with our lives. To lay down for any minute of sleep ever, is to place yourself utterly helpless in His hands, to acknowledge in a very visceral, physical, tangible way that you are utterly dependent and that He is your keeper.
And whether you actually literally sleep on any given hour of any given night or whether you’re simply resting there in your bed, or sitting on a couch or in a shower or whatever. And either you’re going to physically sleep or you’re going to aspire to say, “Lord, deepen the rest of my soul,” because whether I am unconscious or simply trying to rest in my intimate connection with the Lord, I know for sure that He will provide the strength for whatever He calls me to do the next day. That whatever the next day holds, whatever the anxieties are swirling around in my head, that we have a God who loves, cares, knows, and I can rest utterly in the hope that He will be with me, He will walk with me, and He will provide. Through the power of His spirit, through the grace of His people around me, through physical strength and sustenance, through redeeming and forgiving my mistakes, He will care for every last moment of my day tomorrow as I am exhausted.
And even if the right answer is I need to call in sick or end up having to take a nap I didn’t expect and didn’t get as much done, that however tomorrow plays out, it will play out in ways that He will love me through, walk with me through, sustain me through. And He will bless to His purposes and I can trust him with that and I can speak to him about it as I struggle tonight to sleep.