Hey, my friend.
Earlier this spring, my daughter did a survey for science about sleep. She was trying to find out what would happen if you didn’t get enough sleep. And we didn’t want to learn about it from a book—though that is one of my favorite ways to learn! We wanted to hear from other people.
How much sleep do you normally get? What happened to you when you didn’t get enough sleep? Did you ever stay up all night? Which part of you was most impacted by lack of sleep: physical, mental, or emotional?
I remember a stretch of time when sleep was frequently interrupted. Both kids were getting up for various reasons, whether to use the bathroom or nightmares or what have you. And I was getting woken up every 2-3 hours.
And it’s hard, isn’t it? If you are the parent of a newborn or taking care of a child with disabilities or an aging parent, you know what I’m talking about.
But there are other times when we can’t get enough sleep, aren’t there? We can’t get physically comfortable in our bed. Or our minds are racing and we can’t find a way to calm them down. Or we’re worried about the next day or some big, looming situation that we’re in the middle of. Or we feel like we have too much work to get done, and so we frequently stay up late.
And whatever the cause, sleep doesn’t come easily.
Sleep as a Christian Spiritual Discipline
God has been showing me that sleep can be a spiritual discipline, too.
Richard Foster defines a spiritual discipline as “ways by which we place ourselves before God.” The focus isn’t on the activity itself, but the way the activity moves us closer to God.
The more traditional or classic spiritual disciplines include Bible study, prayer, fasting, solitude, service, worship, and confession.
Brother Lawrence wrote about talking with God as he was doing dishes at the monastery, or while he cleaned rooms or whatever other mundane chores he had.
Why can’t sleep bring us closer to God, too? Sure, it will incorporate some prayer, as you’ll hear in a minute. But it can also be a very intentional act of trust and surrender.
So let’s look at different ways to place ourselves before God as we go to sleep.
We are going to start by looking at our night routine.
What do you do to get ready for bed? Of course, you probably brush your teeth and use the restroom and change into some pajamas. Maybe you get a sip of water or make sure all the doors are locked. You do those things to physically get ready for bed.
But what do you do to get ready for bed mentally and emotionally and spiritually? How do you invite God into your work of getting ready to sleep?
Let’s say that you struggle with racing thoughts before bed. Maybe you’re worried about something the next day or about a friend who is going through a hard season.
Journaling might be something that helps you express what is stirring in your heart and mind. So put a notebook and pen next to your bed and write it all out.
By putting your worries and thoughts on paper, you name them and can then lift them before God in prayer, asking Him to take care of Him and then trusting Him to do so.
If you are new to journaling, or you want to dive back in again, I encourage you to check out episode 54, “4 Simple Ways to Start (or Keep) Journaling.” The tips I offer you deal specifically with not knowing what to write about or feeling like you don’t have time to journal.
I’ll be honest: right now, I do my gratitude list in my planner. It’s right there as I’m looking over my schedule and to-do list, and at the end of the day when I close it, I can write down what I’m grateful for. Makes it super simple.
Speaking of planning, that’s also something that can help alleviate stress or worry about the next day. This is especially true if you are in a busy season or a season of change or transition, when things are still new and you’re trying to get into a good rhythm.
Planning helps not only because we can make a lot of decisions in advance—like where we need to be the next day, who’s taking care of the kids, and any errands we need to run—but it also helps because we can ask God to guide us. As Proverbs 16:9 (NLT) says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”
So it helps to make plans, but then let the Lord guide you throughout the day should anything need to change or be adapted. But if we don’t make any sort of plans in the first place, it’s hard to be intentional with our time and energy, and that can leave us feeling anxious and frazzled.
To plan, you can simply look at any events you have going on the next day, or any tasks or errands that need to be done. You can also look ahead through the week and see if there’s anything that needs to happen in preparation for something else coming up. It doesn’t have to be much more than that. It’s enough to give you some idea of what the day ahead will be like.
One of the last parts of the Daily Examen is actually to imagine God walking with you through the next day. Picture what you need to do, where you need to go, and God being right there with you.
So you can journal during your night routine and you can plan ahead for the next day or two. But maybe you need a way to wind down at the end of the day and let your mind and body relax.
If you have experienced some sort of trauma, anxiety, or deep loss, then maybe your body has a hard time relaxing enough to sleep. You’re constantly on alert, like you’ve got to watch out for something that might come out of nowhere.
On a recent trip to Mackinac Island, we learned that most horses sleep standing up, so they can quickly get away from any predators that might come their way. But the horses there on the island actually feel safe enough at night that they lie down to sleep. Isn’t that amazing?
Sometimes I feel like some of us might feel like we need to sleep “standing up,” sort to speak. Sleeping lightly so we can always be on alert and ready to respond. When in most cases, we don’t need that level of vigilance.
If that’s the case, do what you need to do to feel safe: smoke detectors and door locks and security cameras, and whatnot. All of that is perfectly good. And once you have those things in place, if you still struggle with relaxing enough to sleep, you can try to take some deep breaths or do some somatic practices that tell your body that it’s safe.
Though there are a lot of people who can teach you some of these somatic practices, Sarah Jackson is someone I’ve been learning from. I’ll put her link in the show notes below.
By creating a night time routine, we are acknowledging that we want to take care of the bodies and souls that God has given us. We are being intentional. Because we know that all of this is going to lead to sleep, to rest, and that is very important to God.
Sleep as an Act of Trust and Surrender
So we can create a night time routine to help us prepare for sleep, but then the sleep itself can actually be an act of trust and surrender. And that’s another way sleep can be a spiritual discipline.
There are several Psalms that speak of sleep as being a chance to trust God.
Psalm 4:8 (NLT) says, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.”
And of course, Psalm 23:2 says that God, our Good Shepherd, will let us rest in the green meadows. And we see that imagery there of God watching over His flock.
Sometimes sleep can be hard because we can’t control what happens when we sleep. It’s like we go off duty for a while, let down our guard, and really let go of everything so that we can get the rest we need.
And while there are all kinds of physical reasons for getting sleep, I know that the act of falling sleep can be a way for us to acknowledge God’s presence and care for us.
We can sleep because God is really the one in control—not us.
We can sleep because God is watching over us.
We can sleep because God never sleeps.
Using Psalm 121 verses 3 through 5 as a nightly prayer could be a really powerful way to remind yourself that God is watching over you. Let me read it in the NIRV:
“He who watches over you won’t get tired.
In fact, he who watches over Israel
won’t get tired or go to sleep.
The Lord watches over you.
The Lord is like a shade tree at your right hand.”
Also, you know I frequently use the Every Moment Holy prayer books from Douglas McKelvey. He has written a liturgy for those who cannot sleep, as well as for one who has suffered a nightmare. Both are in volume one of his series and are absolutely beautiful.
Let me share just a couple of line from the one for nightmares:
“Kindle in my heart the fires of holy affection,
casting out all disturbing shadows….
Let me draw courage
from your fierce and unyielding love,
even in moments when I am afraid.”
Sleep As a Way to Acknowledge Our Limits
So we can draw close to God through the ways we prepare for sleep, and we can use sleep as a way to demonstrate trust and surrender to God. Finally, the act of sleeping can be a way for us to acknowledge our limits before God.
We can only do so much, my friend. There are only so many hours in the day. There is only so much we can get accomplished before our bodies cry out for rest.
God created us to spend 1/3 of our day sleeping. Do you ever wonder why? Rest is important for us—not just our bodies, but our minds and souls, as well.
It can improve your:
- Immune system
- Alertness and brain functioning
- Problem solving
- Attention to detail
While you sleep, there are different things going on with your hormones and breathing and appetite. Your body can also repair cells while you sleep and restore energy.
There is just so much that sleep does for us. It is a restorative act for our bodies and souls.
When we try to fight that by doing too much or not taking time to rest, we are telling God we don’t need that gift He gave us. And sleep truly is a gift.
So give yourself the time you need to sleep. Thank God for the gift of sleep and acknowledge at the end of each day that you want to live within the limits He has provided for you, and so you receive His gift of sleep so you can be alert and in a better physical and mental space the next day—ready to serve those He has given you to serve, to love those He has given you to love.
How Will You Practice Sleep as a Spiritual Discipline?
So what you think? Can sleep be a Christian spiritual discipline? A way to place yourself before God as an act of trust and surrender?
If so, how will you practice sleep as a spiritual discipline this week? What night routine might you put in place to help you prepare for sleep—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
What will you do with your anxiety, fear, or racing thoughts? Will you hold on to them or will you surrender them to God?
What truths can you acknowledge as you fall asleep? Will you thank God for the gift of sleep and acknowledge the limits He has given us as finite human beings? Will you praise Him for never falling asleep, but always taking care of us?
I’d love to hear what you decide. Will you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know? Remember, my name is spelled K-A-R-I.
And that is all for today, my friend. May your sleep be sweet and restorative to both your body and soul. Until next time, let’s encourage one another.
RELATED EPISODES + RESOURCES:
- Episode 54: 4 Simple Ways to Start (or Keep) Journaling
- Episode 63: Using Christian Spiritual Practices to Draw Closer to God with Blogger and Writer Celia Miller
- Sarah Jackson Coaching: Somatic, Cognitive, and Spiritual Practices
Learn more and register for Journal Gently, an 8-week program designed to help you use writing as a way to process hurt, grief, and trauma with God.