A Theology of Sleep

It’s no secret that Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. The problem isn’t relegated to just the United States; it seems our neighbors across the pond also suffer from a “global problem of insufficient sleep.” Researchers contributing to a 2014 BBC article named the significant consequences of getting less than 7-hours of shut-eye on a regular basis: depression, heart disease, cancer, and obesity, to name a few. No surprise there. But I was startled by the reason the authors gave for our propensity to deny our body clocks: arrogance.

In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, David Murray boldly states, “Show me your sleep pattern and I’ll show you your theology, because we all preach a sermon in and by our sleep.” Ironically, I read those words around 11:30pm one night as I was prepping for a talk on burnout. Though I didn’t close the book and turn off my light right away, I did start wondering: What keeps me awake at night? What does my sleep/wake pattern reveal about my beliefs about God? Is arrogance part of the equation?

First, what keeps me up:

  1. Anxious Toiling. I’m often burning the midnight oil when I have to perform or produce in some way. The pattern goes like this: I accept an assignment or task that I’m excited about, even passionate about. Inevitably, doubt and anxiety start to kick in. “What if my ‘product’ isn’t good enough?” I tend to procrastinate when I’m anxious to avoid the discomforting feeling. Which means I end up “anxiously toiling” at the expense of sleep in order to complete/perfect said task by the deadline.

    Bad Theology: My worth is tied to my performance.
    Truth: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for he grants sleep to those he loves.” Psalm 127:2

  2. Anxious Thoughts. I can ruminate with the best of them, rolling a problem over and over in my head, seeking control or a semblance of resolution.

    Bad Theology: God’s not big enough for this problem. I need to figure it out on my own.
    Truth: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Psalm 4:8

  3. Lack of Discipline. Sometimes it’s social media. Sometimes it’s another episode of Downton Abbey. During these times, I let the want to be entertained override my need for true rest through sleep.

    Bad Theology: This momentary gratification is greater than developing a habit of holiness.
    Truth: “Train yourself for godliness.” 1 Timothy 4:7

  4. Adrenaline and the Thrill of Productivity. Other times, I think, “if I just drink a cup of coffee and push through, I can knock out this project and feel the immense satisfaction of getting a job done.”

    Bad Theology: I don’t have limits.
    Truth: “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.” Psalm 3:5
    “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Mark 6:31

We lose sleep to our detriment. In addition to the associated physical consequences, sleep deprivation reduces empathy, increases fear, and inhibits the brain’s ability to make new neural connections. Life will necessarily keep us from getting our zzz’s from time to time. But when we develop a pattern of pushing past our limits and denying the God-given gift of sleep, we reveal a lack of trust in God and the way He’s created us. Though anxious toiling can be disguised as hard work, it is often a form of pride. Rather, we are invited to receive the gift of sleep and trust in the God who “will not slumber…he will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:3,4)

Dr. Michelle Pokorny serves as an Adjunct Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, teaching D.Min classes on Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Disciplines, and Soul Care. Michelle developed a passion for women’s ministry during her college years while serving as a counselor at Pine Cove Christian Camps. Her desire to see women thrive in their gifting led her to DTS to gain a solid biblical and theological foundation. After receiving her MACE in Women’s Ministry, Dr. Pokorny began working with East-West Ministries, International, where she served in Human Resources and on the International Women’s Ministries Training Team. Michelle's doctoral work focused on burnout and soul-care among Christian leaders. Michelle is married to Mark and their favorite hobbies include traveling, exercising, and enjoying food and laughter with friends and family. They have one active toddler, Alexander.

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