Theology of Willing Oneself To Sleep

It’s just past 8:30 pm. My son, 18 months, is finally sleeping. I’ve been waiting for this moment for close to an hour as I lay next to him, mentally planning what snacks and shows I’ll consume in the much-anticipated, “After Bedtime.”

Of course, once the calm of sleep finally does settle onto my boy, I do what every parent does in the presence of their sleeping child. I steal just a few more moments gazing at him. I watch his little chest rise and fall. I stare at his peaceful face, so busy with emotion and wonder during the day, now completely oblivious to the cares and anxieties of the waking world. I wonder if he knows deep in his little soul how loved he is. I kiss his little forehead as I whisper an un-eloquent babble of prayers to God, of thanksgiving and wonder and desperation, but mostly I pray for an outpouring of grace to transform me into the mom this little one deserves.

Then I go downstairs and, usually, get some ice cream.

“Sleep is a parable that God is God and we are mere men,” says John Piper, in his Brief Theology of Sleep. For Piper, sleep is a gift from God, who is sovereign, to man, who is not:

“Peaceful sleep is the opposite of anxiety. God does not want his children to be anxious, but to trust him. Therefore I conclude that God made sleep as a continual reminder that we should not be anxious but should rest in him.”

-John Piper

We sleep because God insists on it. We cannot function without proper sleep. Even when we’d rather continue with our work, or watch just one more show, eventually sleep will overpower us. We must rest. It is a good Father who insists that His children rest and find refreshment from their toil, not just every once in a while, but each and every day.

I’ve spent just about every single night of the past eight years trying to help a child fall asleep in one fashion or another. I’ve nursed, I’ve rocked, I’ve shushed. I’ve laid on floors, and even climbed into cribs.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to make someone else fall asleep. Human beings have no “sleep” switch we can flip. We have to instead set the scene. We turn the lights down. We speak in whispers. We turn on some ambient noise in order to drown out unpredictable sounds that might startle us. We lay down. We close our eyes.

These rituals we perform are not so that we can at once close our eyes and be instantly asleep. (If only!) They are instead a welcoming, an invitation for sleep to come and please envelop us. But because sleep is ultimately something that happens to us and not by force of our own willpower, sometimes our rituals work — and sometimes they do not.

Sometimes we just lie there awake, wondering if sleep will ever come (to us, or to our defiant toddler).

I am tempted sometimes, when I cannot fall asleep, to wonder if I’ve done something wrong. Have I made a misstep in the ritual somewhere? Maybe if I try to count backwards from 100… But of course, sometimes sleep just does not come, and there’s really not much you can do about it, except wait (and maybe read).

“Commune with your own hearts on your bed,” says Psalm 4. There, in the quiet space between the bustle of waking life and the mysterious unconscious of sleep, we can usually reflect on the desires of our hearts with the least amount of distractions. In Scripture, God often speaks to people through dreams. In my own experience, God tends to speak by waking me up (or, He speaks when I cannot fall asleep in the first place).

If sleep is a parable, then I think one of its clearest lessons is that it’s largely out of our control. Just as time spent in restful sleep is a gift from God, so can we offer up a restless night to the God who does not sleep nor slumber (Ps. 121).

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