Sleep is an enigma, but it’s essential to our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. What can we learn from the Bible about sleep?
We all at least occasionally struggle to get a good night of sleep, and some deal with sleep issues chronically. Our life revolves around the “circadian rhythm”—a natural cycle controlled by chemicals in our brains that tells us when to be asleep and when to be awake.
There are practical principles that can help us get a good night of sleep, including insight we find in Scripture.
The mysteries of sleep
As much a part of life as sleep is, you’d think we’d understand it better by now. And yet it’s only been in recent years that researchers have learned why we sleep at all.
The enigma of sleep is illustrated in the following fictitious scenario described by Matthew Walker, Ph.D., in the opening pages of his book Why We Sleep:
“Imagine the birth of your first child. At the hospital, the doctor enters the room and says, ‘Congratulations, it’s a healthy baby boy. We’ve completed all of the preliminary tests and everything looks good.’ She smiles reassuringly and starts walking toward the door. However, before exiting the room she turns around and says, ‘There is just one thing. From this moment forth, and for the rest of your child’s entire life, he will repeatedly and routinely lapse into a state of apparent coma. It might even resemble death at times. And while his body lies still his mind will often be filled with stunning, bizarre hallucinations. This state will consume one-third of his life and I have absolutely no idea why he’ll do it, or what it is for. Good luck!’” (p. 5).
The importance of sleep
While sleep has been a mystery, it isn’t an option. It’s a constant and inevitable part of life. Its importance is described in this statement from a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) blog:
“Just like food or water, sleep is a biological necessity for life and health. Research shows that the hours we spend sleeping are incredibly important and far from passive. During sleep, your body is busy fighting off viruses and other pathogens, operating a waste removal system to clean the brain, looking for cancer cells and getting rid of them, repairing injured tissues, and forming vital memories that are essential for learning. Getting enough sleep can improve mental health, mood, and ability to think and make good decisions. It is important for the functioning of our heart and other organs.”
Inadequate sleep can cause any number of serious health issues. Short-term problems include lack of alertness, impaired memory, relationship stress and reduced quality of life.
Long-term sleep deficiency can lead to a number of issues, including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack or stroke.
Clearly, God created us with the need for restful sleep, which is critical for our physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual health.
What can we do to get restful sleep?
There are many things we can do that will make a good night of sleep more likely. The Mayo Clinic suggests the following helpful habits:
- Have a sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time each day. If you have trouble going to sleep, get up and do something relaxing until you feel tired.
- Be careful about what you eat and drink. Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t eat too much before bedtime either. Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants that take hours to wear off. Alcohol may make you sleepy initially, but can interrupt sleep later.
- Create a restful environment—a comfortable, cool, dark and quiet room. Avoid screens (television, electronic tablets, telephones) prior to bedtime.
- Limit daytime naps to no more than one hour.
- Be physically active. Regular exercise promotes better sleep.
- Manage worries. Use stress management techniques to settle your mind so you can relax and sleep.
Sweet sleep scriptures
There are also scriptural principles that contribute to restful sleep.
Peace of mind and a restful “sweet sleep” are blessings we can experience when we strengthen our relationship with God. Solomon taught that receiving and continually living by godly instruction results in a stable and secure life, whether sleeping or awake (Proverbs 6:20-23).
Faith in God and following His instructions are key factors in a life that is stable and secure. Consider Solomon’s words in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”
Later in the same chapter Solomon wrote about the result of trusting and following God’s instructions. He emphasized the positive impact that seeking God’s wisdom, understanding and knowledge can have on our sleep:
“My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight, preserve sound judgment and discretion; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck. Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble” (Proverbs 3:21-23, New International Version).
He concludes the thought in verse 24: “When you lie down, you will not be afraid; yes, you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet.”
Bible verses about worrying
The final point about managing worries on the list of suggestions from the Mayo Clinic may be one of the most difficult but also most important keys to restful sleep.
We all deal with anxiety and concern. Turning worries off can be difficult. But if we have a troubled, anxious mind, sleep is hard to come by.
King David dealt with many serious challenges and threats to his reign over Israel and even to his life. In the midst of one of the crises, he faithfully cried out to God for relief and comfort.
“I cried to the LORD with my voice, and He heard me from His holy hill. I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the LORD sustained me” (Psalm 3:4-5).
The next psalm expresses the same confidence and result: “I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).
Yet the reality of life is that there are times when sleep is interrupted by severe stress. David’s prayer in Psalm 6 relates a time when his sleep was disrupted by severe anxiety.
In verse 6 he says, “I am weary with my groaning; all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears.” It was not a good night for sleeping. Yet he concludes by expressing faith that his troubled prayer would be answered (verses 8-9).
There were other occasions when the psalmist experienced anxious, sleepless nights. He used those experiences as opportunities to meditate on and express his faith in and gratitude for God’s care in his life (Psalms 63:6-8; 119:148).
Controlling our worries and anxiety is always a challenge. The apostle Peter urged us to manage worry by remembering in troubled times that God will relieve our anxiety: “Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
And Jesus urged us to seek relief from weariness and trouble by turning to Him (Matthew 11:25-28).
In Philippians 4:6-8 Paul explained that we can control our anxious thoughts by coming to God in prayer with a thankful frame of mind. We can bring our requests and concerns to Him, and He will “guard” our hearts and minds.
Paul concludes by emphasizing the importance of focusing our thoughts on what is positive rather than negative (verse 8; see our blog series starting with “Meditate on These Things: ‘Whatever Things Are True’”).
Dealing with sleeping disorders
Not all sleeping issues are caused by stress and anxiety. The MedlinePlus.gov website lists a number of physical issues that disrupt sleep, including insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, hypersomnia (inability to stay awake during the day) and circadian rhythm disorders that interrupt the sleep-wake cycle.
Symptoms of sleep disorders include:
- Regularly requiring more than 30 minutes to fall asleep.
- Regularly awakening several times every night and then having trouble falling back to sleep.
- Awakening too early in the morning.
- Often feeling sleepy during the day, taking frequent naps or falling asleep at the wrong times during the day.
- Loud snoring, including making snorting, gasping or choking sounds or stopping breathing for short periods.
- Creeping, tingling or crawling feelings in your legs or arms that are relieved by moving or massaging them, especially in the evening and when trying to fall asleep.
- Jerking motion in legs or arms during sleep.
These may be caused by underlying physical health issues. Professional medical care can be helpful in identifying and dealing with these conditions.
Spiritual lessons about sleep
While sleep is a physical necessity, Scripture also uses sleep as a metaphor to warn against being lazy, unmotivated or oblivious.
The messages from Proverbs, Paul and Jesus illustrate the importance of not “going to sleep” spiritually, but being awake and vigilant.A familiar parable in Proverbs 6:6-11 compares an ant (representing a person who is busy and diligent) to another who is a “sluggard” who slumbers and sleeps. The paraphrase in the New Living Translation makes the contrast very clear:
“Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise! Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter.
“But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep? When will you wake up? A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.”
Dangers of spiritual sleep
Paul takes the principle to a spiritual level in Romans 13:11. In the context of the importance and urgency of diligence, he challenges us to make the best use of our time:
“And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.”
Paul’s point is that we need to be alert and diligent, not spiritually lazy, oblivious or spiritually asleep.
Jesus also teaches that we need to make use of our time when we’re awake to always be prepared for His return (Matthew 24:43-44). In a parable in Matthew 25, 10 “virgins” (bridesmaids) are awaiting the coming of the bridegroom so a wedding ceremony can begin. He arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the night when they are all sleeping. The lesson is that there were wise young women who were prepared and ready to jump into action when they were awakened.
The messages from Proverbs, Paul and Jesus illustrate the importance of not “going to sleep” spiritually, but being awake and vigilant.
Sleep isn’t really so mysterious after all. It’s important that we remain diligent in our efforts to follow God’s instructions, so that we don’t “go to sleep” spiritually. But sleep itself is essential to our physical health and our emotional well-being.
There are practical steps, including these biblical principles, that can help us get the rest we need:
- Keep life in order by living according to godly instructions.
- Don’t be distracted or agitated by making physical things too important.
- In times of stress and difficulty, settle your mind by looking to God in faith.
May your sleep be sweet!