“It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” Psalm 127:2
When my wife was pregnant with our first son Matthew, I can remember thinking that all the preparation for his arrival felt like a second job. We shopped for clothes, researched strollers and car seats, and made regular visits to the doctor’s office. That’s not even to mention preparing the nursery!
But there was one thing my wife dedicated herself to that puzzled me. She spent untold hours reading books and articles about getting our baby to sleep. This seemed like a waste of time to me. Certainly babies just sleep when you need them to. Right?
Now babies do sleep, a lot actually. But they don’t always make it easy. Besides the occasional lucky parent with the easy sleeper (who the rest of us parents hate, in case you’re wondering), it takes time, attention and discipline to both learn your child’s rhythm and guide them into proper sleep hygiene. As I learned from my wife, when done well it reaps huge benefits for parents and children.
Of course good sleep is vital to a good life at every age. And no matter how old you are, good sleep requires good sleep hygiene. Even more than that, our sleep has a significant connection to our spiritual well-being.
Sleep experts point to a number of factors that keep us from getting good sleep. We work more hours each week than ever before. Global markets now expect constant accessibility for many people to stay competitive in business. This means it’s not just emergency personnel who remain on 24 hours a day.
All this nonstop work means many of us miss out on adequate exercise. Our bodies don’t get the benefits of stress relief and natural stimulation that exercise provides. It also limits our exposure to sunlight, messing with our 24-hour clock. To combat this, we often force ourselves to stay awake with a variety of deliciously flavored stimulants.
When our work day is done, having little energy to cook can lead to eating too much food, too late in the evening, leading to heartburn or other digestive issues that interrupt our sleep. Then we wrap up our days bathed in entertainment or the continual news cycle of traumatic incidents around the globe, exhausting our mental and spiritual resources.
Considering all the factors that hinder good sleep, it’s no wonder many Americans fail to get enough. In a recent survey, 68% of Americans admitted that they struggle with sleep once a week while 27% struggle with it on an almost nightly basis.
Research has shown that lack of adequate sleep can decrease our ability to recognize emotions most relevant to empathetic engagement with others.
Feeding on Anxiety
Our chaotic lives reveal more than the distracted world we live in, they also reveal the misguided orientation of our heart. In Psalm 127, Solomon, points to a similar attitude from times past, albeit from a culture less technologically equipped to run 24 hours a day. Still, many in Solomon’s day nourished their souls on the chaos. They were “eating the bread of anxious toil,” constantly feeding on anxiety to fuel their daily activity.
In time, we get use to this junk food for the soul. We must read the next headline, see the latest stock reports, check the latest scores, or scour our social media channels for each new mark of personal approval. All of this driven by an underlying anxiety, a sense that we need to do more and be more just to be okay.
Solomon describes this anxious state of being, with both it’s ceaseless activity and hollow achievements as a life lived in vain. Why? Because God is not in the chaos and disorder. He is not the one providing the anxiety which we so often feed on. He is not the one calling us to live on edge.
Instead, Solomon assures us, God gives sleep to those He loves. While the days spent feeding on anxiety are seen as empty or idle, ironically, the gift from God is the ultimate form of idleness. But this idleness is an act of trust. It is not the empty results of our anxious striving, but the gracious gift of our ultimate protector and provider.
Receiving the Gift of Sleep
With all that gets us going in today’s world, receiving this gift can seem like a lot of work. Altering the habits that sustain our current way of life is not easy to do, and many of us may need to make significant change to prepare ourselves to receive the gift of rest. Yet as we do, accepting rest as a gift allows our sleep to restore not only our bodies, but our souls. It does this by reminding us of God’s regard for his “beloved.”
This might be illustrated by the moment when a young mother awakes in the middle of the night to the piercing cry of her newborn child. She has barely fallen asleep, and fed the child only moments ago. Exhausted, she wonders how she can make it through the night? Then suddenly, her husband gently rests his hands on her shoulder and whispers. “Don’t worry. I’ve got this one. You get some sleep.”
I know what some of you moms are thinking: yeah right! But if you could imagine a world in which this were true, how wonderful of a gift would that be? And if you’ve actually experienced that gesture, how beautiful was it to you? How sweet was that gift?
This is exactly what God offers to us in the gift of sleep. We were not meant to toil tirelessly through the day, feeding endlessly on anxiety. Nor were we meant to toss and turn through our entertainment-filled, over-stimulated nights. We do not always need to be “on,” and the temptation to live that way robs us not only of the rest we need, but of the intimacy experienced in receiving this gift from God.
So tonight, why not turn that screen off a little earlier. Take a moment and read through Psalm 127 (Don’t worry– It’s only 5 verses:). Spend a moment prayerfully letting go of the day’s anxieties. Then settle gently in for a much needed night of rest. As you do, may your heart be warmed by the one who cares for your daily concerns, even as you sleep.