Sleep is essential to my godliness. . . And my learning.
My wife and children can tell you that I am harder to live with when I miss out on sleep. I find it harder to be patient, to speak graciously, and to focus.
Sleep is essential to my godliness and to my work and learning.
It is well-documented that we moderns in the West sleep far less than our predecessors a century or more ago. For most of my life, I have missed out on much sleep. And when I was at College, I was atrocious at sleep. If you do not sleep enough, then figure out your reasons – they are likely different from mine. But there are a few common factors for most of us.
The first problem often lies in our humanity and humility.
First, our humanity. Jesus was a human, and he had to sleep. So who are we to believe we can get by without decent sleep? We are created finite, and only our Lord is infinite. We are limited; he is omnipotent. We need rest, sleep, and sabbath. He neither sleeps nor slumbers (Psalm 121:4). But us? If we skip sleep, it manifests itself in our behaviour, our alertness, our mental sharpness, our susceptibility to temptation, and our ability to learn. Miss too much sleep at once, and you can even hallucinate. Miss too much consistently, and you can seriously impair your physical and mental wellbeing.
Second, our humility. It is plain hubris to go against our humanity. As Christopher Ash puts it, ‘But you and I do need sleep. . . If we neglect this, we are implicitly claiming an affinity with God that mortals should never claim’. It is idolatrous and it is folly to live as though we need little sleep. Besides, as you age, you will need more sleep and have less energy. Face that fact with humility now, and set good habits now.
But it also affects our physical health and our learning. Business energy consultant and sleep evangelist Tony Schwartz reports that ‘First, sleeping less than 6 hours a night increases the risk of developing or dying from heart disease by an astonishing 48 percent.’ Gospel ministers can drive themselves to an early grave, too. Our physical health is at stake.
And it is all very good to sit or nod through caffeine-fuelled lectures, but it results in poor content uptake. Schwartz notes that ‘Insufficient sleep. . . deeply impairs our ability to consolidate and stabilize learning that occurs during the waking day. In other words, it wreaks havoc with our memory.’
I recently listened to a lecture by the theologian Sinclair Ferguson on John Owen. He mentioned that while at Oxford, Owen developed a habit of sleeping four to five hours per night so he could be more productive. Ferguson then relates a comment by Owen in his later years, that ‘I would give up all my learning to have my health back.’ Probably rightly, he attributes Owen’s poor health to his sleep habits.
Less is more
But to get more sleep, I have to reduce my waking hours, and possibly my working hours. That means something has got to give. We are humans, not machines, and we need times of rest and refreshment.
So how do we do all of life in fewer hours, and sleep more hours?
First, remember your humanity and strive for humility. Read Murray’s chapter ‘Repair Bay 3: Rest’ in Reset, and Ash’s chapter ‘We need sleep’ in Zeal without burnout. Both push us to see adequate sleep as a spiritual act, exhibiting faith in our God. We practise faith and humility, and depend on the Lord who delights to use us inadequate humans for his divine purposes.
Second, remember that better sleep leads to better productivity. Schwartz says he’d ‘rather work at 100 percent for 5 or 6 hours, than at 60 percent for 8 or 9 hours.’ True enough. And we feel better physically and emotionally, and are easier to live with.
Granted, there are times in life where we will need to work beyond our healthy capacity, but may those times be seldom and brief. If you think you have no choice but to live consistently beyond your limits, then stop. Examine your life with a wise and godly mentor, your doctor, or a spouse who is willing to be frank – if you can listen to them with humility.
Some of us struggle with workaholism. Others of us struggle with focus and efficiency. Strangely, the solution to both may be the same: Work your best hours, and relax or do less demanding things in your others. Restricting my working hours forces me to get more productive. It also means I have time for the rest of life.
Do you have trouble getting to bed at night? Then develop your own night routine. Stop work and blue screens before bed. Part of my routine is relaxing, recreational reading in bed. If I skip it because I am too tired, I often can’t sleep. So, I turn on the light, read for ten minutes, and, presto! I fall asleep quickly. I have taught my body and mind that reading in bed means it’s time to sleep, and it works a treat.
Depriving ourselves of sleep is a false economy. We risk our health, our learning and ministry, our relationships, and our godliness. Learn good sleep habits now, out of love for the Lord and for the others in your life.