I have noticed a disturbing trend among my Christian brothers and sisters, especially the ones in my local church body. I can see it in slowed speech, in lack of mental clarity, in lapses of character. I see it in poor decision-making and lack of reflection. Most noticeably, however, I see it in bags under eyes and heads that nod off. The trend I’m talking about is that my brethren are tired.
That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but maybe I will put it this way: we don’t have a clue how to rest.
I can hardly remember the last time I asked a member of my church how he or she was doing, and didn’t get a response along the lines of, “I’m super busy,” or, “I’m really tired” or, “school is busy/tiring.” This is usually accompanied with a sigh and a half-defeated smile. The ensuing conversation will usually consist of my trying to comfort them and encourage them to “press on,” because, of course, that mantra must hold true, “you can do it!”
I have had to ask myself, though, is that really right? What does it mean when I tell people that they can “do it?” Do what? Everything? One thing perfectly? What message do I send them when I tell them these things? More importantly, what message do I send when I add to my encouragements to them that I want them to fulfill some number of time commitments for church without any sort of guidance for how to go about it?
I can’t be sure about all the signals, but one signal that I surely send is this: I don’t value sleep, and neither should you.
Now this wouldn’t be a problem if we could innately live without sleep; however, I’m fairly sure that we were designed by God to need sleep. Whenever I forget this, I am painfully reminded by how many times I have nodded off during class, work, or sermons that this is actually true. I am reminded more strongly of this fact by the number of coffee cups and energy drink cans I see downed by my churchmates and co-workers, and these serve only to delay the inevitable crash.
More importantly, I am becoming more and more convinced that God is not especially pleased when we don’t sleep. Jesus’ commands were given to rest in him, to go to him for rest. The Old Testament is filled with references to sleep; it assumes that there will be periods of rest in our lives. The entire trek of the Israelites, according to Hebrews, was a failure in the sense that their hardened hearts precluded them from entering God’s rest. God even instituted an entire day of rest when the world was created, and he gave a stark fourth commandment to honor the Sabbath, punishable by death.
Rest or die. This was literally mandated to the Israelites on Moses’ tablet. So why do we, as Christians, fail so miserably to obey this command?
The first reason I see is that we simply don’t think that we need it. College students, especially, are prone to this misconception, and are thoroughly convinced that rest is an unnecessary part of their lives. Even working adults live with the notion that it is not more sleep that they need, but more coffee or more motivation. No one likes being told that they need to do anything, especially when that “anything” is something anyone can do, and anyone can sleep. Even babies (and they seem to do it especially well).
So while God gives sleep to those he loves, we reject that gift assuming that it is unnecessary. We think God’s command to us couldn’t possibly be that important to our well being, and in so thinking attempt to throw off the bodily limitations he gave to us by making us finite creatures with real needs. Even Adam slept after his work of naming all the animals, and that was before the Fall; the need for sleep was designed right into us! We can’t go on living and speaking like “sleep is for the weak,” because it is the exact opposite that is true: if I do not sleep, I will be weak! Sleep is necessary to human function.
The second reason why we don’t take our rest is that we think we are too busy, or have too many things to do; that our own agendas are more important than obedience to God. Now, it goes without saying that our studies, goals, ministries, and dreams are indeed important, but when we refuse to pursue them in a way that lives in reliance upon God, our own activity and role in accomplishing these things become an idol. It is unbelievably tempting to think that my staying up to finish a project or a video is going to accomplish God’s will, but I often fail to realize in the heat of the moment that I think I am going to personally accomplish God’s will! The amount of pride and self-importance contained in this thought is paramount, and yet we unwittingly, by our nonchalant attitude towards resting when we so clearly need it, adopt that pride and self-importance into our lives.
Adam’s sleep at the end of his work must have been bittersweet; he was looking for a suitable helper but found none. Imagine the foolish decision he would have made if he stubbornly refused to rest and refused to trust God with this search! Instead of receiving the woman as a (wonderful and incredibly gracious) gift, he would have taken some animal for his helper, and would have defied the design of God for his life! We can’t be so stubborn in our effort to “get things done,” as the popular book title goes, but at the end of each day, we really need to confess our limits and trust God with the results of our labor, even if they seem unfinished.
A third major reason is a failure to plan for it, but this is tied into the first reason (if you don’t think you need sleep, you won’t plan to sleep), and the discipline of planning is outside the scope of my thought.
I need to be much more realistic about my limits and my need for God. In an age that emphasizes results and always tells me I can “do it,” it is a humble thing to say, “no, I can’t do it all.” This is precisely the kind of confession God desires of us; he wants us to be honest in our limitations and to go to him, weaknesses and all. God gave us sleep and the Sabbath because he knew that we were so prone to prideful work that, left to our own devices, we would we would lose our humanity altogether and work ourselves into a robotic state, never to see God because of our addiction to accomplishment.
If we have, in pride, rebelled against God’s design by refusing to sleep, staying up long, unnecessary nights, and not trusting in his provision, it is not going to be a one-day turnaround, nor will it come without difficulty. We need God to help us confess our need for him and for his provision. We need his aid to show us what it meant when Jesus said on the cross, “it is finished,” and there the work we were unable to do was accomplished for us. We need his strength to relinquish control over our schedules and our agenda, and to humbly put them at the foot of the cross.
I pray we will all learn to go to Jesus and find rest for our souls.