How to Sleep, and Why

You’re probably tired. We’re having a harder time getting enough sleep today than we used to fifty or a hundred years ago, but the human body still requires the same amount of sleep: 8 hours each night.

Spiritual Reality

Have we become functional Gnostics, cognitively dividing the body from the soul in an effort to rise above the body’s limitations? What do we have to do that is so important we feel we must fight against the good order God has established in order to get it done?

Perhaps we resist the need for sleep because it signals a spiritual reality we find uncomfortable in our meritocracy: no matter how hard we try, we cannot earn anything from God. The gospel is good news precisely because God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

James Bryan Smith says in his book, The Good and Beautiful God:

Sleep is a perfect example of the combination of discipline and grace. You cannot make yourself sleep. You cannot force your body to sleep. Sleep is an act of surrender. It is a declaration of trust. It is admitting that we are not God (who never sleeps), and that is good news. We cannot make ourselves sleep, but we can create the conditions necessary for sleep.

…[T]he disciplines are not ways to earn anything from God, but wise practices that allow God to teach, train and heal us. Sleep, therefore, is a kind of “anti-discipline” discipline.

The Jewish day begins at sundown. There’s something profoundly accurate about starting out with winding down. If we are to take our part in God’s story, we must first begin with the full-being dependence on him which is signaled by a surrender to our need for sleep. If we are to act in God's Kingdom, we must first stop being active. If we are to “go and do,” we must also develop the habit of treating our bodies according to how God has made us.

How to Get Sleep

Each person is different and each situation has its own challenges. Getting the sleep your body needs will require some trial and error, but here are some common guidelines and best practices adapted from James Bryan Smith’s book:

  1. Prepare yourself for sleep. The effects of caffeine in coffee can easily last for five hours. Allow your body plenty of time to get un-stimulated.
  2. Likewise, avoid stress-inducing behaviors right before bed, like strenuous exercise or even watching TV or working on your computer.
  3. As much as possible, go to sleep at the same time every night. Your body will start to fall in rhythm if you give it one.
  4. Don’t sweat it if you can’t get to sleep. Willing yourself to sleep doesn’t work and tossing and turning will be counterproductive. Instead, get up and do something soothing like reading a book or listening to calm music or drinking some warm milk.
  5. If you wake up before it’s time to be awake and don’t need to get out of bed, stay where you are and give yourself a few minutes to fall back asleep.

Still having trouble getting enough sleep? You may want to check with your doctor or a sleep expert to see if there’s a medical explanation. You may also want to consider seeing a counselor or therapists to see whether an underlying emotional or psychological problem could be the culprit.

However you work at it, getting enough sleep is an important soul-care practice. Owning our need for sleep helps put us in proper posture before our Creator. And giving our bodies the sleep they need will give us the fuel to grow in other body-dependent spiritual disciplines like reading the Bible, praying, mediating and memorizing Scripture.

Getting good sleep is a discipline you’ll need to practice for the rest of your life. As James Bryan Smith says, “You will never come to a point where you are above the need for adequate sleep.”

Portions of this article are adapted from The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. Copyright(c) 2009 by James Bryan Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.


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