I’ve always had trouble going to sleep. It seems like it takes me forever. I couldn’t begin to count the times I’ve looked at the clock at 2:00, 3:00, or even 4:00 in the morning. Even as a small child I can remember lying awake at night while all the rest of my family was asleep, crying because I couldn’t sleep.
I think I come by it honestly. My grandfather could sit or lie down and go to sleep whenever he wanted. But my grandmother had difficulty going to sleep and staying asleep. As a teenager, I’d stay all night at their house and stay up to watch the late show. Grandma would get up about every hour or hour and a half, for one reason or another. She called it “prowling”. She had various explanations: “I can’t sleep.” “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” Or my favorite: “My stomach’s upset. I need to drink some buttermilk.” (I never understood that one. Frankly, drinking buttermilk doesn’t settle my stomach.)
I read somewhere once that no one ever died of insomnia, so that made me feel a little better. At least if I’m awake in the middle of the night, I don’t have to be upset about it. But it’s still frustrating.
It’s even worse if I have to get up early the next morning, to make a hospital call (back when we were still allowed to go in hospitals…) or go to an early appointment or meeting (can someone say, “Sunrise Service”?…back when we could still have Easter services…). In the back of my mind I always think: “I’ve got to get to sleep, so I can get up early in the morning!” And that’s almost a guarantee that I won’t fall asleep for a long time.
As a consequence, I learned to take short naps in my truck in hospital parking lots. Sometimes, if time allowed, I would take a 10- or 20-minute nap before I went in to make a hospital visit. Otherwise, I’d be so sleepy sometimes I could hardly put two coherent sentences together. And it used to be, depending on where I had to go, I could stop by my Dad’s house in Indianapolis, and “crash” for a bit. (I was such good company: “Hi, Dad! Surprise! It’s me. Listen, I have to take a nap, but it’s sure good to see you!”)
Sometimes I’ve laid awake at night thinking about church stuff: a problem we’re trying to solve; a tense situation we’re trying to defuse; a troubled person I was trying to point in the right direction; someone who was straying away and doing themselves harm in the process; someone who was mad at the church, or me, for reasons I couldn’t help or couldn’t comprehend; or somebody who seemed to be going out of their way to make things difficult for everybody else. All these kinds of things can play on an endless loop in my brain when I’m supposed to be going to sleep.
As an adult, I’ve learned to distract my brain and read myself to sleep. If I just lay down and turn out the light, my brain goes into overtime, and I lay there and think about one thing after another. But if I have a book to read, something that is just interesting enough to catch my attention, but not enough to keep me turning pages to see what happens next, then within a few minutes—(if I’m lucky—I’ll start to feel sleepy. And then I can turn off the light and—if I’m lucky—go to sleep. Until I wake up and look at the clock again.
Back in 2016 I had surgery on my right shoulder. For ten days after that I was on the pain reliever Oxycodone. Bad stuff, if you take too much of it, or take it for too long. Two of the side effects of Oxycodone are feeling very relaxed and feeling very sleepy. The truth is, I thoroughly enjoyed sleeping in those days and nights after my surgery. I never had a time when I slept so much. One day I slept 9 hours through the day, then slept all night, too. And I never had a time when I fell asleep so easily. I slept and slept, and it felt so good! Sometimes I didn’t even try to read: I just sat down, closed my eyes, and passed right out. It was wonderful! It was the easiest and best sleep I ever had in my life.
Until I got the coronavirus.
Then I slept 16 to 18 hours a day, every day, for a week and a half! I’d sleep 10 or 12 hours at night. Then I’d get up, eat breakfast…and take a 3-hour nap! Then I’d wake up to eat lunch…and take another 3-hour nap! After supper, I could barely stay awake until 9’o’clock in the evening. Then I’d drag myself off to bed, to repeat the process all over again. Feeling tired was my main symptom. I had some aches and pains, a little fever now and then, and a little congestion. But mainly, I was just tired. I’ve never slept so much in my life. And I really got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. I didn’t even feel like playing the guitar.
One of the ways I knew I was getting better was that I couldn’t sleep as long as I had been: only 8 or 9 hours a night instead of 10 to 12 hours. Only a 2-hour nap instead of 3. Then only an hour. And I remember the day I laid down in the afternoon and couldn’t go to sleep. And I thought, “I think I may be getting better!” And praise God, I was.
But I have often struggled with sleeplessness over the years. That’s why verses like this really resonate with me: “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 127:3) Sometimes I remember this verse in the middle of the night and think, “Lord, You must not love me very much.” And sometimes I think He must be saying, “Child, I really do love you. I wish you’d trust Me, stop worrying and go to sleep. I’ll still be here when you wake up.”
I love Jesus’ promise: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) When I’m tempted to think that His yoke is burdensome and unreasonably heavy, what I really find is that I’m trying to bear a yoke that someone else has made for me, or one I’ve made for myself. When I quit trying to live up to other people’s expectations (an impossible goal), or quit trying to live up to unrealistic expectations I’ve imposed on myself (an even more impossible goal), then I find myself free to listen to what He is telling me, and to do only those things that He is telling me to do. And when I do that, guess what? I find rest for my soul.
Rest is a picture of our salvation, and of the believer’s ultimate home in heaven. The book of Hebrews says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Hebrews 4:9-10) Just as God rested on the seventh day after the six days of creation, when we trust Christ we cease from our own labors of trying to be religious and good, and rest only on what Christ did for us on the cross.
Quoting the hymn that dates back to within three years of the death of Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote: “…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) Because of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I can now cease from trying to measure up or impress God, and simply rest in what Jesus has done for me.
And I can look forward to the ultimate rest He has promised us in Heaven, where I can “cease from my striving and going astray” and rest eternally in the loving presence of God.
That’s something to think about. Better yet: that’s something to sleep on!
Soli Deo Gloria! Pastor David