The Theology of a Good Night’s Sleep
It’s 7:00 a.m. and I reach for the snooze button. The alarm rings again at 7:09 a.m.—and let’s be real—at 7:18 a.m., too. As I slowly rouse myself to put the kettle on, the day’s tasks fill my mind.
With few exceptions, I struggle to get to bed before midnight. I’ve developed this tendency from my college years, then from choosing to work late when I began telecommuting, and from staying out late on the weekends. I find myself doing most of my reading, house organizing, and article writing when I should be sleeping.
Despite the well-known physical repercussions of going to bed past midnight, it’s tempting to forgo a good night’s sleep in an effort to squeeze every ounce of productivity from the day. But I’m learning that it’s one thing to admit that sleep is important, and another thing to adjust one’s habits to go to bed at the right time.
As I’ve worked to enhance the structure and quality of my rest, I’ve had to say no to the things that could get done in the late-night hours. But as I’ve examined various theologies of sleep, I’ve learned that sleep transcends the need to “get it all done.” The act of sleep—and certainly the time we go to bed—can deeply affect our overall well-being.
In the book of Psalms, peaceful sleep is intimately connected to our spiritual well-being. As the psalmist says, “I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustained me.” We are told that it is vain to rise up early and sit up late, “to eat the bread of sorrows,” for God gives us rest. At the Sea of Galilee, a furious storm rose up and covered Jesus’ boat in waves, but he slept.
Many of us yearn for a sweet, dreamless sleep—though we rarely assist such a refreshing type of rest for ourselves. I tend to work on projects right up until bedtime and choose to fight nighttime drowsiness. But a proper night’s sleep is a valuable thing: a great benefit to our minds and bodies, and a good reminder of our limitations and vulnerability. Our blood pressure drops, our breathing slows down, blood flows to the muscles, and even tissue is repaired. In these moments, we are mere creatures, totally dependent upon our Creator.
The process of forming good sleeping habits is meaningful, even spiritual. In her wonderful essay “Sleep Therapy,” Lauren Winner, a divinity professor at Duke University, articulates a theology of sleep:
It is God and God alone who ‘neither slumbers nor sleeps.’ Of course, the Creator has slept, another startling reminder of the radical humility he embraced in becoming incarnate. He took on a body that, like ours, was finite and contingent and needed sleep. To push ourselves to go without sleep is, in some sense, to deny our embodiment, to deny our fragile incarnations—and perhaps to deny the magnanimous poverty and self-emptying that went into his Incarnation.
Similarly, in his book, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life, Jesuit priest Karl Rahner describes the spiritual function of sleep: “People are individual and free, autonomous and self-directed; but when sleeping, they surrender, let go, entrust themselves to the powers of their existence that they themselves did not create and cannot oversee,” he writes. “Sleep is an act of trusting one’s deepest inner conviction, one’s own certainty, and the goodness of the human world. It is an act of innocence and of consenting to the elusive.”
Rahner argues that sleep is about surrendering our own willpower, trusting our deepest inner conviction of the mysterious work of a Power greater than ourselves. It’s easy, Rahner says, to view sleep as “merely a dull succumbing to physiological mechanisms.” But like prayer, sleep is a voluntary and peaceful farewell to the day. It’s a moment of trust and acceptance.
But as Winner points out, in order for our sleeping patterns to be truly Christian, they must also be tangible, physical, and embodied. Sleep is a biological act—yes—but also an art form that must be practiced. This means we ought to prepare for sleep in a tangible, physical sense, too: for example, tending to the home environments that make our minds more welcoming to sleep.
When I graduated college, I had to reset my sleep cycle. I’ve enjoyed the process of creating a good sleeping environment—choosing the right bedding, dimming the lights in the evenings, sipping on chamomile tea before bed. It’s all too easy to go into my home office and work until midnight, so I try to maintain a regular bedtime routine and create bookends to the day. I’m learning that simple things such as reading, prayer, and devotions can give our sleeping habits consistency and restorative power. These habits quiet the mind and foster an environment that is truly conducive to rest.
So, while I like to feel productive and sometimes tackle projects late into the night, I also try to find ways to improve the quality of sleep in my home. Creating a natural sleep-wake rhythm can enhance physical and spiritual wellbeing, and even make the day’s tasks and conflicts much easier to handle.
Each night, I end the day with thankful hope, tucked beneath my cotton sheets and warm blankets. And, even at the end of a particularly troublesome day, I fall asleep with the expectation of a new day, a new joy, another opportunity for communion with God. Whether we sleep soundly or experience a long night of tossing and turning, it’s possible to find hope, because nothing can separate us from the true Sabbath rest that is fulfilled in Christ.
When we sleep, we entrust ourselves to God, whom we hope will grant us another day. In sleep, we put off our anxieties and trust in him who meets and cares for our needs.
So, try to avoid glaring phone screens, late-night work sessions, and anxious thoughts before bed. When we lay ourselves down to sleep, let’s remember how Christ became the firstfruits of those who truly slept and rose from the dead; let’s look to our similar resurrection into the eternal life to come. Until then, there is always joy in the morning.
Aphrodite Kishi is a writer and tech editor in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of Patrick Henry College where she studied journalism and the classical liberal arts. Aphrodite is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church.