To some, rest is a four-letter word. There are a myriad of reasons why people avoid sleep: some restrict it in a counterproductive attempt to increase work output; others devalue sleep for the preference of entertainment; still others are reluctant to acknowledge their limits and they push through when their body signals it’s time to sleep. After all, sleeping for one-third of our life seems like a waste of time!
For all the reasons why people wrestle with sleep, this is also near the top of the list: we are at our most vulnerable when we are sleeping. We can’t control what happens after we close our eyes. Sleep, after all, is an act of trust and often a byproduct or sign of peace.
But what if we have had experiences that condition us to not trust sleep, experiences that interfere with our ability to get the rest we need?
During one of our recent worship gatherings on Zoom we found ourselves in Psalm 4: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” I learned quickly how this passage can inadvertently come across as accusatory for those who don’t sleep easily. In our Zoom time together, person after person shared their struggles with sleep. Some shared how stress, anxiety or depression robs them of sleep; others disclosed how trauma they have endured doesn’t make sleep safe; another shared a fear of resting because “letting off the gas” might mean missing out on something, or that God’s call to rest implies something difficult is coming. Not for lack of trying or trusting God, peaceful sleep remains elusive for many.
A struggle to sleep is a part of my story, too. After my son died, there was a prolonged period when I resisted sleep. It wasn’t that I avoided grief with busyness; on the contrary, my grief made sleep unsafe. There were times when I was nearly asleep or starting to wake, and my mind would play tricks on me. In my groggy, vulnerable state I would forget that my son was dead. That momentary spike of elation, followed by the stab of reality, felt like I lost him again for the first time. To combat this, I frequently starved myself of sleep. I stayed up late so that I would fall asleep instantly and avoid reliving the shock of grief.
If sleep is an act of trust, it stands to reason that sleep is spiritual. And yet some of us only dream of safe sleep. Those of us who frequently lie awake at night in fear or frustration know this all too well. In a time when many are languishing, struggling to maintain healthy rhythms and manage their mental well-being, sleep is a commodity in short supply.
For many, the factors that trouble our sleep are deeply personal and complicated. No well-meaning, trite cliché or condescending platitude will solve what we are up against. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the journey from troubled to peaceful sleep doesn’t happen overnight. So let’s be charitable and choose a listening posture when we invite people to live into God’s peace and rest.
Andrew Haak is the interim lead pastor of Level Ground Mennonite Church in Abbotsford B.C. and he recently joined the MC B.C. Leadership Board as the ministry leader for Cultivating Anabaptist Vision.