A shielded sleep

Tales from the Unending Story

February 22, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 4
Joshua Penfold | Columnist
(Photo by Rob Oo, Flickr)

What keeps you up at night? Do the anxieties of your day taunt you as you lay awake?

I don’t usually have much trouble falling asleep—my wife can attest to that—but sometimes if I wake up in the middle of the night my mind will start playing through something in life that I’m anxious about. During the day I keep myself busy or distracted, but lying there in the middle of the quiet night I struggle to escape the nagging thoughts. The embarrassing thing is that they are mostly pretty benign things.

As a fairly new homeowner, my not-so-handy-and-a-bit-ashamed-of-it mind gets caught in loops worrying that I didn’t do the plumbing right and I’ll come home one day to a flood, or that my electrical work was bad and, lying awake in bed, I can almost smell the smoke.

I sometimes worry about my parents or my kids. I worry about money and bills and the economy. With so many new things to learn in my new job, my mind gets into unhelpful loops trying to play out how future parts of my job might unfold. Lots of the common things that people worry about, right? Regardless of how low the objective magnitude of our anxieties may be, they are subjectively significant to the person worrying about them, and at night they can feel inescapably and sleeplessly enormous and insurmountable.

In Psalm 3, the writer is surrounded by taunting enemies who rise up against them. The psalm is attributed to David when he flees from his son Absalom. Whether it was actually written by David, or simply attributed to him—see footnote below—the connection helps us get a sense of the peril the writer is in: Their life is in very real and serious danger.

Despite the obvious anxiety and significant stress such a situation would create, despite what would be a forgivable inability to remain calm, the writer rests in the comfort of God as their shield and simply says, “I lie down and sleep. I awake, for the Lord has sustained me” (Psalm 3:6 Alter). He makes it sound so easy.

I know that if I was on the run for my life, I would not be having a very restful sleep. And yet the writer’s trust in God as rescuer and shield is so unflinching that, despite the chaos and uncertainty of the situation, sleeping is restorative rather than elusive. The psalmist certainly puts me to shame when it comes to anxiety control. I’m not sure if the psalmist’s sense of peace leaves me encouraged, inspired, jealous or frustrated. Maybe all of the above. I really should not struggle to fall asleep since most of my issues are comparably laughable.

Does your mind race at night? Do you struggle to sleep peacefully at night? May this psalm help us keep our worries in perspective. May we embrace the image of God as our shield, protecting us from the anxieties we face, no matter how large or small, realizing that God is rescuer and, like the psalmist, we can “fear not from the myriads of troops that round about set against [us]” (Psalm 3:6). Tonight, may you lie down and dream sweetly and peacefully knowing that God sustains you until you awake.

The psalm says “A Psalm of David.” That is one way to understand/translate what is written. It could also mean “by David” or “belonging to David,” or even “in the manner of David.” Scholar Robert Alter has chosen in his translation to maintain an inclusive kind of ambiguity and translate it “A David Psalm.” I think I might translate it as “A Psalm in the key of David.”

Joshua Penfold (penfoldjoshua@gmail.com) is the new outdoor education director at Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp.

Read more Tales from the Unending Story:
When inadequate is enough
Soil lover
Priests of what are not gods
Abandoning the Lord
Grasping God’s glory

(Photo by Rob Oo, Flickr)

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