Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
Like breathing, blinking, and eating, sleeping is a natural part of our day-to-day lives. The very naturalness of it, however, causes most of us to put very little thought into how sleep relates to the kingdom of God and our Christian faith. Our tendency is to simply dismiss it as a spiritually unimportant activity because we believe it is our wakeful activities, and not our time spent sleeping, that constitute our lives and the boundaries of God’s kingdom. When we awake from sleep, we start anew from where we left off when last awake. The interim hours of sleep do not seem to count as part of our lives and, thus, contribute nothing to our spiritual development or the expansion of God’s kingdom. Not surprisingly, this line of reasoning leaves us with many questions. Why is it that on the average we are required by the laws of nature to spend eight out of every twenty-four hours, or one-third of our entire lives, in sleep? Why are our conscious minds regularly suspended this way? Why is so large a part of each day “wasted,” when we could spend the time in Scripture, prayer, meditation, or productive work? Why do we attempt to prolong our lives if we spend so much of them sleeping? Would not decreasing the amount of time we sleep offer an easier solution? Finally, if we are to submit every aspect of our lives to God (I Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17), is there not therefore some connection between our Christian faith and sleeping? If so, should we ask God to teach us to number not only our days, but also our nights (Ps. 90:12)?
Regrettably, Western Christianity has seldom addressed these questions, possibly because it does not see how an unconscious activity warrants serious reflection. This avoidance is surprising because pastors and theologians are not known for their silence, and because of the attention they give to other aspects of people’s inner lives, e.g., inner healing and deliverance. What then is the reason for this silence? It is surely not due to ignorance; Scripture has much to say about sleep and dreams. Perhaps fear is a major reason why some of us deem sleep a waste of time spiritually, and why we close ourselves off to the messages of our dreams. Indeed, if dreams have meanings, then they might compel us to pray for their correct interpretations, to spend additional time reflecting on our lives, and to consider unpleasant or surprising insights about our lives in light of God’s rule and reign over us. We would then need the courage to respond appropriately to their messages.
If Scripture calls us to carry out all of our activities to the glory of God – ordinary and extraordinary, conscious and unconscious – then God should have something to say about the time we spend asleep. I will substantiate this claim by offering a general overview on the role sleep plays in the Christian life. Due to the breadth of this topic, I will limit my thoughts, and add one clarification. Because of the abundance of scriptural passages that deal specifically with dreams, and because of the frequent ambiguity over whether night visions are dreams or wakeful visions that occur at night, I will only cite passages that clearly refer to dreams that arise from sleep.
The Great Equalizer
God has orchestrated in creation a natural rhythm that moves through our daily lives, e.g., work and play, activity and rest, day and night, sun and shade, and, finally, waking and sleeping. By and large, once every twenty-four hours we all lie down to sleep. No matter how busy we are, no matter what responsibilities hang over us, what problems remain unsolved, and what tasks remain unfinished, these issues can postpone for only a few hours the relentless demands of sleep. The mightiest of heroes and the wealthiest of people – along with the poor, the sick, and the outcast – have a daily need to lie down because they cannot go on unless they do. This is true of all of us. In sleep, our masks are removed, our pretensions cease, and our authority is nullified. This innate ritual reminds us with remorseless regularity how things really are. Every single day we are obliged to recall that we are no greater than anyone else. We are finite.
Vulnerability and Trust
The demands of our lives often cause us to carry insecurity and stress to bed with us. We may lie awake worrying about what awaits us tomorrow. Can we rise to the task? Will we get everything done? Or, we obsess over how to deal with an unpleasant situation or a difficult person. Then there is the incessant burden of paying our bills and putting food on the table. Stressful moments like these can remind us that we are vulnerable and in need of help.
While asleep, our conscious powers and capacities lie dormant, i.e., apart from dreaming, we cannot act, initiate, respond, or achieve. Furthermore, we are no longer in the world with others, but have retired to a private world in which real people are absent. Here, regardless of whether we are strong or weak, young or old, male or female, we are not in control. Each of us is at the mercy of others and our surroundings. Only by waking can we use, once again, our abilities and talents, and consciously interact with our world.
Ultimately, falling asleep is an issue of trust. On one level, we commit ourselves to the powers of our unconscious which we do not understand. On another level, to stop and sleep is to trust that our world will carry on in an orderly fashion without our help for several hours, that God will continue to reign supreme even while we slumber. But above all, sleep offers us the opportunity to entrust our lives to God on a daily basis. We learn at a young age that we cannot go to sleep by our own effort. This is a humbling realization since falling asleep is such an effortless activity. Our inability reminds us that we cannot live by ourselves, that we were made to live in dependence upon our Maker. Sleep is thus a kind of grace – a gift from God – because we cannot will or force it upon ourselves. At those times when anxiety and stress keep us awake, we can chose to relax in “the everlasting arms” (Dt. 33:27). Yet, apart from surrendering our anxieties to God, we are not expected to maintain conscious control of our lives at all times. When we are fatigued and least able to care for ourselves, we are allowed to entrust our entire beings to God who receives us, protects us, and ministers to us until we are given back to ourselves upon waking.
Sleep offers us not only a temporary release from conscious reality, but also personal renewal. Without any conscious effort, a new supply of energy is built up within us. When we rise, we are not as we were when we retired, but refreshed in strength and thought.
Physical restoration is a mysterious process. While asleep, we breathe more slowly. Our hearts and metabolisms slow down. Our bodies are shielded from the fatigue and stress of the day. We lie quietly until we awake with fresh vigor. So, too, with our weary minds and depleted emotions. Thoughts that had not come easily before retiring, and emotions that were dull or chaotic, are infused with new life and order while we sleep. Our perceptions of life can also change. Earlier, in our fatigue, we may have been unable to appreciate new possibilities and to find strength to handle problems. Yet upon rising, life appears differently, at least in terms of opportunities and our resources. We can now think and respond more creatively and coherently.
This cycle of fatigue and restoration can remind us of two great spiritual truths. First, it is an enactment in our ordinary routines of the simple fact that strength comes after weakness (I Cor. 2:3-5, II Cor. 12:9-10). In one sense, it is as though we have to become like infants in the womb who are born anew each day. Second, in the passivity of sleep, God’s direct intervention and our bodies’ innate restorative powers are able to operate for our benefit. The result is the discovery that things go better when we let them be, that our actions after a certain point may prove obstructive, whereas our inaction may work to our advantage. Such wisdom, however, is threatening to our self-importance because it reminds us that it is truly who we are rather than what we do that gives us worth.
Several factors suggest that spiritual restoration and growth can occur while we sleep. Scripture indicates that people were challenged to grow spiritually while sleeping. For example, Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, and the patriarch Joseph were asked to love and accept others instead of disdain and reject them (Mt. 1:19-20; Gen. 37:6-9, 45:4-8). Abraham and Jacob were invited to trust God instead of fear for their futures (Gen. 15:12-21, 28:10-22). There is also a certain logic to this proposition. One line of thought contends that God would not allow us to spend one-third of our lives under conditions in which we could not experience any spiritual growth or renewal, particularly if we commit our sleep to Him before retiring. Another line of thought holds that sleep interrupts our conscious contact with the world, shelters us from its distractions and fascinations, and disengages us from our egos and wills. Like clockwork, this “perfect seclusion” can regularly bring us into a more direct, prolonged, and undisturbed communion with God and His kingdom than is possible at any other time.
Contemporary authors and past saints attest to the feasibility of these ideas. Abraham Kuyper suggests that God interacts with us differently while we are asleep than when we are awake: “For in the night God takes you away from yourself, independently of yourself to fashion and to purify you, to equip you with new capital of physical and spiritual strength” (When Thou Sittest in Thine House: Meditations on Home Life, 33). John Bigelow uses a saying of Reverend Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) to suggest that we are highly receptive to God’s prompting while asleep: “Sleep is the perfectly passive side of our existence, and best prepares us to the sense of whatever is to be got by mere receptivity” (The Mystery of Sleep, 28). This same idea is expressed in John Baillie’s quote of the Scottish theologian George MacDonald (1824-1905): “Sleep is God’s contrivance for giving man the help He cannot get into him when he is awake” (Christian Devotion, 103). Brother Lawrence, the seventeenth-century monk from Lorraine, France, claimed that our spiritual progress is not confined to our waking hours: “But those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep” (The Practice of the Presence of God, Fourth Letter). When viewed together, these quotes suggest that spiritual growth, and not just spiritual maintenance, take place while we sleep. God’s rule and reign apparently influence our slumbering lives.The purposes of sleep, however, are not confined to personal enrichment. Sleep also restores us so that we can better serve God and further His kingdom purposes on earth. Karl Barth maintains that because God has made us in the divine image and given us life, we are to treat our lives, including our “primitive impulses” (e.g., sleeping, eating, sexuality) with a deep reverence. This includes refusing to respond to these impulses in an “animal fashion,” as if they are an automatic process that we obey without thought. Rather, we are to view our physical impulses as “guided and governed by the soul as awakened by the divine pneuma [Spirit]” (Church Dogmatics, vol.III, 4, The Doctrine of Creation, 55.1). This perspective, when applied to sleep, not only facilitates our service to God and others, but also encourages us to avoid the extremes of indulgence or deprivation.
Insight and Revelation
We process our lives and the world differently while dreaming. In general, our dreams appear to highlight what is really important to us, but which, for some reason, we have not worked through or accepted. For instance, simple events or particularly unpleasant issues we de-emphasized or dismissed while awake are frequently explored. Our dreams can also provide us with a deeper perception of life and God’s kingdom since we are disengaged from our waking delusions and phobias. This insight can help us face ourselves more honestly and God’s kingdom rule more courageously. On a different note, revelation may occur on a prophetic or instructive level, i.e., God may speak to us about future events or provide us with clear directions as to what we should do.
Although we agree that life is processed differently in our dreams, we frequently disagree over how to think theologically about them and their interpretations (from here on, dreamwork). A common approach is to credit the source of dreams either to God or the unconscious. Many Christians, however, simply pay no attention to their dreams. This indifference applies also at the corporate level, i.e., there are very few large, well-organized movements in Western Christianity that encourage Christians to view their dreams as a source of spiritual insight into life. As a result, there is a general uncertainty within the noncharismatic Western Church over the value of dreams and the kind of authority they possess.
What has prompted this modern disinterest in, or even disdain of, dreams? Many nonreligious people struggle with dreams because they view them as coming from neither the acceptable material world nor from rational thought. While they may find their dreams fascinating, they tend to view dreamwork as silly or superstitious. Many religiously-oriented people prefer an intellectual approach to God and His kingdom that excludes opening themselves up to dreams that they cannot control, and which are shrouded in mystery and symbolism. Underlying their preference is the realization that if they take dreams seriously, then their convenient, dogmatic theories about God will no longer suffice. God and His kingdom then become – more than ever – unknown realities that they can explore, but which no longer come to them when and as they choose.
There are a few spiritual factors, however, that point to a divine-human relationship within dreams and dreamwork. First, Scripture clearly indicates that God spoke to people through dreams (e.g., Gen. 15:12-21, 20:3-7, 28:10-12, 31:3-13, 37:5-11, 40:8-19, 41:1-7; Judges 7:13-15; I Kings 3:5-15, 9:2-9; Dan. 2:1-45, 4:4-26; Mt. 1:19-20, 2:12-13,19-22, 27:19). It is evident from these examples that some of the most important divine-human communiqués in Scripture were given while people slept. Second, because Scripture maintains that God is omnipresent (e.g., I Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:3-10; Jer. 23:23-24; Eph.1:23), it follows that God is in intimate relationship with our entire psyche, both in our waking and in our sleeping, so that His kingdom extends into our conscious and unconscious lives. Certainly, from a Christian point of view, nothing is more important to the health of our personalities than our relationship with God and our surrender to His rule and reign over us (e.g., Ps. 16:8, 23:3-4; Jn. 15:5-10; Mt.6:33). Since dreams often reflect and reveal our innermost conditions, they inevitably point to the divine-human relationship. Third, whereas dreams enable us to experience God’s presence and reign in our lives, dreamwork helps us bring more of ourselves into that relationship, e.g., we can pray about the meaning of our dreams and then ask God to help us respond appropriately. A fourth factor is the relevance of dreams and dreamwork to communities. In biblical times, God spoke through the dreams of individual people to the chosen community (e.g., Gen. 20:3, 31:10-24, 37:5-9, 40:1-41:45; I Kings 3:5-15). This is certainly true of Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Gen. 28:10-22). God’s message was meant not only for Jacob, but also for his family and descendants. Centuries later, Hosea commented that Jacob’s dream was the property of the entire Jewish community: “God met Jacob at Bethel, and there He spoke with us” (Hosea 12:4b).
These scriptural accounts can challenge our thinking on dreams and dreamwork and their influence on Christian communities. For instance, if our orientation to the Christian life is essentially community-centered, then in what sense do our dreams belong to our families, churches, and the entire Christian body, and their dreams belong to us? Moreover, how should we involve ourselves in our communities’ dreamwork, and visa versa? One way in which we can see the community aspect of dreamwork is by applying Paul’s conception of spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12-14) to our understanding of dreams as gifts from God. Paul observed that all gifts, whether special or ordinary, came from the Spirit of God (12:4). Thus, we should treat all of our gifts, including our dreams, with gratitude and reverence, and avoid the temptation to belittle or dismiss them. He then indicated that the Holy Spirit gave different gifts to God’s people for the “common good” of the community (12:7). Consequently, we can use the interpretations of our dreams to encourage, build up, and challenge each other. Paul went on to say that people were normally to judge each of God’s gifts according to its usefulness to the community (14:1-5). Essentially, the more a gift helped to edify or exhort people, the more valuable it was to the Christian community. It is perhaps on account of this community principle that most of the dreams in Scripture contain wisdom that benefited the covenant community and, in so doing, furthered the kingdom of God on earth. In the same fashion, our dreamwork can provide us with the wisdom to help others effectively and to advance God’s kingdom.
The spiritual implications of sleep brought out here suggest that sleep plays a vital role in our Christian lives and God’s kingdom reign on earth. The witness of Scripture demonstrates that God can profoundly influence us while we sleep. Several narratives raise the possibility that we are more receptive to God and His kingdom while asleep than awake. Moreover, dreamwork can facilitate our receptivity to the kingdom of God through prayer, reflection, and obedient action. Due to our ongoing need for sleep, we can even learn how to trust God more implicitly. When viewed together, these ideas can help us better appreciate and respond to the divine-human link that occurs during sleep and dreamwork. Clearly, we should not “close our eyes” to the influence that sleep has on our overall spiritual formation, and its vital link to God’s kingdom.