Every night, bedtime prayers with my kids conclude with some version of the same phrase: “And help ____ to have a good sleep with no bad dreams. Amen.” This is the non-negotiable conclusion to all bedtime prayers in our house. Should I omit or modify this peroration in any way, this transgression will be swiftly brought to my attention, and I will be enthusiastically exhorted to rectify the situation. The day is not complete, it seems, without entrusting our sleep and the subconscious cogitations it may or may not contain, to the care of God.
The perverse irony of my role in this nightly ritual occurred to me last night as I was tossing and turning and grousing my way to a fourth consecutive miserable night of sporadic and unconvincing sleep. I have never been a good sleeper. Some stretches are better than others, to be sure, but for as long as I can remember, a good night of uninterrupted sleep has been an elusive goal. I cannot count the number of times I have looked enviously at my wife who has the gift of being able to fall asleep 45 seconds after her head hits the pillow (I’m not exaggerating—I timed her once!) while I stare at the ceiling for 2-3 hours, angry at not being able to fall asleep, and lamenting the general injustice of the universe.
There are probably any number of reasons for my sleeplessness: I drink too much coffee, I don’t exercise regularly enough, I read in bed, I read the wrong kinds of books in bed, I eat too late in the evening, I don’t like baths, etc, etc. Aside from physical causes, I have always found it difficult to stop thinking things over—from the ordinary events of the day to hopelessly insoluble metaphysical conundrums—long past the point of being useful or productive. Anxiety, curiosity, and worry are always knocking at my door, and in the middle of a dark and sleepless night the door can be difficult to keep closed. In short, whether with respect to natural disposition or personal habits, I am hardly preparing the soil for a good sleep.
Of course there are innumerable treatments and suggested lifestyle changes only an online search and a few well-placed clicks away. But rather than stumbling groggily toward the light of Google this morning after the kids were dropped off at school, I decided to snoop around and see what the Bible might have to say about the subject of sleep. I zeroed in on Proverbs 3:21-24:
My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight,
preserve sound judgment and discretion;
they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.
Then you will go on your way in safety,
and your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.
Interestingly, the proverb links a “sweet” sleep with wisdom! But what kind of wisdom? There is undoubtedly a good deal of practical wisdom in adopting good habits such as moderating caffeine intake, exercising, eating well, and not bringing your laptop to bed, but whenever I consult the sleep expert websites, their recommendations can feel, rightly or wrongly, like a long list of behavioural modifications designed to trick my body into falling asleep. Useful information, to be sure, and not to be despised, but perhaps only a partial response.
Proverbs 3 seems to be commending a deeper wisdom where sleep is a gift—a happy consequence of a comprehensively well-ordered life. So, what kind of wisdom might lead to a sweet sleep?
- Learning from those who have gone before us and are wiser than us (v. 1-2)
- Pursuing a life of love and fidelity, toward God and others (v. 3-4)
- Trusting in the providence of God and not leaning on our own understanding (v. 5-6)
- Humility (not “being wise” in our own eyes) and fear of the Lord; knowing our place and “shunning evil” (v. 7-8)
- Generosity (v. 9-10)
- Accepting the discipline of the Lord, allowing our lives to be shaped by the Father who loves us and wants good for us (v. 11-12)
A challenging list, that. But a life-, and quite probably, a sleep-giving one, too. A good sleep can, apparently, be among the innumerable benefits of pursuing and living in right relationship with God, others, and self. Imagine that.
Of course this begs the question: what does this say about those who can’t get a good night’s sleep? Must we universally and callously pile the guilt of some conception of “wrong living” on top of the misery of insomnia? Well, no. I don’t think that the Proverbs were written to be mechanically applied to guarantee specific outcomes. But I do think that, in general, those who live well, sleep well. And so, if I’m not sleeping well, it might be worth revisiting some of the criteria of Proverbs 3.