What the Mystery of Sleep Tells Us About God and Reality

Sometimes something is so extraordinary and beyond our capacity to explain or understand that our mind cannot fully grasp its reality. For example, when a group of Christians on a mission to Russia had a member of that group fall down some stairs and break her neck, the local atheist guide for the group was certain that no one could survive such a lethal fall. But he watched in amazement as the believers gathered around the limp body and prayed for her–and she arose no worse for the wear.

The unbelieving host was true to his nature and could not believe what he had just seen. His worldview simply did not allow for such things to happen; he was in shock, unable to account for what he had witnessed. When the leader of the Christian group asked him what he thought about what he had just seen with his own eyes, the man simply said over and over, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

One doesn’t have to refer to such extreme and dramatic incidents to encounter the human mind’s inability to deal with certain areas of this mystery we call life. Even ordinary, common aspects of everyday life present us with perplexing puzzles that simply escape our ability to explain. But since we must deal with them somehow (we do, after all, have to go about our daily lives in spite of such strange encounters), we often resort to the response of the unbelieving guide, and say with a startled shake of the head, “I don’t know; I don’t know” and then go about our business.

There is one such mystery of our lives here on earth that we deal with every day. It is a very strange thing for which we have no explanation, and yet because we encounter it daily, we must somehow come to an accommodation for it in our lives in order to function usefully. From the title of this piece, you already know, of course, what that mysterious incident is: It is sleep.

We have so accommodated ourselves to this extremely mysterious phenomenon, however, that it is usually thought of as an ordinary fact of life, not the truly extraordinary puzzle that it is. But think about it: Once each day, we lose consciousness, become unaware of our selves and our surroundings. If this were to happen unexpectedly during the day, we would view it as unusual and possibly harmful and (hopefully) someone would call for emergency medical help. It is generally not normal for us to lose consciousness–except in sleep at night, when we think nothing of it and, in fact, expect it.

So in one circumstance we view losing consciousness as normal and even inviting and healthy, whereas in another it is viewed with great alarm. Yet in both cases, the same truly amazing fact is evident: We lose consciousness. And, in sleep, even more amazing is the fact that this happens to us every single day. Clearly, losing consciousness is part of our natural mode of being. Yet it seems strange that this should be so. Why can we not remain conscious every moment of our lives? If we assume that we sleep eight hours of every day, that is one third of our lives that is beyond our control, even beyond our awareness. It would seem that it is a waste and that we accomplish nothing. We waste a third of our lives. Or do we?

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'” (Is. 55:8,9 NIV).

If we are to penetrate the mystery of sleep, we must look to a higher way of understanding than that of our own. Nevertheless, before seeing what insights Scripture can give us concerning this matter, it helps to see just what understanding man has discovered upon investigating this puzzling aspect of our existence. When this is done, a number of facts and theories come to the fore.

First of all, it is found that all animals, from the smallest to the largest, have some sort of sleep stage or its equivalent. Even though scientists who have studied sleep admit that they do not understand it, they do recognize its importance to all living things. As one researcher puts it, we spend so much of our time sleeping that there must be something very important going on.

It is only natural, of course, to think that sleeping allows the body to repair cells. The rigors of daily existence are hard on the human body. It needs a time when it has fewer demands so that it can fix what has been used or damaged. So the machine shuts down, to a degree, and repairs are made. Evidence supporting this theory is found in the fact that smaller animals have higher metabolic rates (and therefore produce more free radicals and therefore need more repairs), and tend to sleep more. For example, some mice sleep for 20 hours a day, while giraffes and elephants only need two- to three-hour power naps.

Another theory is that sleep might also be a time for the brain to do housekeeping. As we learn and absorb information throughout the day, biochemical processes there make many changes and face many challenges to rewire the brain. Again, the body needs to catch up on all those changes.

But, of course, we are more than just bodies, more than just physical or material matter. We have a soul with a mind and a spirit given to us by our Creator. It is here that the real reason for sleep lies: in our spirit, our inner being. This too needs replenishing daily. For we are in a spiritual battle everyday against the forces of darkness, and this warfare drains us. We need to be replenished in spirit and soul as well as in body.

Jesus was aware of this. He told his disciples:

“Because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest'” (Mk. 6:31 NIV).

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28 NIV).

But it is more than just for rejuvenation and replenishment that God has created us with a need for sleep. It is also a sign. It is a constant and daily reminder that we are limited human beings and not God, but that he alone is God and does not tire or need sleep.

When Elijah had his dramatic confrontation with the pagan priests of Baal, they called out loudly to their god, “but there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened'” (1 Kgs. 18:26,27 NIV).

By implying that their god needed rest and sleep, Elijah was, in effect, insinuating that their god was not God, for a true God would not need sleep, having infinite power. And that is exactly what Scripture says of the one, true God:

“He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4 NIV).

Sleep is human attribute, a continuing reminder that we are limited and that it is God who works in and through us, not we ourselves. After all, there we are, helpless, unconscious, lying in bed–asleep.

Sleep is a sign to unbelievers. To the worldly unbeliever, sleep is an overpowering force that forces those in rebellion against God to relinquish their control over what happens to them to God, at least for a time: They must sleep, whether they want to or not.

Man is proud of what he can do and accomplish, has many grand schemes and plans to make things and do things. Yet for one third of each day, he is helpless, unable to do anything, even to the point of unconsciousness.

This applies to believers as well. For many believers fall into the same trap, thinking that they must constantly be about some activity to build up the kingdom of God. If the Lord were to return today, they would tell him, “Not yet, Lord. I still have work to do for you.”

Paul had the right attitude. He was zealous to put forth his maximum effort to work for God, but also knew that it was really God doing the work through him.

“For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me” (Col. 1:29 RSV).

And, finally, there is one last important lesson that we should learn from our human need for sleep. Sleep is a daily reminder of our mortality. We will one day die. In sleep, we can do nothing, we are effectively removed from this world and all its activities, just as in death. One is a loving reminder from God to us of the other.

“What they loved, as well as what they hated and envied, perished long ago, and they no longer have a part in anything that happens on earth” (Eccl. 9:6 NET).

Not having a part in anything that happens on earth can accurately describe either our daily sleep or the final sleep of death. Whatever else our normal sleep each night may be for us, it should also be a sign and sober reminder to us that our time here on earth is limited, that our lives our not meant to be lived for ourselves but for God. When we realize this and turn those lives over to Jesus for safekeeping, then our sleep every night also reminds us that we are the Lord’s and that we are safe in his arms for the night and forever.

“When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet” (Prov. 3:24 NIV)

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