The Blessing of Sleep

"It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep" (Psalm 127:2).

I used to think that sleep is a waste of time. I was very impressed by Beza’s testimony that Calvin "often stayed up till midnight to study and ate hardly any supper in his eagerness to press on with his work."

And I was deeply affected by Joseph Alleine’s testimony as written by his wife:

He did rise constantly at or before four O’clock, and on the Sabbath sooner, if he did wake; he would be much troubled if he heard any smiths, or shoemakers, or such tradesmen, at work at their trades before he was in his duties with God; saying to me after, "O how this noise shames me! Doth not my master deserve more than theirs?"

I am certainly not questioning the zeal and sincerity of these men of God. Indeed, in many ways they remain examples for me to emulate.

But I have been doing some rethinking about sleep. Is sleep a blessing or a curse? Is it a necessity or a luxury? Is it always virtuous to deprive myself of sleep in the work of the Lord or for any other reasons? Etc.

In this short article, I hope to answer some of these questions. I hope to answer them not only because I have to address the guilt feelings that I may have developed about sleeping ‘too much.’ But also because I have noticed over the years that sleep deprivation or insomnia is one of the most common contributory factors to problems ranging from depression, lack of concentration, wandering thoughts in worship, quarrels and inordinate anger amongst brethren.

I am not the only one who has made this observation. An April 2002 article published on the MSN website reports the findings of a new poll by the US National Sleep Foundation:

Adults sleep an average of 6.9 hours per night on weeknights and 7.5 hours per night on weekends. Only 30% of adults are getting the requisite 8 hours of sleep each night, compared with 38% a year ago. Nearly 40% said they are so sleepy during the day it interferes with their activities at least a few days a month.…

Those who got less than six hours of sleep on weekdays were more likely to describe themselves as stressed, sad, and angry.

People who reported often being sleepy during the day were more likely to describe themselves as dissatisfied with life and angry.

Those who reported fewer insomnia symptoms were more likely to describe themselves as "full of energy," "relaxed," and "happy."

Those who did not get enough sleep were more likely to get impatient or aggravated with such common annoyances as waiting in line or sitting in traffic. They were also more likely to make mistakes and have difficulty getting along with others.

Road rage is very often related to people who are very, very short-fused and irritable because they’re sleep deprived…

These findings, of course, do not distinguish between Christians and non-Christians. Indeed, I can testify from my own experience and from my interaction with others that the findings, at least to some degree, reflect a reality even amongst believers.

With this in mind let us consider our first question, which is: Is sleep a curse or a blessing?

Curse or Blessing?

This question is really not difficult to answer. It was before the Fall that God "caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and he slept" (Gen 2:21). Whether or not Adam slept on other occasions before the Fall, it is clear that sleep is not part of the curse. Moreover, it is clear from passages such as Psalm 127:2, that sleep is a blessing of God. Why else would the psalmist say: "It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so He giveth His beloved sleep" (Psalm 127:2)?

I will, therefore, thank God for giving me sleep. I do not have to feel guilty putting down my work and going to sleep. "I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety" (Ps 4:8).

Necessity or Luxury?

But is sleep really necessary? Or is it a luxury, which we can do without? Experience tells us that it is a necessity. But experience is not the best guide. What a sinful man regards as a necessity may in reality be a luxurious indulgence. What does the Scripture say?

The Scripture does not tell us whether sleep is a necessity. It assumes that it is. And we can be sure that it is because the Lord Himself, who is perfectly sinless, slept (Lk 8:23; Mt 8:24; cf. Mk 1:35). Sleep not only restores our tired bodies, it gives us mental repose and refreshment. As Calvin puts it simply: "It is a sovereign good to have rest, or else we would be tired out" (sermon on Mt 26:40-50).

We are made differently from one another. Some of us will need more sleep; some will need less. But if sleep is a necessity, I must not think that I am sinning just because I am sleeping more than another person. Neither must I allow myself to swell with pride if another person commends me for needing little sleep.

How much to Sleep?

But how much should I sleep? A thing that is necessary can become a luxury if we over-indulge in it. The same goes with sleep. So Solomon reminds us:

"How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man." (Prov 6:9-11)

Sleeping beyond what we need, can be sinful.

On the other hand, if sleep is a necessity, then it can surely also be sinful to deprive ourselves of sleep and try to keep awake by artificial means such as caffeine tablets, energy drinks or coffee. My wife used to remind me of the 6thcommandment when I stay up late and rise early.

The Scripture does not tell us how much to sleep. I understand from many surveys that most adults need about 8 hours a day. But perhaps a good guideline is that we should be able to wake up in the morning without an alarm clock (or any other interruption be it noise or light). God has made us in such a way that we will normally wake up fresh once we have sufficient sleep (which may be more or less depending on the previous day’s activities, etc). One who wakes up and then continues to laze in bed until he falls asleep again is sinfully wasting his life away: "As the door turneth upon his hinges, so doth the slothful upon his bed" (Prov 26:14).

What about Watchings?

As a minister of the Gospel, the apostle Paul had often to suffer "In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often …" (2 Cor 11:27, cf. 2 Cor 6:5). The term ‘watching’ may also be rendered ‘sleeplessness.’ It is possible that Paul suffered insomnia. But it is more likely that he deprived himself of sleep or was deprived of sleep by the demands of the ministry.

Whatever may be the case, it is clear that there are times when we should stay awake for the Lord’s sake. When the Lord went into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, he left His disciples to pray with him by themselves. When He came back to them, He found them asleep and said unto Peter "What, could ye not watch with me one hour?" (Mt 26:40).

That not withstanding, I must ask myself: should I,—as a practice,—strive to sleep as little as possible as there is so much to be done in the work of the Lord? My answer is yes and no. Yes, if ‘as little as possible,’ means ‘the minimum that I need’ to function effectively without adverse-effects, and without artificial props. But no, if ‘as little as possible,’ means ‘as little as I can tolerate.’

The Lord made us differently. Calvin, Alleine, and others are 5-talent-men. I am a 2-talent-man. If I try to sleep as little as them, for the ministry’s sake, I may end up doing a lot and accomplishing very little. I must work within the limits of God’s providential endowment.

The same principle applies to the rest of us. It is wrong to allow yourself to be deprived of sleep by things within our control. "It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep" says David (Ps 127:2).

You may have a nice book to read or a television programme you want to watch. But which is more important? Your employer may want you to work 24 hours. But is that what your Master (Eph 6:6-7) wants you to do? Your young children may demand your attention frequently in the middle of the night? But should you always give them the attention and train them to interrupt your sleep?

Adverse Effects

We have seen from the poll cited earlier that there are many adverse effects of not sleeping enough. The effects are not only physical. There are spiritual effects too. God made us body and soul. What affects the body will inevitably affect the soul.

We should, following our Lord’s example, wake up early to pray (Mk 1:35). But ironically, lack of sleep is, as far as I know, one of the major causes of prayerlessness. How to pray when the eyes are heavy (Mt 26:43)? "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt 26:41).

Similarly, most persons whom I have spoken to, who suffer from severe depression also suffer insomnia. I am of course, not chiding our brethren who suffer from depression, for not sleeping. I am reminding myself that if I continue to deprive myself of sleep I am preparing myself to fall into the malady.

Need we be reminded that impatience, dozing off in worship, lack of concentration, half-hearted labours, preventable mistakes, etc—which also arise from a lack of sleep,—are also displeasing to the LORD?

What Shall we Do?

My four-year-old daughter would often pray: "Help us to sleep well. Help us not to wake up in the middle of the night." I do not think she learnt that from me, for I do not remember praying likewise (at least not the second part) at family worship. But yes, we ought to pray that the Lord will grant us a good rest each night. This is the first thing we must remember to do. We must not take the ability to sleep well for granted. Ask those of us who have had trouble sleeping and you will know how frustrating it is to be unable to sleep.

But secondly, we must plan our time well. I am referring not only to the commonsense wisdom of sleeping early if you have to wake up early! I am suggesting we must "keep sound wisdom and discretion" (Prov 3:21) in how we conduct our lives. Remember that our bodies and not just our souls belong to the LORD. We must use it to glorify and enjoy Him. We must not abuse it by systematically depriving it of sleep that it needs. When your day is lived with godly principle and balance then "yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet" (Prov 3:24). Wisdom and discretion may require us to seek changes in our use of time or even our career if lack of sleep is destroying our lives and our relationship with the LORD.

Thirdly, we must make good use of our working hours. We will not sleep well if we have a tendency to squander our time away in doing things of little value or even in earning ‘good money’ through questionable means. Remember the words of Solomon: "The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep" (Eccl 5:12).

Fourthly, we must learn not to worry about tomorrow (Mt 6:33). If we are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness in all that we do, God will add to us all that we need (Mt 6:33). Therefore let us learn to cast our anxieties upon the Lord, knowing He cares for us (1 Pet 5:7). When I was a little boy, I was taught that if I cannot sleep, I should count sheep. I am not sure if it ever works. But I am sure when I talk to the Shepherd to unload my burdens, it always works!

Finally, since sleep is a necessity, those of us who are unable to sleep for physiological or medical reasons, must not feel guilty about using medication or herbs to secure a good night sleep.


Dr R.C. Sproul once remarked that someone should write a dissertation about the theological significance of sleep. This article is obviously not such an attempt. It is rather a short sharing borne out of experience of how the lack of sleep (I say not oversleeping, for it is generally not a problem amongst conscientious believers), has detrimental effects on our spiritual lives. If you are like the majority of us who are sleep-deprived, I would leave you by way of encouragement what a senior ministerial friend reminded me over and over again: "You have got to get sufficient sleep!"

But if you have been sleeping sufficiently and you find this article to be of no value to you except to tempt you to sloth, then I would encourage you with the words of apostle Paul (who by the way is not deriding physical sleep), "that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed" (Rom 13:11). Amen.