By Tish Harrison Warren

Spiritual Direction: Get More Sleep

I recently came across the Duke University study that concludes that women need more sleep than men do and that sleep deprivation causes greater physical and emotional stress in women than in men. I immediately forwarded it to my husband with a note that this vindicates what I’ve been telling him for years. 

I’ve always loved to sleep, but lately it’s become a fervent quest. I have young kids who wake up a preposterous number of times, so thinking about sleep carries a theological tone of crisis: What is happening to me? How can I go on? Does God not care about me? Why isn’t he making my kids sleep more?



It sounds overly-dramatic, even slightly hysterical. And it is. Because when I lack sleep I’m easily over-dramatic and hysterical. And thanks to Duke, I now have scientific evidence proving that this is totally normal.

The CDC released an article in March descriptively titled, “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic.”  Even among those without small kids, we’re sleeping far less than the 7-9 recommended hours and it’s causing havoc — foggy, forgetful, grumpy havoc.

In our increasingly technological, workaholic, image-barraged, caffeinated, entertainment-addicted, supercharged culture, remembering our limited,  embodied creatureliness is a difficult and necessary part of discipleship.  My husband and I minister among graduate students and often the most spiritually helpful and relevant encouragement we can give them is to quit working earlier, take care of their bodies, and get more sleep. 

But this doesn’t seem like spiritual advice. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to tell someone to get to bed earlier. When we seek to fundraise for our work on campus, an enthusiastic report that Christian students are experiencing longer and deeper sleep won’t likely impress potential donors.

Nevertheless, God cares about sleep. One of my favorite moments in the gospel is when we find Jesus in the back of a boat conked out in the middle of a storm. His sleep was theological in that it displays an unwavering trust in his Father. But let us not forget that this is also the ordinary embodiment of a tired man taking a nap.

Sleep reminds us that theology, at the end of the day (literally), is always creaturely. David worshipped God by sleeping: “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.”

Perhaps God wants to not only give us lives of prayer and holiness but also sufficient sleep. More to the point, maybe a key step toward a life of prayer and holiness is receiving the gift of a good night’s sleep.

We are not gnostics. We worship a God who was fully incarnate. He ate lunch, skinned his knees, and felt tired. Yet, it’s so easy to think that the really spiritual things are cognitive, not bodily.  We need to believe the gospel in our brains, read Christian books, pray with words, feel worship in our hearts. But if we are to live lives of discipleship, we must do so first in our bodies. When we sleep enough, we are more capable of obeying God and loving our neighbor.

But perhaps more importantly, the act of ceasing and relaxing into sleep is itself an act of worship and reliance on God. As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied confession that we are weak, vulnerable creatures cared and provided for by our strong Creator. It requires faith to cease fighting tiredness with stimulants and screens. Because he sustains, we sleep. 

As we seek to be a countercultural community under a new King, we begin in our bodies. In an increasingly technocratic and limitless world, it is a radical act to recall and embrace the limits of creatureliness.

When unbelievers encounter our community, I hope we’d be an alternative people known by love, justice-seeking, humility, and good humor. But I also hope that the world would take note: “Those Christians sure are well-rested.” For the people of God, sleep, like all of ordinary life, matters.

Slow down. Curl up. Close your eyes. Let your snoring proclaim God’s faithfulness. 

About the Author

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two daughters.

 

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