“All work and no sleep makes U. S. a very fatigued nation.” That was the headline atop an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple of months ago [March 28, 2001, A4]. It caught my attention because sometimes I feel sleepy myself.
The news story was based on a recent poll taken by the National Sleep Foundation. The findings were interesting, and in some cases, alarming. Experts say that the average adult needs eight hours of sleep in order to function effectively. However, two-thirds of Americans get less than that amount, with one-third getting less than seven hours. Compared with numbers from a survey taken five years ago, Americans are sleeping less than ever.
Given these results, it is not surprising that two out of five workers say they have trouble staying awake on the job. In fact, at the same time that Americans are getting less sleep, they are spending more hours on the job. People who work 60 hours a week (or more) usually try to get by on only six hours of sleep a night. For many Americans, sleep deprivation has become a way of life. One spokesperson concluded, “There is an epidemic of sleepiness in our society. Fatigue is widespread. People may be getting sleep, but it is at school, at work and behind the wheel.” Obviously, this can be dangerous. Twenty percent of those surveyed admitted that they had actually fallen asleep while driving.
Like everything else in life, sleep is a spiritual issue. On the one hand, the Bible warns against sleeping when there is work to be done. “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?” (Prov. 6:9). However, the Bible has nothing good to say about people who spend too much time working and not enough time resting. This is unhealthy, not only physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. The philosopher asked, “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless” (Eccles. 2:22-23). Not only is it meaningless, but it is also useless. The psalmist said, “In vain do you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat” (Ps. 127:2).
Sometimes it is impossible to get as much sleep as we need. Personally, I was not surprised to discover that the most sleep-deprived people in America are adults with small children. Even the apostle Paul confessed that on occasion, the difficulties of his missionary work forced him to endure sleepless nights (2 Cor. 6:5).
Nevertheless, God commands us to get enough sleep. There are many good reasons for this. For starters, it is hard to work to his glory when you are feeling sleepy. People who are short on their sleep have trouble remembering and concentrating. Studies have even shown that people with poor sleep habits tend to live shorter lives. So it is for our own benefit that God commands us to rest.
This command is found, among other places, in the fifth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates” (Exod. 20:8-10). This commandment is God's way of helping us remember to get enough rest. It is not intended to be a burden, but a blessing. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, it is for our own good that God has given us a day of rest.
We find our ultimate rest in the being and work of God. This connection is made in the fifth commandment, where our keeping the Sabbath is based on God's resting from his work on the seventh day. The connection between God's work and our rest is also made in Psalm 127. After explaining how foolish it is to work more and sleep less, Solomon says, “He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 127:3b-4). In times or places of danger, it is customary for people to set a watch. One person stays awake, looking for any sign of trouble, while the others try to get some sleep. The point the psalmist wanted to make is that God is always on the lookout. If you are with him, there is no sense staying up and worrying, you might as well go ahead and sleep, because God will be up all night watching anyway.
Solomon also said this: “[The Lord] grants sleep to those he loves” (Ps. 127:2). In other words, those who trust God will find their rest in his goodness and grace. This is a promise I often claim when I'm worn out. I say, “Lord, I'm so tired. But I know that you love me. Will you please show me your love by giving me the rest that I need.” Of course, God's promise is not intended to compensate for my own sin. So when I stay up too late working, or when I fail to get enough sleep, I cannot expect God to deliver me from the physical and spiritual consequences of my disobedience. But as I trust him for everything, and as I live the way that he wants me to live, I can count on God to give me the rest that I need. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
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