The Faith of Sleep

Many of us have grown up in our faith being challenged by the lives of those we consider spiritual giants: Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, George Whitefield, William Wilberforce, Amy Carmichael, and David Brainerd. As we hear their stories and read their biographies, they seem tireless in their efforts of faith to demonstrate the character of God and obey the Great Commission. And then there’s the apostle Paul who wrote to the Corinthian church, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15). In thinking about the sacrifice of these brothers and sisters, it is easy for us to question how much we’re really doing to serve the Lord. Are we just a bunch of spiritual slouches? There’s so much to be done for the kingdom, and here I am trying to get a full night’s rest.

If Paul endured “many a sleepless night” (2 Corinthians 11:27) in his ministry for Christ, what value does sleep really have in the life of a believer? While the Bible does warn against laziness, pointing to the folly of the sluggard who turns on his bed like a door on its hinges (Proverbs 26:14), this should not keep believers from seeing sleep as an act of faith.

To recognize this truth, consider that God created us to need sleep. We are finite beings who can’t keep going without rest… and frequent rest, to be sure. Denying ourselves sleep very quickly takes a toll on our minds and bodies. This is by design. God “does not faint or grow weary” (Isaiah 40:28), but He made us to return to our pillows often. In fact, the Bible speaks of sleep by using gift language: “[God] gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2, emphasis mine). God is not like a grumpy boss who begrudgingly allows you to take vacation days because it’s corporate policy. Sleep is His idea, and He kindly grants it to those He loves.

Furthermore, as we consider the context of Psalm 127, we see that sleep is more than a need, it’s a choice to trust in the Lord. Here are verses 1 and 2 in their entirety:

Unless the Lord builds the house,
   those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
   the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
   and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
   for he gives to his beloved sleep
(emphasis mine).

As God’s people, we are called to work, but we don’t trust in our work. As we work, we trust in our sovereign God who superintends everything. That is why there are regular intervals where our work must stop as we lie down to sleep. In receiving the gift of slumber, we are yielding ourselves up to the reality that God is in control and He will accomplish all of His good purpose.

This is highly practical for us as we are tempted to agonize over things like how we’re going to pay for that big repair or find the time to juggle all our responsibilities. In our flesh, we reject God’s good gift of sleep in order to feverishly find a solution or work until the to-do list is complete. When we do this, what or who are we trusting? Is it our own “anxious toil” or the God who “builds the house” and “watches over the city”? Sometimes the most faithful thing you can do is set aside what is unfinished and close your eyes to sleep, trusting in God to work while you can’t.

We can also see the faith of sleep in response to fearful circumstances that, humanly speaking, should keep anyone tossing and turning. In Psalm 3, David is writing truth against the backdrop of fleeing from his son, Absalom. He is, certainly, encountering physical danger, but imagine the emotional turmoil he must also be experiencing, knowing that the danger is coming from his own child. Given such traumatic conditions, what is David’s reaction? He embraces the truth that God is his “shield” and “the lifter of [his] head,” and this faith allows him to sleep. In vv. 5-6, David declares, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around.”

David is running for his life, and yet he is choosing to put himself in the most vulnerable of positions: sleep. When we are asleep, we are not on the alert against potential threats. We are not on the defense or poised to attack. We are laying down with our eyes closed, and our mental faculties are unengaged with our surroundings. Sleep is a risk. You can’t count on you when you’re sleeping. Sleep requires that we trust God to be our defender. And when we do, God gives us a sense of calm in our hearts. In another psalm, David makes this clear: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me to dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8, emphasis mine).

When it seems like work needs to be done or danger is right around the corner, sleep may seem irresponsible or foolish to some. But a life of faith has never made sense to those who don’t know God. It is true that faith does, oftentimes, require the strain and the striving of the spiritual giants we look up to. But, at other times, faith requires the boring and weak choice of sleep, allowing God to be glorified as the One who toils and protects

Note: This article originally appeared on We encourage you to visit The Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship where you can find helpful, biblical resources by a number of trusted pastors and authors.

Brent Osterberg




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