I’m currently listening to the excellent Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep and the science is pretty unequivocal; a lack of sleep (which they define as 8 hours or less a night) will prove detrimental to your physical health, your mental health and will make you less productive, less happy, less alive.
It wasn’t always thought to be that way. According to John Wesley sleep is a pernicious thing (though he himself swore by six and a half hours sleep a night).
It is the chief real (though unsuspected) cause of all nervous diseases in particular. Many inquiries have been made, why nervous disorders are so much more common among us than among our ancestors. Other causes may frequently concur; but the chief is, we lie longer in bed. Instead of rising at four, most of us who are not obliged to work for our bread lie till seven, eight, or nine. We need inquire no farther. This sufficiently accounts for the large increase of these painful disorders.
It may be observed, that most of these arise, not barely from sleeping too long, but even from what we imagine to be quite harmless, the lying too long in bed. By soaking (as it is emphatically called) so long between warm sheets, the flesh is, as it were, parboiled, and becomes soft and flabby.” The nerves, in the mean time, are quite unstrung, and all the train of melancholy symptoms — faintness, tremors, lowness of spirits, (so called,) come on, till life itself is a burden.
It turns out Wesley was close. All those dangers are related to sleep but to getting too little and not to getting too much.
I’m good at going to sleep; I can fall asleep in seconds. I’m not very good at going to bed; I can stay up all night. This is frankly (at age 42) a problem. It was OK when I was a student and could sleep for days, less than ideal when I’m the father of two growing children.
I recognise that when I’m tired I’m a worse husband, a worse father, a worse leader. I’m less likely to exercise, less likely to eat well and often have significantly less self-control. As a result one of the best ways to grow as a person in all these areas of marriage, family life, work and faith is be more consistent with sleep.
I have a pretty good alarm clock. He’s 9 years old and wakes up early with annoying regularity & consistency. I can work back from there to the point I need to sleep. So why if the benefits are so clear do I find it so hard?
Well, there are genuine differences in sleep patterns and there are night owls and morning larks (or as this article suggests bears, lions, wolves and dolphins). I am more awake and alert and productive in the evening (it’s 21:20 as I write this and I could keep going for hours). But there are other reasons, ones which are far less flattering.
- I’m selfish. Me time, my time and just doing my thing will often be my reason. I do love the cool & quiet of the night. I like being undisturbed, uninterrupted and left alone but when that time ends up costing my relationships then I’m being selfish.
- I’m lazy. Sometimes I work at night because I’ve been lazy in the day. Sometimes I’m lazy in the day because I’ve stayed up late at night. That’s a cycle that needs breaking.
- I’m rebelling. Going to bed early reminds me of my parents but not in a good way. Dull, boring, people go to bed at 10pm. The night is exciting and the day is dull. I can’t believe I still think like that,
- I’m hiding. Sin is easier when you think no one is looking.
- I’m escaping. The day has responsibility, toil, trudge and the night has none of those things.
Yet getting a good night’s sleep for a Christian is not only the wise, healthy, productive option it is also a deeply theological one. Here’s a few reasons why:
- Sleep slays the notion that I am God. He doesn’t sleep (Ps 121:4), or grow weary or tired. I do. I am not God.
- Sleep slays the notion that I am indispensable. During my unconscious hours the world keeps turning, I wake up and find that people have not waited to consult me (again) and yet here we are. Instead I can trust the Sovereign Lord who remains in control (Ps 4:8).
- Sleep is a gift to those who trust Him. (Ps 127:2) Unless God is involved then my effort is in vain, if He is involved then I can rest – like Jesus, asleep in a storm and be at peace. Sleep is a gift.
- Sleep is the reward for a day of work (Ecc 5:12). Work well and earn your rest – your body at the very least will thank you for it.
Too little sleep is indeed a deadly game and is perhaps the greater danger for a generation hooked on smartphones that they take to bed with them. But too little sleep isn’t the only danger, too much sleep is almost as bad and the Bible warns that a love of sleep and slumber is hand in hand with laziness (Pr 19:15 and Pr 20:13).
Certainly on the whole great Christians are often pointed to as ones who eschewed sleep and saw it as weakness rather than those who enjoyed a good solid eight hours kip. William Law was particularly scathing
Sleep is such a dull, stupid state of existence, that, even among mere animals, we despise them most which are most drowsy. He, therefore, that chooses to enlarge the slothful indolence of sleep, rather than be early at his devotions, chooses the dullest refreshment of the body, before the noblest enjoyments of the soul. He chooses that state which is a reproach to mere animals, before that exercise which is the glory of angels.
Yet I am not convinced that Law or Wesley were right. Sleep is a gift and a reward, sleep makes me stronger, renews me in mind, body and soul and is evidence of my trust in God and His divinity and an admission of my limits and my humanity. Just like most things I neither need too little, nor too much.