Dave Chiswell

7 July 2023

"Let’s Begin by taking a smallish nap or two."
Winnie the Pooh

I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime, on demand. Perhaps having small children helps, putting me in such a perpetual snooze debt that I can cash in at will. Or maybe I'm just lucky. Either way I try not to take it for granted as I'm all too aware of friends and family who've faced the dreaded insomnia dragon, devouring their sheep night after night before they can even be counted.

In describing my special talent, I've often joked that I have 'the spiritual gift of sleep'. But the longer I go on, the less funny the joke seems. For I am becoming more and more convinced that there's something deeply spiritual about sleep.

Take Elijah in 1 Kings 19. After a long day of trying to rouse Israel from their spiritual lethargy, realising his own sin, and running for his life, he was ready to die. Then, in a surprisingly pragmatic act of angelic intervention, he slept, ate a square meal, and slept again. When he woke up he was able to face the world. And sometimes, that's just the ticket.

Don't get me wrong. I certainly don't think all my problems come down to being tired. Nor are they solved by getting a solid few hours on the pillow. But I think it helps more than I'm willing to admit.

If I had to guess why it helps, and why I'm so reluctant to admit that, it comes down to two pretty basic facts that I seem especially good at forgetting.

Observation #1: I'm Not Just Spiritual

As a Christian (and someone who works in the industry), it's all too tempting to emphasise the spiritual realities we are included into as heavenly-bound-beings, especially as I stand in contrast to a secular world which is closed to the possibility of transcendent spirituality altogether. But to emphasise spirituality at the expense of remembering that we're profoundly physical in nature is a pretty sad mistake. And it's one the Bible doesn't let us get away with.

For example, in Romans 12, Paul effortlessly connects physicality and spirituality in the pursuit of worship:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Rom 12:1)

In other words, what you do with your body is a deeply spiritual, worshipful thing, not just an irrelevant fleshy addendum to the inner-life where the action is. And I'd do well to remember that more often, because when I start messing with my circadian rhythm by watching a little too much cricket each night, it's all too easy to spend the next day snapping at the kids, being less than present with people, and generally resenting the good works that God has prepared in advance for me to do. These failings are spiritual issues, parts of myself that need further conforming to Christ. But they are intertwined with my physical state, and a good rest usually makes it a fairer fight.

The recognition that I'm a physical being helps with my spiritual practices. But the reason I'm slow to admit that to myself? Well that's deeply spiritual too.

Observation 2: I'm Just Not Sovereign

I've got a twisted predilection to believe that I'm more important than I am. I'm not the worst workaholic I know, but I'm still led to believe that unless I stay up late or get up early, everything in the world will fall apart.

To be sure, there's great reasons to stay up, or to rise at the crack of dawn. Laying down your life by getting up to nurse a crying infant is also a deep act of worship. So is setting up chairs on a Sunday. But an ongoing, over-developed sense of your significance that keeps you up at night is more than just a recipe for burnout. It's bad theology.

At the end of the day world doesn't need me, because it's got God. And he's better at sustaining the world than I am. What's more, he doesn't need sleep. (Ps 121:4)
With this freeing recognitiion, the Psalmist is able to rest his head, saying:

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
(Ps 4:8).

So I can fall asleep, because I know God won't. It's ok for me to spend about a third of my life not really contributing much, helping anyone in particular, or making a difference anywhere, because the world simply doesn't revolve around me. It keeps turning because God makes it so. And just as he invites me to contribute to his work in the world, he also invites me to stop for a while, and lay down in peace.

At the end of the day, sleep is an acceptance of my finitude. A warm, blanketed acknowledgement of my limits and God's sovereignty. A clear but quiet declaration that 'I'm dependent on rest, and the world is not dependent on me'. When I can start to see things that way, closing my laptop, locking my phone and shutting my eyes isn't always lazy or negligent. It's a courageous spiritual act of worship. A humble act of dependence on the God who is truly sovereign, and a celebration of his sheer dependability.

The Rubber Hits the Road When My Head Hits the Pillow

So, here's one of my goals during this series: as I learn, think and pray about a whole host of spiritual practices over the next seven weeks, I'm going to try and do it on 8 hours of sleep.

Every night.

That's my starting point.

Through trial and error (mostly error), I've learnt that's just what I need to function sustainably. For others, it'll be different in either direction and that's ok too. But that's my aim.

And as nice as it sounds, I don't imagine it'll come easy. (After all, Netflix has identified that sleep is their main competitor.) Given that sleep is a contested space, my goal will mean saying no to a whole host of things, many of them really, really good in their own way. But if I can start with some decent sleep, I'm hoping that I'm ever so slightly more awake to my dependence on God for all things, and his wonderful dependability for the day ahead. Which, if you ask me, is not a bad way to start the morning.

Dave Chiswell

Dave serves as the Youth Minister at City on a Hill Geelong. Married to Alexi, father of Eden and Freya, and a golf tragic, Dave loves nothing more than helping people take Jesus seriously – because he’s totally convinced that Christianity makes more sense and offers more hope than any other worldview.