Why Sleep is a Spiritual Discipline

Sleeping pills and alarm clocks didn’t always exist.

I learned a fun fact recently. People’s interest in regulating their sleep in order to accommodate a busy lifestyle only dates back as far as the Industrial Revolution. The development of electric light and the rationale that fewer hours asleep meant more hours of productivity at work reshaped human sleeping habits drastically.

Historian A. Roger Ekrich argues that before this, people really only relied on their own biological rhythms. In fact, people slept in two segments, divided up by an hour of being awake. What people did in that hour caught my attention. Many would pray, meditate, and reflect on the dreams they had just experienced. Poets would write, couples would have sex, and sometimes neighbors would visit each other.

While I enjoy most things the Industrial Revolution has brought about, I find myself pretty jealous of the way past societies slept. They got the rest their bodies demanded, all while having a quiet, focused hour to dedicated towards thought, prayer, creativity, and intimacy. These are all things that seem to disappear quickly under the demands of a busy life.

To me, these things usually seem like foreign luxuries. My age group reports higher stress levels than any other generation due to financial pressure and weak emotional support.

At the same time, thought, prayer, creativity, and intimacy are all important indicators of a thriving spiritual life, and these all benefit when we’re able to get adequate sleep and rest. For a long time, I’ve known that sleep was important to physical health. But spiritual health?

I wouldn’t be the first to draw that conclusion. Dallas Willard once said that “one of the most important spiritual activities is getting adequate sleep.”

Sleep reminds us that we don’t run the universe

My old roommate Chris would probably agree with Dallas Willard. Although he was almost always the first one awake, he explained to me one of his most important thoughts to start the day.

“It’s six o’clock when I wake up,” he pointed out. “That means that for six hours, God has kept the world spinning and I’ve done absolutely nothing.”

This is a refreshing perspective to hear when you’re in a culture where people gain their feelings of importance from taking on more projects, volunteering for more roles, or feeling as though all outcomes depend on them. This is as much pride as it is a lack of trust in God to keep the world in motion regardless of our role.

It’s easy to take on more assignments at work to try to assert our own value. It’s easy to give into fear of what might happen to our families if we don’t do more. It’s easy to scroll through social media feeds and headlines thinking that the world will fall deeper into ruin if we don’t bear the emotional burden of the day’s calamities.

In order to get more quality sleep, we need to relinquish more of our self-importance. It allows us to then embrace our waking hours as a gift to enjoy, rather than as a burden to be bore.

Sleep is a gift from God

I am very familiar with the Proverb about the lazy person expressing a gluttony for sleep. Although it’s more of an indictment on laziness than a commentary of sleep itself, I always worried that the desire for sleep might be a moral failure.

While it’s possible to have an unhealthy relationship with sleep, it’s also easy to have an unhealthy relationship with work and stress, and the latter seems to be an even more prevalent issue in Western cultures.

Our efforts to wake up earlier and earlier, and to go to bed as late as possible are in vain. Our work is often rooted in anxiety. But God offers sleep to those who He loves. (Psalm 127:2)

We have the precedent set by God Himself resting on the seventh day and by Jesus taking a nap on a boat everybody else thought was about to capsize. Our need for sleep was intentionally crafted and God shows us His love through the lightness felt when we shut our eyes and allow our bodies to be still.

Honoring the fact that our bodies were crafted for a certain amount of sleep is another way of honoring the one who designed us.

Sleep can sharpen our spiritual lives

Arianna Huffington has recently become one of the biggest proponents of quality sleep, authoring The Sleep Revolution, in which she writes that “sleep gives us a chance to refocus on the essence of who we are. And in that place of connection, it is easier for the fears and concerns of the world to drop away.”

Deep reflection, intimate prayer, and sincere meditation are all enhanced when we’re able to put away stress and distractions. During sleep, the brain rids itself of waste proteins, which allows for clearer thinking and sharper focus when proper rest is achieved. Sleep also encourages the body also produces prolactin, a hormone associated with intimacy and peace.

Once upon a time, it was a social norm for people to have an hour in the middle of the night that could be spent praying, meditating, writing, having sex, sharing a conversation, or going on a short walk. This makes me wonder for a moment what it would be like if that became the norm today. How much happier, more contemplative, less reactive would we be?

I can’t reverse the Industrial Revolution, nor would I really want to. But I’ve been trying to get more sleep. I’ve tried stealing the Spanish idea of siesta, taking a mid-day timeout to re-calibrate. I’ve tried to stretch my sleeping time by an hour, developing a small routine to slip into it.

I’m still learning how to get enough sleep, trying new things. But I know now that good sleep is definitely a spiritual thing.