Layton Friesen: Heroic and Magnificent Sleepers

by Layton Friesen

What will it be like to die and rise from the dead? We have a daily picture of death and resurrection that I propose should be considered a Christian spiritual discipline: lying down in bed, sleeping, and waking.

We are a culture of bad sleepers. Of course, some people sleep poorly for medical reasons. But I have read that, on average, adults get two hours a night less than we did a hundred years ago. We frequently hear people bragging to each other about how little sleep they get. That’s got to have serious societal consequences.

Of course, our manic culture has ways of getting some sleep. We now have “power naps.” I detest that word. A bout of insomnia on whoever coined it. As though now even sleeping has to look like some aggressive, production strategy.

The Protestant missionary F. W. Boreham insisted that one of the main reasons missionaries go to peoples of other cultures was to teach them to sleep. The Church, he said, “has excelled in the production of heroic and magnificent sleepers.”

The Scriptures have a lot to say about sleep. God does not sleep (Ps. 121:4), so we can (Ps. 4:8). Baal, on the other hand does, or at least that is why Elijah mocks Baal’s prophets on the mountain who are jumping around, bashing themselves bloody (1 Kings 18:27-29). Moral of the story: to believe that God does not sleep means we no longer have to bash ourselves bloody. Overwork and under-sleep may be a sign that we don’t trust that God will stay awake.

When we sleep we are vulnerable. We fear not waking up. We fear what might happen in the house while we sleep. At a deeper level, when we sleep, our subconscious rears up and starts to talk. Dreams are little video clips of conversations going on inside us that we can’t monitor and control.

So maybe part of our missionary agenda is to be a Church known for sleeping long and well. Practicing sleep is about more than mental health. God has given us sleep so that we can practice dying before we get there. Laying down to sleep each night, giving the day to God, asking forgiveness of sin, letting go of all that was not achieved and sinking into unconsciousness, is a little dry-run in what it will mean to go to sleep when life’s evening shadows lengthen.

American pastor John Piper puts it this way:

Once a day God sends us to bed like patients with a sickness. The sickness is a chronic tendency to think we are in control and that our work is indispensable. To cure us of this disease God turns us into helpless sacks of sand once a day. How humiliating to the self-made corporate executive that he has to give up all control and become as limp as a suckling infant every day.

And waking each morning is a rehearsal of resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead in the early morning. Who has not been amazed at how yesterday’s urgent problem feels doable in the morning after a good sleep. We rise with fresh strength and healing and the sense of a new start, a clean slate. To do this every day, all our lives, as Christians, is how we learn to be Easter people.

Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray thee Lord my soul to keep

If I die before I wake

I pray thee Lord my soul to take.


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