When sleep won’t come

A few years ago I asked Facebook friends, “Why am I awake when I should be asleep and sleepy when I should be awake?” One responded, “Welcome to middle age.” I can be dragging and nodding off before getting into bed, and then wide awake after.

I usually keep everything conducive to sleeping: lights off, soft music playing. Reading usually keeps me even more awake. One friend responded to my Facebook query that sleeplessness is an excellent time to pray. True. Sometimes I do pray then. But I also get frustrated when I can’t seem to dig in and get much done in the daytime because I need a nap because I am so groggy. It just seems like it would be so much more efficient to sleep at night and work during the day.

Still, I know that stewing about it only makes it worse. I remind myself in the night that even if I am not asleep, I’m resting. I can enjoy the quietness and freedom to just relax without any demands on my time. I breathe deep and slow, sometime pray, sometimes think, until eventually I drift off. And I catch a nap in the day time if I need to, but I try to keep it short so as not to perpetuate nighttime wakefulness.

Several nights ago, though, was one of my worst nights ever. I don’t think I slept more than an hour the whole night. And what’s worse, I had a three-hour drive the next morning and meetings all afternoon and evening. I wasn’t feeling particularly nervous about the trip. Last year I had made the same journey for a writer’s conference, and I was much more on edge then because it was the first time I had traveled alone or attended anything like a conference in years. But God got me through that, and I knew a bit more what to expect this time. So I had a bit of apprehension, but nothing like the year before. Perhaps underlying nerves were the problem, even though I wasn’t consciously feeling nervous at the time. I tried all my usual tactics, to no avail.

Then I had to fight worry. How was I going to drive and stay awake in meetings for a conference my husband had paid good money for without sleep? Some of my health issues get worse without sleep. What if they flared up? I knew these thoughts and concerns would only drive sleep further away, so I tried to give them to the Lord and stay relaxed.

On top of everything else, I was intensely uncomfortable. Hot one minute, cold the next. The sheets irritated my skin. I got up and went to the couch in the living room, thinking a change of venue might help. It didn’t. Maybe I was coming down with something?

I went ahead and got up at 4:30 a.m. and took my shower. But I was sad and frustrated and even a bit hurt because God had not answered my prayer. He knew I needed sleep. He made me to need sleep. He knew everything on the schedule this day. Why had He let me go most of the night without sleep when I earnestly begged Him for it?

I didn’t know. I sent a quick text to a friend letting her know what was going on and asking her prayers. I decided to just keep getting ready for the trip and see what happened. I felt like I was moving through molasses or walking like a zombie (to mix metaphors). I couldn’t eat much and began to feel nauseous.

I couldn’t remember if I had actually prayed about whether to go to the conference. Was this God’s way of telling me no?

After I got everything ready to go, I knew I could not drive safely in the condition I was in. I decided to try to take a nap in my desk chair and see what happened. I asked God to direct me and help me know whether to go or stay. I asked Him, if He wanted me to go, to multiply whatever sleep I could get in my nap like the loaves and fishes and make it enough. And I fell blessedly asleep for maybe an hour.

When I woke up, my stomach still wasn’t feeling 100% well, but all grogginess was gone. I left for the conference. The night before I had made a sandwich for lunch so I didn’t have to look for a restaurant first thing when I got to town: since I was running late, I was able to eat a few bites on the way. I got to the conference just after the first introductory meeting ended. Though I would have liked to have gotten there in time for it, it wasn’t entirely critical. I had enough time to peruse the schedule to choose which of the workshops to attend that afternoon. I attended the rest of the conference and had a wonderful time. I had no trouble sleeping in the hotel room that night.

Still I pondered why God had not answered my prayer for sleep the night before. One of the truths that had sustained me on a recent family trip was “Your heavenly Father knows what things you have need of (Matthew 6:8). One by one He met each of my needs on that trip. Why did He seem to withhold one this time?

Perhaps one reason was to increase my dependence on Him. I thought I already was depending on Him for a number of issues relating to the conference and travel! But maybe He wanted to take me to a different level.

Philippians 4:11-13 came to mind: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I can’t say I have totally learned that contentment, but I am in the process.

And then 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 came to my attention. “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

God may have any of a number of reasons to allow us to suffer a need of some sort. He’s not being cruel or unkind: all of His Word and years of knowing Him testify to that. God told Israel that He let them suffer hunger in the wilderness to humble them, to test them, and to turn their focus from their physical need to the spiritual. Unanswered prayer can cause us to examine ourselves for any hindrances on our part. Sometimes He cuts off something we need to produce more growth, to bring us to maturity.

I still don’t know why God didn’t answer my prayer for sleep on a night when sleep was critically needed. But He did meet my need, even though not in the usual way. Even in the face of a sleepless night and a full day, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).

See also:

When I Don’t Get What I Need
When the Solution I Want Isn’t What I Need
Let Patience Have Her Perfect Work
Reasons Why Prayers Aren’t Answered

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth)

Psalms for the Sleepless

Most of us occasionally wake up in the middle of the night and then have a hard time getting back to sleep, but it seems to happen more as we get older. Sometimes I can get right back to sleep after a brief nocturnal trip to the bathroom, but other times I’m awake for a couple of hours. I don’t know what makes the difference. Generally I try keep things quiet, turn the lamp back off as soon as possible, avoid checking my phone, and do whatever else I can to make the atmosphere conducive to sleep. But still I find myself staring into the darkness.

I know some who read if they wake up during the night. Reading on the couch makes me doze off: reading in bed keeps me awake.

I’ve learned that stressing about it only makes it worse. Elisabeth Elliot once said that when she woke up in the night, she could luxuriate: she didn’t have to be up and doing anything else, so she could relax and rest, even if she didn’t get back to sleep. I’ve tried to take that tack, and it helps some.

But sometimes I find myself distressed, even in tears, over my sleeplessness. As it is I struggle with finding the best way to arrange my schedule and get everything done that I want to during the day. A nap sometimes gets me over feeling draggy, but it takes a chunk of time out of my prime work hours. I’d rather sleep when it’s time to sleep, not when I want to be busy doing other things.

Once I dealt with sleeplessness for several Saturday nights in a row…and had trouble staying awake in church the next day. I would plead with God in prayer: “Lord, You know I need sleep. You made me to need sleep. You know the things I need to do tomorrow. I’d really like to stay away in church, and I think You want me to as well. You’ve said you give to your beloved sleep. Why won’t You help me get back to sleep?” I try, instead, to rest in the fact that He does know when I need sleep. I ask Him in the morning to multiply the few hours of sleep like He did the loaves and fishes and make them sufficient for the day ahead. And He does.

Recently I looked up a couple of verses that refer to thinking or praying during the night, and that turned into a Bible study with much more than I bargained for! I primarily searched through Psalms but checked in Job and Proverbs a little, too.

Apparently many Bible people were up in the night. Job said, “When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ But the night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn” (Job 7:4). Here’s what some Biblical writers did during their sleepless hours (some of the verses could be used in multiple categories):

Attend to needs

Some got up or stayed awake to attend to urgent tasks.

David vowed, “I will not enter my house or get into my bed, I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Psalm 132:3-5).

One who had gotten himself involved in an unwise pledge was urged to “Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber; save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the hand of the fowler” (Proverbs 6:1-5).

“He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame” (Proverbs 10:5).

The Proverbs 31 woman got up “while it was yet night” to prepare food and worked late into the night (Proverbs 31:15, 18).

I just finished a book in which the author told of using late night hours to write because she had trouble falling asleep. My husband has said that he can often get much more work done when he wakes up in the night than when he is in a busy office.

Mourn and seek comfort

Painful or sad thoughts can be kept at bay while we’re busy through the day. But at night, there is nothing else to distract us. Asaph said: “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah. You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:2-4). David mourned over sin until he found forgiveness (Psalm 6, especially verse 6: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears” and 32, especially verses 4-5: “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.'”) It’s good to confess sin as soon as we’re aware of it, but it’s not a bad practice at the end of the day to ask God to search us and show us anything we overlooked.

The psalmist of Psalm 42 mourns because of an enemy (verse 9): “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?'” (verse 3). He remembers past times of praising God in the house of God and admonishes himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (verses 5 and 11).

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:4-5).

Meditate

Biblical meditation is not an emptying of the mind but turning something over in your mind.

Psalm 1 says of the blessed man “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

“My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63:5-8).

“My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise” (Psalm 119:148).

“I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me“(Psalm 16:7).

“Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent” (Psalm 4:4).

One good example of the process of meditation is Psalm 77. There Asaph was so troubled he could not sleep. But then he reminded himself of God’s character, grace, faithfulness, love, past works and deeds.

Pray

Sometimes when I lament nighttime wakefulness, someone glibly advises me to “just pray.” That makes me feel they don’t understand or aren’t taking into account the problems with wakefulness I mentioned above. On the other hand, though the advice comes across as a little unsympathetic, those hours are a good time for undistracted, heartfelt prayer.

“O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out day and night before you. Let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry! For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol” (Psalm 88:1-3).

“I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words” (Psalm 119:147).

Of course, the mourning and seeking comfort above and singing and praising below are also parts of prayer.

Sing

“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8).

“I said, ‘Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.’ Then my spirit made a diligent search” (Psalm 77:6).

One of my favorite posts discussed songs in the night.

Praise

“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation. Let the godly exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds” (Psalm 149:4-5).

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night” (Psalm 92:1-2).

“Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 134:1).

Rest from fear

Like mourning, fear can plague at night. When we’re still and quiet, our thoughts can run rampant. But we can take our thoughts captive and turn them to God’s protection.

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

“He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day” (Psalm 91:4-5).

“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” (Psalm 121:3-6).

In the context of rejoicing in God’s presence with him everywhere (“Where shall I go from your presence?” verse 7), David says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,'” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:11-12).

Among the benefits of keeping “sound wisdom and discretion” is this: “If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden terror or of the ruin of the wicked, when it comes, for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught” (Proverbs 3:21-26).

Then there are people whose nighttime activities we don’t want to emulate. The adulteress of Proverbs 7 was active at night. “The wicked…plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good; he does not reject evil” (Psalm 36:3-4) and “they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble” (Proverbs 4:16).

Some people dread night, but God “made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Psalm 104:19-21). “Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun” (Psalm 74:16).

It would be a profitable exercise to read some of these psalms in their entirety, maybe one a day, and see in context what the psalmist was troubled about and how he turned his thinking around. I love how so many of the psalmists begin with trouble and anguish, remind themselves and the reader of God’s truth and love, and end up in hope and peace.

Losing sleep in the middle of the night can be frustrating. But if we turn our thoughts to the Lord, those moments can become precious times of fellowship with Him.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Let’s Have Coffee, Faith on Fire)