Let’s Get Serious about the Sacred Mystery of Sleep

A few years ago, a Time article pointed enterprising readers toward an enticing business opportunity for our age: the sleep industry. “Don’t nap on this,” the headline urged. “Capitalize on insomnia as a growth business.” Our desperately sleep-deprived population is a market ripe for entrepreneurial harvest.
They call it “the business of sleep.” And in an otherwise sluggish economy in 2012, it was booming to the tune of more than 32 billion dollars in the U.S. From medications and mattresses to candles and consultants, this growth industry continues to promise to provide everything the sleepless need.

What most of us think we need is a relatively short obligatory snooze so we can keep going during our waking hours, doing what’s really important: producing and pursuing the American Dream, for which one must be wide awake.

It’s true that sleep is critical to the proper functioning of our bodies and minds—although no one really knows why. Studies show that sleep deficits slow our thinking, compromise memory, make learning difficult, impair our reaction time, cause irritability, increase anger, decrease capacity for stress, and make us less likely to engage in good habits such as eating well and exercising. Sleeplessness also increases risks of depression and anxiety. In one study conducted by the University of North Texas, people with insomnia were almost 10 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression and more than 17 times more likely to be affected by “clinically significant” anxiety.

Sleeplessness affects our judgment and concentration and is linked with higher levels of substance abuse. It’s also linked with a heightened risk of driving accidents, obesity, diabetes, and heart problems.

The sleep-awake connection works the other ways as well: what we do during our waking hours affects the quality of our sleep. From stress levels to eating habits, exercise, and where we let our thoughts dwell during the day, we reap the results at night. Research even shows that staring at a lit screen at night, before bed, fools our natural rhythms and causes insomnia.

Sleep needs vary from person to person, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, most adults need at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night. By contrast, American adults average less than seven hours. And nearly two-thirds say their sleep needs are not met during the week. Therein lies the business opportunity.

Sleep is big business partly because we see it as disconnected from waking life. Most of us consider it a forced interruption in our otherwise productive lives. When we’re sleepy, it’s a tempting luxury we dare not indulge in until our work is done. Yet ironically, our sleep-abstinence undermines our work. And more ironically, our failure to value sleep as a critical part of what we do makes it elusive, and therefore even more valuable.

Perhaps the supposed separation between sleeping and waking hours is somewhat false. After all, both are critical parts of a whole life. Would we offer God the work we do when we’re awake and wall off our time in sleep as unworthy of his notice? Perhaps sleep is not simply a necessary activity that fuels the work God put us on earth to do. Perhaps it is part of the work God put us here to do.

God created us not only with a need for sleep, but with an incredible capacity for it—most of us need to spend at least one-third of our life in sleep. Is all this sleep really a waste? a luxury we can’t afford? a haven for the lazy? Or is it an expression of our humanity, an act of submission to God, a celebration of his creation? Might it be valuable in its own right?

The Bible frequently portrays sleep as a reflection of our relationship with God. Sleep is…

An act of trust:

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe” (Psalm 4:8).

An act of humility:

“It is useless for you to work so hard from early morning until late at night, anxiously working for food to eat; for God gives rest to his loved ones” (Psalm 127:2).

A celebration of God’s blessing:

“You can go to bed without fear; you will lie down and sleep soundly. You need not be afraid of sudden disaster or the destruction that comes upon the wicked, for the Lord is your security” (Proverbs 3:24-26).

A position of receptivity:

“After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,’ the angel said” (Matthew 2:13).

A point of distinction between us and God:

“He will not let you stumble; the one who watches over you will not slumber. Indeed, he who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps” (Psalm 121:3-4).

Sleep is not a state of non-being. It’s critical–we literally can’t live without it–and active. In sleep, we rest. We relax our muscles in forced paralysis. We dream and generate ideas. We solidify and retain memories. Our bodies restore and heal themselves and, among the young, grow. We reinforce our immunity. We give up control. We place ourselves in the hands of God for our safety and preservation. And we may do much more that we don’t yet know about–sleep is still a mysterious frontier of science.

While we may not fully understand our need for it, we can’t dismiss sleep. Instead we should view it differently. It’s a faithful act in a rhythmic life, honoring to our Creator, and part of what we were put on this planet to do. Sleep matters because, done well, it’s part of a whole life devoted to the one who never sleeps.

10 Comments
  1. bob kane says:

    This is really terrific and thought provoking. I really liked the paragraph where you talked about sleep as being viewed as disconnected from the “waking life.” I never thought about that and I think you’re absolutely right that it’s viewed that way, to our great harm. But this article helps me to appreciate that there’s a real connection between waking and sleeping and that humans are called to both by God. Thanks very much.

  2. Brother Lou Bordisso OC says:

    Such an impressive article for a neglected issue! I’m a chaplain for the Gubbio Project which provides pews at St. Boniface Catholic Church for homeless guests to engage in sacred sleep during the day in San Francisco.

  3. Brother Lou says:

    A ling to the Gubbio Project web page.

© 2016 Amy Simpson.