I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety (Psalm 4:8).
Isn’t it miserable when you can’t sleep? It’s not that you aren’t tired. You’re frazzled and worn out. But for some reason you can’t relax and drift off. You keep tossing and turning, and your mind keeps churning. You wonder why you’re still awake. You close your eyes, determined to get some rest. But all you do is fidget some more. After awhile you open one eye and check the clock. Another hour is gone. You try lying on your back, but you can’t sleep. You roll over and lie on your stomach, but you can’t sleep. You curl up and lie on your side, but you can’t sleep. The minutes drag by. Another hour passes. The night is half gone, and you still can’t sleep. You know that tomorrow you’re going to feel miserable, but what can you do? The harder you try to sleep, the longer you stay awake. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
Almost everyone has trouble sleeping from time to time. Why is that? And what can be done about it? Well, it all depends. The reasons for sleeplessness vary, and so do the solutions.
In some cases sleeplessness is a timing problem. If you travel a long distance and cross several times zones, you break up your normal schedule and that makes it hard for you to sleep. If your job requires you to work different shifts, changing your schedule back and forth can make it hard for you to sleep. Even if you’re not a traveler or a shift worker, even if you stay in the same place and work the same hours each day, you may still have an odd sleep schedule. Some nights you go to bed quite early; other nights you stay up late. Some mornings you get up early, others you sleep in. Irregular hours can make it hard for you to sleep.
If you want to sleep well, try to go to bed the same time every night and get up the same time every morning. If taking a nap once in a while during the day keeps you awake at night, then don’t take naps. The body develops a rhythm, and it doesn’t like that rhythm interrupted. So to sleep well on a regular basis, try to follow a regular schedule.
Sometimes, though, sleeplessness isn’t a matter of schedules but of distractions. Perhaps a fly is buzzing around your room. You won’t get any sleep until you get up and swat it. Or you may have an alarm clock with an irritating light, and you need to turn the clock the other way or cover it. Or a baby is crying. You might not feel like getting up, but if the baby needs food or a clean diaper, you need to get up and help the baby before you can get your sleep.
Then again, sleeplessness may be a matter of discomfort. If you’re hungry, you won’t sleep till you get a snack. If you’re too hot or too cold, you need your room to be the right temperature. If your bed isn’t comfortable, you need a better bed. If you’re eight months pregnant and can’t get comfortable, you can only hope the baby comes before too long (and doesn’t keep you awake too much after being born).
Many causes of sleeplessness are obvious to anyone with a little common sense, and it only take a little common sense to deal with them. If you guzzle gallons of coffee or tea or soft drinks loaded with caffeine, it’s no mystery if you can’t sleep well. Cut down on the caffeine! If you get no exercise during the day, your body may not want to rest at night. Exercise more, and you just might sleep more. If you’re a student straining your brain on the mysteries of particle physics or Plato’s philosophy right up to the moment you turn out the light, don’t be shocked if your busy mind keeps churning long into the night. If want you to sleep well, don’t study, study, study till the last moment before bedtime. Do something relaxing and give your brain a chance to wind down before you go to bed.
These things are common sense, but beyond these, it’s possible that you have a clinical condition that keeps you from sleeping well. If you have a nagging pain that keeps you awake, or if you go for weeks at a time where you can’t sleep, or if you don’t feel rested and refreshed even after you do sleep, you may need to see a doctor. Disorders like sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless legs, and other clinical problems need to be diagnosed and treated. A doctor can help you find out whether you have a physical problem and perhaps help you deal with it.
Having said all that, though, there’s another major cause of sleeplessness which I still haven’t mentioned: a restless spirit. If you’re not getting peaceful sleep, you should use common sense and check out possible medical problems, but you should also be alert to the spiritual factor. Peaceful sleep isn’t just a matter of a body with all the right common-sense habits and no clinical disorders. Peaceful sleep depends on a peaceful spirit. That’s not just my opinion. Most experts on sleeplessness agree. They say that the #1 cause of sleeplessness is stress. What is stress? And stress usually comes from worry, fear, overwork, anger, guilt, grief,–anything that upsets your peace of mind. All these things are conditions of the spirit and can be sleep stealers.
How can you enjoy peaceful sleep when confusion is tugging your mind this way and that? How can you enjoy peaceful sleep when all sorts of worries and fears are racing round and round in your spirit? How can you enjoy peaceful sleep when anger is boiling up in your heart? How can you enjoy peaceful sleep when guilt is torturing you? How can you enjoy peaceful sleep when grief is tearing at your insides? You can’t! You won’t have much peaceful sleep as long as you have a restless spirit.
Oh, you can probably find a way to knock yourself out if you want to. Some people use sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Others drink alcohol. If sleep won’t come naturally, you may want some chemical to put you out for the night. But it’s not the same, is it? A night of drug-induced sleep isn’t nearly as refreshing as a night of natural, peaceful slumber. In some cases sleep medication may be okay for a few nights, but it’s not a long-term solution—especially not when your problem is more emotional and spiritual than physical.
If you can’t sleep because your spirit is troubled and restless, you don’t just have a sleep problem. You have a spiritual problem. And a spiritual problem requires a spiritual cure. If you want to sleep well at night, you may first need to wake up to God. Your struggle with sleeplessness may be a signal from God, calling you to seek your rest in him. Every good gift in life comes from God, and that includes the gift of sleep.
Psalm 4 in the Bible is the bedtime prayer of a man who looks like he’s in for a sleepless night. He’s got major troubles, and as he starts to pray, he’s very upset. But, by the time he reaches the end of his prayer, he says, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” How does he reach that point? How can we reach that point? How can we enjoy peaceful sleep under God’s care? That’s what we’re going to find out.
Invitation to Rest
The Lord says in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). Do you have rest for your soul? Are you calm and at peace? If not, if your spirit is restless, it can make you weary and dreary during the day and keep you from sleeping at night.
A sleep problem can sometimes indicate a spiritual problem. The most serious of all spiritual problems is simply this: not caring about God or trusting him at all. The leader of a popular music group said of God, “I don’t care if he exists, and if he does, I don’t think he cares if I exist.” What a horrible state of mind! If you don’t care about God, and you think he doesn’t care about you, how can you ever have true peace? If you’ve got only yourself and your own powers to get you through life, why even try? All your hard work and frantic worries are wasted. The Bible says, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat–for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:1-2). Sleep is a fringe benefit of being loved by God.
Does that mean followers of Jesus are the only ones who ever sleep well? No, the Lord is so generous that he often showers good gifts even on those who live outside his saving love, but that’s only temporary. In the long run, says God, “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22). If you keep rejecting God, at some point you will be condemned to an utter darkness where no one ever sleeps: the black, bleak, unending restlessness of hell. It grieves me to talk about hell–but would grieve me even more not to talk about it and have you end up there. Hell is what eventually becomes of those who don’t care if God exists and won’t believe that God cares about them.
Why follow the road that leads away from God toward the eternal darkness and torment and restlessness of hell? Why not seek rest and eternal life in Jesus? Still today Jesus is saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” That invitation will be withdrawn someday, but for now Jesus continues to call.
Have you responded to that loving invitation? If not, come to Jesus now. Don’t delay. Trust that he loves you, that he died for you, that he lives and watches over you. Welcome his Spirit to live inside you, and commit yourself to living for him.
Then you will know true peace for the first time. In the Bible the prophet Isaiah says to God, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3). A living faith in the living Lord is the only solution to our most serious spiritual problem: the problem of unbelief. Make sure of your relationship to God before you tackle any other spiritual challenge. Make sure you can say with the Bible, “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him” (Psalm 62:1).
Finding Peace Through Prayer
But what happens once God overcomes your most basic problem and breaks through your unbelief? What happens once you have a genuine, living faith? Does that mean all your struggles are over? Will you never again face anything that could trouble you and keep you awake? No, when you trust Jesus and have his Holy Spirit living in you, you still have a fight on your hands. The Bible speaks of the fight of faith. You have to keep fighting against various attacks on your spirit. How do you do that? Through faith and prayer.
Let’s take a closer look at a prayer of David recorded in Psalm 4. As I mentioned earlier, David ends this prayer by saying, “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” David ends this psalm in a spirit of peace, but that’s not how he starts it! He starts with a cry of desperation: “Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer” (4:1). David is distressed and desperate.
Maybe you know the feeling. It’s time for you to go to sleep, but you’re not ready to rest. You feel restless, alone, confused, upset, angry. Someone may be saying cruel things and attacking you. You may have a financial problem or a family crisis or a conflict at work. You may be struggling with sadness and loneliness. You may feel regret over a mistake you made or shame over some sin you committed, and you can’t get it out of your mind. Your struggle may be very hard, and it’s even harder when most of the people around you don’t share you faith in Jesus and they think your faith is useless. What do you do at times like that? You pray.
If you’ve got a problem, make it God’s problem. Our biggest problem isn’t that problems come our way but that we make them our problems instead of making them God’s problems! The Bible says, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Bring your concerns to God. Pray about them. If they keep spinning in your mind as you lie in bed, get up and write them down and lay your list of problems before the Lord. As you pray and talk to God, you make your problems his problem, and a great weight begins to lift from your shoulders.
Facing Your Feelings
As you pray, something else often happens: when you are in God’s presence, you become more aware of your real attitudes toward others. You get more in touch with how you feel about them in your spirit. That’s what happens to David in Psalm 4. Right after he makes his desperate appeal to God, David thinks of all the people who don’t share his faith, and he starts talking to them in his own mind: “How long, O men, will you turn my glory into shame? How long will you love delusions and seek false gods? Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord will hear when I call to him” (4:2-3). Some people may think you are weak or deluded to trust in the Lord, and that may be discouraging and upsetting, but then, as you pray, you realize again that you’re not deluded. They are. If they doubt the Lord’s reality, they’re just fooling themselves. The Lord is real, and he is sure to hear you when you pray.
As you keep praying, you find yourself focusing less on the problem and more on the Lord. He helps you deal with your troubled thoughts and feelings toward others. And as that happens, something else may also happen. A word from God may impress itself on your spirit. Prayer isn’t just a time for talking but for listening. As you pour out your concerns to God and your feelings about others, it may dawn on you that God has a message for you and for others in your situation. That’s what happens in Psalm 4. David is feeling very upset at his troubles and at those give him a hard time, but then it dawns on him: even if anger is sometimes justified, it is still dangerous. In verses 4 and 5 of Psalm 4, God’s voice says to David and to all of us, “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord” (Psalm 4:4-5).
Do you ever lie in bed, feeling angry, and the longer you lie there, the angrier you get? You see the faces of those who hurt you, you hear certain words over and over again, and your mind becomes as twisted and knotted as your sheets while you toss and turn. Those faces and words keep coming back, and each time they do, you get even more upset. You think of what you could have said or should have said or would have said to put them in their place. A lot of “coulda, shoulda, woulda” goes on in rumpled beds after midnight.
At the end of a tough day, go ahead and face your feelings. Tremble with anger if that’s how you feel. But, says the Bible, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26). Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Well, angry hearts can also be the devil’s workshop. If you go to bed angry and you get up angry, you are giving Satan a prime opportunity. Sometimes it’s okay to get angry. But it’s not okay to stay angry. To get upset may be righteous anger. But to stay upset is lack of faith. It is sin. It means you’re letting your problems have more impact on you than the greatness and goodness of God. It means you are too busy fearing and resenting your enemies to pray for them.
The end of the day is a good time to face your frustrations and then rest in God. The end of the day is a good time to think through what has happened and deal with feelings that arise in you—and then to stop in your tracks and recognize who God is, to be still and know that God is God. It’s good to search your heart and think about everything that’s weighing on you. But then, says Psalm 4, “be silent” before the Lord. “Offer right sacrifices, and trust in the Lord.” Offer God the sacrifice of your own trembling heart, and offer him the sacrifice of your worship and praise. Then trust him. That’s the message God impresses on David as he prays.
Once you’ve thought through the events and problems and people of the day, and you’ve honestly faced how they’ve upset you, give it a rest. Don’t try to figure it all out. Leave it to God. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). With that trust and sense of direction and wisdom, “you will go on your way in safety… when you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet” (3:23-24).
That’s what happens to David as he prays in Psalm 4. Nothing outside David has changed. But something has changed inside. The attackers and doubters are still there on the outside, but God is there on the inside—and that makes all the difference. David says, “Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’ Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord.” In other words, “Lord, it doesn’t matter how many people refuse to look to you and don’t know where to turn. As long as your face shines on us who trust you, as long as I sense you smiling on me, that is enough.”
In fact, it’s more than enough. In Psalm 4:7, David goes on to say, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.” In the world’s way of thinking, what could be better than a huge harvest, a big income, lots of food and feasting, and plenty of parties? Some say, “It doesn’t get any better than that.” But it does get better than that! David experiences something far better. As David prays, God gives him a tremendous inner joy that is worth more than all the world. That supernatural sense of happiness and wellbeing sets his spirit at rest and fills him with contentment. Why envy others who seem to have it all? It is better to have God than to have the whole world. Why be gloomy? God’s joy outweighs any sorrow.
So, away with all the sleep stealers! Away with confusion! Away with fear! Away with anger! Away with guilt! Away with envy! Away with gloom and grief! “I will lie down and sleep in peace,” says David at the close of Psalm 4, “for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
God is in charge. You and I don’t have to stay awake and deal with every problem. That is God’s job. God never slumbers or sleeps (Psalm 121:4). You, on the other hand, need your sleep. Don’t worry: God can run the world without you for a few hours, while you get some rest, and he will watch over you and refresh you. As David says in another prayer, Psalm 3, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me” (3:5)
When I was getting ready for this program, I did some research on the Internet, and I came across all sorts of suggestions for making a person sleepy: Take a hot bath. Drink warm milk. Keep a cool room. Get a massage. Drink herbal tea. Wiggle your toes. Rub your stomach. Count sheep. Do breathing exercises. And who knows what else! Some of those things may help to relax your body, but only one thing can ultimately calm your spirit: trusting in God and praying to him.
The Lord is in charge, and his love is better than life. So trust him. Pray to him. And don’t stop praying. Keep talking to God, and keep listening to him. Count on the Lord to quiet your turmoil and fill you with joy. Find peace in his power, and rest in his protection. Every night when you go to bed, make the closing words of Psalm 4 your own: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
Father in heaven, thank you for the gift of sleep. Thank you that every time we sleep, it shows afresh that the world depends on you and not on us. Where we struggle with sleeplessness, give rest to our weary bodies, and give peace to our restless spirits. Where we are guilty, forgive us and assure us of your love. Where we are confused, guide us. Where we are angry or envious, drive Satan back and make us content in your care. Where we are sad and lonely, comfort us by your Holy Spirit. Help us in our waking hours to love and serve you with all our heart, and help us each night to lie down and sleep in peace, safe in our Father’s arms. Answer our prayer for Jesus’ sake, Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.