10 tips for faithful sleep-deprived living

Sleep is one of God’s good gifts. Most of us chug though life without thinking much about it, which is usually a sign that we’re getting enough. But for some of us, that blissful enjoyment of the half-regarded treasure we know as a ‘good night’s sleep’ is shattered for some reason.

The effects of sleep deprivation are substantial. A lack of sleep overshadows all aspects of our lives, including how we go about seeking to follow and serve Christ Jesus. In order to be prayerful and diligent in serving God, we need to think about how we can ‘manage’ this condition, rather than become overwhelmed by it.

10. Trust God now

Realize that, whatever the reason for your sleep deprivation is, it’s not random. There’s nothing good and noble about losing sleep for its own sake. So, if you are losing sleep and can change your circumstances so you could get enough regularly, invest in making that happen. Not only does sleeping give you greater resources to enjoy the life that God has given you, but it also enables you to love and serve him and his people more effectively. It’s a precious gift.

But it may be that you and I are being called to live without good sleep for some time. If that is the case, then it is worth realizing that this is the context in which God is transforming us into the image of his Son. Here and now, in this weary time and place, you and I need to hear his call to trust his rule of our lives, and obey his commands. So it’s best for us not to put off learning how to pursue a life of godly obedience and trust in God until we can get a decent night’s sleep and can think clearly. We don’t need to get ourselves sorted first. Following Jesus is not an activity for detached reflection; it’s life in the trenches.

This is actually liberating. We aren’t like those whose lives are caught up in squeezing all they can get out of this life, and so prioritize the quality of their lives over everything and everyone else. Sleep loss isn’t something that we need to eliminate in order to live our lives properly or well. We don’t have to feel guilty or embarrassed about having the night-shift job, or the child who just won’t sleep, or something similar. We don’t have to believe the lie that ‘if only’ this were taken away all would be ideal. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3). So in Christ we are set free to live difficult lives, trusting God not only to preserve us but also to transform us. We don’t have to reach an arbitrary standard of potential, or enjoy every minute of our lives. Therefore, sleep deprivation isn’t (necessarily) a problem to solve; it’s a context for growing to maturity in Christ Jesus our Lord.

9. Don’t resent it

God doesn’t owe us sleep. It’s a gift. Losing out on one of God’s gifts is hard. Watching others receive without gratitude the exact gift we crave is difficult to the point of frustration, and even bitterness. We need to guard ourselves from this.

This requires practiced thankfulness and trust. Especially when people around us might have an attack of the fainting vapours because they’ve “only had six hours sleep”. Most of us, if we are honest, would happily take their sleep. But their sleep is God’s good gift to them, and we know what a good gift it is, even if they don’t, so thank God for his kindness to them, and ask him to bless them with what they need. And ask God to give you the grace to bear with them. Obviously, it’s also a great plan to pray for more sleep for ourselves. But we must not lose sight of God as the giver of all good things, and instead discipline ourselves to accept his gifts with gratitude and humility, rather than demanding them with a sense of entitlement. God’s gifts are his, to give as he will.

8. Gratitude matters

One of the major problems with sleep deprivation is that it sends us into survival mode. There’s nothing left in life for extras, either in time or energy. Being thankful often falls into that category for many of us. Stopping and saying ‘thank you’ to God for things can often feel like the kind of thing people do when they have time and energy left over.

Scripture doesn’t have that attitude at all. Gratitude is something that marks out Christians. We are to be people who thank God all the time, even when we are chained up in prison like the apostles (Acts 16:25). This can leave us a bit cold, as though we have to screw up our faces and say thank you for things when, bluntly, we aren’t grateful. Yet, passages like Philippians 4 draw a strong line between gratitude and contentment, as though the one is reached via the other. Thankful hearts are, or become, contented hearts. So, pursuing thankfulness in a meaningful and practical way leads to greater godliness.

Being thankful works best if one is genuinely grateful, rather than being contrived. So, if we are faced with difficult circumstances in which we can’t imagine what we could be thankful for, we probably need to do more thinking. We need to pray that God will make us thankful, and show us how to be grateful. We need to think about the things he has given us in our lives that we are glad about. Ultimately, our greatest thanksgiving is for the life that we have in Christ: full forgiveness and hope of a life with God and each other forever, glorious salvation. Everything else God has given us spills up and over that already overflowing cup of kindness in Christ (Rom 8:32).This sets us free to be thankful about so much; the little things that matter to ourselves but no-one else (such as a good cup of tea in the morning), through to God’s huge and significant gifts to us in Christ (such as life, literacy, and running water, if we have these things). We can easily lose sight of these when we are ground down by something like sleeplessness, and feel powerless to embrace the good things God gives us in Christ. I think there is room for deliberately doing some of the sorts of things we really enjoy, if this is possible and wise, to remind ourselves of our generous, gracious God and his gifts to us. Asceticism emerging from sleep deprivation is, after all, no more commendable than any other asceticism. Taking the time to do the things that remind us in concrete ways of God’s goodness to us can help us gain the perspective that lack of sleep threatens to overturn.

So, we are aiming for authentic gratitude as a daily, hourly characteristic (1 Thess 5:18). But we work with the gratitude we have, and don’t pretend to be any more grateful than we are—working towards growth is more important than fixating on where we are right now.

7. Be godly by God’s grace

One of the really difficult things about being sleep-deprived is that we often don’t have the level of control over our lives and presentation that we prefer. We might be late to appointments and forgetful. We might not be able to concentrate; our vocabularies might shrink. And on top of that, and in all of that, we sin. We are often impatient, unkind, unwise, and irritable. Whatever we struggle with when we have enough sleep becomes an epic battle without it.

But if we know Jesus, giving up the fight to be like him isn’t an option. He has saved us from all that and called us to a new and better way of living, where kindness, peace, patience, and love are our goals. And if we do know him, then even in this time and place God will cause these to blossom in our lives. We might be too tired to see or appreciate what he is doing, but our holiness is his work, and we can trust him with it. Sleep deprivation throws back the curtain of our presentable lives, and demonstrates (if only to ourselves) that being godly is not something we can achieve ourselves. We need God.

This is great news for us, because it reminds us forcibly that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone (Eph 2:8-10). We are never going to impress God with our excellent behaviour, because without him, it doesn’t exist. By God’s grace he continues his good work in us.

We are still called to struggle against sin, but we can use this time in our lives to deliberately recognize and appreciate God’s work in us, making us into Jesus’ image. We can be thankful for those moments when we were patient, for example, or when we cared more about how we were late rather than being cross that being late was inevitable. Of course we will sin, and need to confess our sins accordingly. But even under these circumstances, God is still working in us, showing us (and everyone) that it really is his work. This is part of the good news of Jesus that we are living out each day.

6. Pray

Prayer is hard when you don’t get enough sleep. It’s hard because if you habitually close your eyes to pray, you’re likely to nod off within about a minute. It’s hard because you’re likely to have little, if any, concentration, and limited ability to prioritize. Plus you forget things. All of these, and no doubt more I have forgotten, affect prayer.

But we need to pray, because prayer is us, in all our weakness, coming to our Father through his Son, depending on him for all things. It’s where we can ask God for the resources we need to endure, where we plead for encouragement and comfort, knowing that both ultimately come from his gracious hand. It’s where we recognize the greatness of who he is, and the faithfulness of his presence with us.

What we may need to rethink is the ‘how’ of prayer. It’s pointless feeling guilty because we always fall asleep when we pray, or can’t pray for more than two minutes. Now is probably not the time to invest in long prayers, but instead we can be using the opportunities that present themselves. Mindless chores can become times we pray for specific people or things. Memorizing Scripture or singing can be the time we deliberately praise God for who he is and what he has done. Reading through a confession might become our regular way of confessing sins. Working through short lists might be how we pray for those around us. It may all be very fragmented for a while. For some of us, the standard ‘quiet time’ formula might continue to work. But for others of us, it could be more useful to pray through this time in our lives with someone else regularly, or walk around in the middle of the night praying aloud, or deliberately only praying one or two sentences at a time.

Getting the ‘how’ perfect isn’t as important as the actual doing of prayer. There are probably a lot of people around us who have thought about how to pray tired, so it is worth asking those we know who’ve been in this situation at some point in their lives what they did to facilitate prayer. It’s not something we have to work out on our own, or even always do on our own. But we do need to pray.

5. Be governed by Scripture

Reading is another one of those activities that gets harder with little sleep. It can feel like another chore, or completely irrelevant to the long list of things we might need to do in the next ten minutes.

But God transforms us by his Spirit through his word, and it matters that we read the Bible. It’s one of the ways we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, remembering everything he has done for us, everything we are in Christ, and where and what our hope is.

Like prayer, we are free to think of different ways we might do this in strained circumstances. We don’t, for example, need to read the Bible. We can listen to it, if we have those resources available. We can choose to just focus on one book for the whole year, or read only a couple of verses per day. In fact, we might find that memorizing Scripture is a better idea than daily reading, if reading is beyond our concentration span at the moment. I think this is particularly the case if we memorize whole sections of Scripture rather than isolated verses; it means we are constantly meditating on that section of Scripture and remembering parts of it. It’s also something that is easy to do with others, which can spark good conversations which are mutually encouraging.

Definitely, it’s great to be able to do something like the M‘Cheyne reading system, where you read large sections of the Bible, but that’s not the only strategy for everyone, everywhere. The goal is to be reading/listening frequently, prayerfully, humbly and with the intention of soaking up God’s word in the way we live, hanging on God’s every word (Matt 4:4).

And whatever we choose to do, let’s not waste time feeling guilty when we fail. It’s not a performance; it’s about knowing God. Let’s ask for forgiveness, courage and a steadfast heart, and try again, changing our system if it isn’t working.

4. Be wise

One of the very practical problems of losing sleep is that we don’t function as well: tiredness affects how our minds and bodies work. So, our reflexes are slower, our digestive systems are often changed, our memories are a fog. We need to try and minimize the damage as much as we’re able, as a way of preserving our own lives and the lives of others.

So, when we are seriously sleep-deprived, it might be wise to ask ourselves whether we really need to drive that day. When we take or give others medication, we might need to write it down somewhere and ask someone to check it for us. We might need to be attentive to whether we are getting enough exercise and eating properly.

I think we tend not to question the way we do things because we are already feeling overwhelmed just getting through our responsibilities. Thinking of different ways to do what we need to do can feel like an extra pressure we simply don’t need. Here I think we can be greatly helped by looking to those people around us who might have a sense of perspective, and who can help us assess and change things. This can be really helpful to us if we have fallen into patterns that worked a few months ago, but may not be working now and we might not have the capacity to see this and make useful changes. There may also be people in our lives who can help us bear the load, who could swap a shift at work or take our non-sleeping children once a week, or take a responsibility off our shoulders so that we can seize some extra sleep.

It can feel very lonely to be tired all the time. It can be hard to have a clear head and see how things are working, and whether everyone we are responsible for is safe. So, let’s be in conversation with the people God gives us, and if we can’t find them, let’s ask God to show them to us. We might need to be sleep deprived right now, but we don’t have to bear the cost alone.

3. Be kind

This part of our lives, whether it’s short or long, isn’t just a time when we are especially conscious of the care and support of others. It’s also a time when we need to encourage and love those around us. Both characterize a Christian’s life: mutual love relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ (Gal 6:2). But in times of difficulty, such as losing sleep, it can take extra thought to love others well.

Hospitality, for example, can feel impossible. We may need to rethink how to be hospitable to fellow Christians and to non-believers when our houses and lives are chaotic, and to focus on what is important. Spending time, slow time, listening to people and bearing their burdens and encouraging them, providing for their needs and sharing our lives with them, is the heart of hospitality. There are all kinds of different ways to do this. It may be that at this time we practice hospitality by going for walks with people, or meeting in a park. Or, we invite them into our messy houses, and just cope. The command to be hospitable is not couched in terms of life being under control, but is an aspect of living out life under Christ’s control (Rom 12:13).

We also need to be aware of the people for whose sake we might be losing sleep. Often these are young children, but it can also be patients or others. They may or may not know what it costs us to care for them, but our focus should be to deal gently with them, regardless of this. How the weak and helpless are treated matters to God, and so it should also matter to us, even when their behaviour determines whether we sleep properly. If we feel overwhelmed we can sometimes feel as though our reactions are understandable and therefore legitimate. It is probably more useful to train ourselves to think that God has allowed these circumstances to converge on us, and he offers us a godly way forward (1 Cor 10:11-13). Being kind is always a good goal; being kind under pressure requires strength from God himself.

2. Hope in heavenly rest

This weariness we live with is caught up in the toil and pain of our fallen world, which will pass away when Jesus returns. His death for us has opened up a new reality, in which our present suffering can’t compare with his glorious future for us (Rom 8:18). Of course we’ll long for the day when we are able to enjoy uninterrupted, refreshing sleep again. But when we feel that longing, we would do well to push it out even further and also remember that there is greater, more substantial rest from all weariness in heaven because of Jesus’ death for us. A good night’s sleep may feel now like a luxury, but it doesn’t even compare with the hope of an eternal rest in God’s presence, nor even with the rest we have in Christ now from all this world’s sin and weariness (Matt 11:28-30).

1. Grace conquers all

God has loved us with an undeniable, generous love. He sent his only begotten Son to die on a cross in our place. Jesus died to save us, to carry us through all the exhausting days and frustrating nights, and bring us to his home, like lost sheep. God the Father with God the Son sent his Spirit to transform and comfort us, and gives us the strength we need for all our difficulties, even this one. Sleep deprivation doesn’t unsaddle God’s grace. Nothing can pluck us out of his hand (John 10:28-30). Not even sleeplessness. God’s grace is even more powerful than lack of sleep.

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