They have a name for what I have: short sleeper. It doesn’t sound so bad when you say it like that, does it? That makes it sound like the latest incarnation of the Sleep Number bed, or a discounted airline fare. The reality is much worse. What it means is that I have no problem falling asleep at night. In fact, if you turn down the lights and give me a warm blanket, I could actually fall asleep standing up. But after exactly four hours, I awaken with a strange sense of alertness, ready for guard duty. Never mind that it is still the middle of the night. When that happens, I have several choices: I can arise early and pretend that my day has begun, and then feel terrible in precisely two hours. I can toss and turn for two hours until I fall asleep, and then wake up even groggier a few hours later when the alarm sounds. And of course, I can blow off my schedule for the rest of the day, a last resort to be sure. But one thing is certain—no matter which I choose, I will not feel rested.
I wasn’t always this way. Before we had kids, I regularly slept through the night. Something about listening for crying in the night changed my body chemistry on a permanent basis, I think. However, I am told that I come by it honestly. My great, great grandfather fought in the Civil War. It comes down through family lore that after a long march, he could fall asleep immediately, and wake up refreshed after only twenty minutes. I can do that too. No doubt he never felt rested though.
The basic issue is that my mind insists on solving problems in my sleep. When I wake up in the middle of the night, if there is anything that I can possibly worry or think about, then my mind goes to work. It might be a conflict in a relationship. It might be a work-related issue. It might be the political climate. Of course, people are full of remedies. “Have you tried…?” they inquire with genuine concern. But they don’t address the real issue: what does it take to experience real rest—a deep, soul-quenching reset from the cares of this life? I take comfort in the fact that the writer of Psalm 4 had the same problem, but turned to a very different remedy.
1) “Be angry and don’t sin”
As I said, the number one thing that wakes me up at night is interpersonal conflict. When something like that is happening, my mind sounds an alarm in order to solve the problem. It goes to work rehearsing past arguments and planning an imaginary defense, demonstrating exactly how they are wrong and I am right. My bed is then transformed to a court of law and my pillow becomes the judge. This is especially true if I feel that I have been slandered or my reputation compromised. As it turns out, this is what the psalmist was experiencing too. He writes, “How long…will you turn my glory to shame? Will you love worthlessness and seek falsehood?” However, his first prescription here has always boggled my mind a little.
The phrase “be angry and do not sin” is pretty familiar, but if you think about it, what exactly does it mean? How and when does anger become sin? Now, I have found that many people would say that sinning here means lashing out at someone. For them, being angry without sin means pushing the anger down further, and then trying to play nice. That is ridiculous. Pushing anger down that way is a sure-fire prescription for turning hot anger into cold hate. Maybe this is why I have met so many nice, pleasant people walking around with cold hate in their hearts. I can’t believe that this is a good solution for sleeplessness or interpersonal conflict.
Unaddressed anger is hate in disguise. Jesus had a different prescription for anger. If there is something between you and your brother, you leave your gift at the altar and go to speak with him or her about it in person. Sometimes that is not possible, particularly in the middle of the night. When that is the case, I know that I have to address it with God, and so I begin to pray for them. You cannot hate someone if you make a habit of praying for them. It is impossible. And maybe this inability to sleep is a divine intervention in my life nightly to turn my heart from hate.
2) “Meditate within your heart”
When we speak about meditation in the world today, we often think of Eastern meditation. We think of emptying one’s mind as a sort of transcendental cleanse. I’m sure that there are health benefits to that kind of practice, but that is the exact opposite of what the psalmist is talking about here. He is not emptying his mind, but instead, he is filling his mind with one particular thing. That is a completely different proposition. When the Bible talks about meditation, it means running truths about God through one’s mind over and over. The process might be the same, but the mantra is entirely different. Meditating within your heart means seizing every opportunity to dwell on who God is as revealed in the Bible.
I like the way that the writer of Psalm 1 talks about meditation. He is describing two different approaches to life, and the true blessedness that comes as a result of the second approach. Instead of keeping company with the practices of the world, the blessed person is the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” because he meditates on it “day and night.” Now, I must confess that I don’t find a lot of joy as I read “the law” per se. Honestly, Leviticus is probably a cure for insomnia in and of itself. But I am struck by the fact that he is following his delight, and that this practice is shaping his entire life. There must be a connection between that kind of uninhibited joy—savoring God’s presence—and true, authentic rest.
When my kids were little, we used to have to soothe them before they went to sleep, and so I invented the “secrets of sleep” (no patent pending) to help them in the process. There are four secrets of sleep: 1) Lie down. 2) Close your eyes. 3) Think a happy thought. 4) No picking your nose. OK, so the fourth was optional, and the third I borrowed from Peter Pan. But the truth of it is still important, and not unlike what the psalmist is saying. It is not self-hypnosis; rather, true rest is going to come from an inner world that is greater and more powerful than your problems. It turns out that your happy thought might help you to fly after all.
Authentic rest is grounded in strong delight. Clearly, this is not something that I am saying from experience, is it? I am still trying to learn this truth because it goes against my natural inclination. I think that if I can control a problem, then I will be able to rest. But the reverse is true. Rest doesn’t come in the absence of problems, but in the presence of something much stronger and more delightful in your life.
3) “Be still”
The most ineffective thing that you can possibly tell someone as a coach is that they need to relax, because it will actually have the opposite effect. I have found this to be true as I have studied voice and taught others, and I assume that it is true in athletics as well. When you draw attention to tension in the body, the mind will cause the body to seize up even more. If this is true physically, where you can see and touch the problem, then think how true it is emotionally, where you can’t. Yet how many times have I said to myself in the middle of the night, “Relax, relax, you need to relax” and had the exact opposite happen? “How can I possibly be still if I have to get up in the morning?” The only way that you can help someone to relax is by redirection. You have to subtly shift their attention to something else.
In Psalm 46, the psalmist does exactly that: “Be still and know that I am God.” You might know that when the psalmist uses the word “know” it is much stronger than we would use it today, as a sort of superficial acquaintanceship. In the Bible, the idea of knowing someone was much more intimate. It meant to be thoroughly and exhaustively acquainted with someone, and was sometimes a euphemism for sexual knowledge. When the psalmist says to “be still and know” he is urging us to give our thoughts and concerns over to someone we know to be much greater. He is redirecting us to an object of faith capable of supporting authentic rest.
If you are reading this article in order to get tips for falling or staying asleep, then I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it doesn’t work that way. They have pills that can render you unconscious, if that is what you seek. But if you’re seeking how to find real rest in your life, then I welcome you to join me on my journey, and I will share with you the secret that I have found: it begins while you are awake. If the context for authentic rest is knowing God, then that is a process that happens while you are conscious, and it involves specific disciplines and choices in the way that you live. It doesn’t start late at night, but early in the morning. What do I mean by that?
Knowing God means choosing joy today. It means choosing gratitude and grace. It means choosing to encourage rather than tearing down. It means choosing not to react. It means choosing against fear. It means choosing to dwell on the noble and pure things instead of the sordid or scandalous. It means choosing to think the best of others whenever possible. It means choosing to forgive the debts of others. As I make these choices and others on a daily basis, I am knowing God more. I enter a world where authentic rest is possible because I am caught firmly in the grip of my Creator’s hand, even when I am wide awake at 3am. The funny thing is that knowing God doesn’t mean that you won’t wake up in the middle of the night; rather, it means that you’ll be able to find authentic rest even when you do.
Daniel Radmacher © 2017
Fantastic! I have the same issues (and never had small children, so there ya go), and this is great! I’ve also read that the more you allow your mind to go down negative pathways, the more the neural network is predisposed to choose that path if left to its own devices. I’d say the opposite must also be true: the more we train our minds to choose grace and gratitude and hope, the more we will find it happening naturally.