A Time To Tune Out And Turn In
Psalm 127:1-2; 121
It has been a long time since I have seen anybody sleep in church on Sunday…
In days gone by, it happened rather frequently. I remember hearing about a minister who had a member of his church who regularly dropped off to sleep during the sermon. The minister became quite incensed about that, and he decided that he was going to fix this fellow and fix him good. The next Sunday, the minister began his sermon and continued to the point where he could see that this man in the third row had fallen into a deep sleep. Then the minister said very softly to the congregation: “All of you who would like to go to heaven, please stand.” Of course, everyone stood, except the fellow on the third row, whose chin was resting on his chest. He was sound asleep. Then, still speaking very softly, the minister said: “Please be seated. Now all of those who would like to go to hell, STAND UP!” He said it with such volume and authority that the man on the third row was jolted awake and jumped to his feet. Quickly the man looked about and saw that everyone else was seated. He then delivered himself of this utterance, “Preacher, I don’t know what we are voting on, but I am glad to see that you and I are on the same side!”
So people are not sleeping in church the way they used to—and, that’s good. But what is not good is that at night people are not sleeping as long or as well as they used to—and that is not just my opinion—it is a fact. People are having trouble sleeping these days. The American Medical Association indicates that as many as 20 million Americans take pills each night in order to go to sleep—and for many millions more, their sleep is not as restful as it needs to be. It is a sad but true fact that most of us are so tied-up and tied-down, so pressed and stressed by the circumstances of everyday—so caught up in the swirl and twirl of life that we cannot stop, we cannot sleep.
Last year, when I was in Israel, our group went to visit a family of Bedovin out in the barren wastes of the Judean wilderness. They were living in soot-black tents staked against the sun-bleached earth. You could see nothing but their dark eyes and their gnarled and scarred hands and feet, as their clothing consisted of yards of dark, heavy cloth wrapped in layers completely about them, protecting them from sun and wind. Inside the tents were the barest of furnishings—a stone cooking pit, a few palm-frond pallets, a stack of wool blankets. They are a simple and unsophisticated people. I must tell you this. The man’s name was Ahmed. He had two wives. They were both named Garmila. It occurred to me that if a man is going to be brave enough to have two wives, it is good to be smart enough to see that they both have the same name. That would keep you out of a bucket of trouble! One of the members of our group turned to our guide and said: “What do they do all day?” Our guide, Holid, said: “They tend their sheep.” Then she said: “And what do they do at night?” Halid looked at her to see if she was serious, and then he said: “At night they sleep. When the sun goes down they stretch out on their pallets, pull those well-worn blankets about them, and repeat the words their shepherd-ancestors have said for 30 centuries: ‘It is foolish to rise up early and go late to rest and feed upon your worries, for God gives to His beloved sleep!’ Then having said that, they sleep until the morning light.” Well, I got to thinking that maybe we could learn something from those simple Bedovin shepherds and from those beautiful words recorded in Psalm 127. “God gives to His beloved sleep.” Here is what I mean…
First, God gives us the gift of sleep.
We tend to think of sleep as something we achieve or earn. No so. Sleep is a gift of God. That truth is repeated countless times on the pages of Scripture. The Latin root for the word “sleep” is “labi,” and it means “to slide or to glide.” God causes us to slide, to glide, to ease into, to slip into sleep. And He has built into us certain mechanisms which alert us to our need for this gift. There are alarm systems, divinely-given, which advise us when the time comes for us to secure rest. God has built into us things that say to us that it is time to lay aside the responsibilities of our waking hours—it is time for us to tune out and turn in. And we ignore that alarm at our peril.
I think here of another Psalm, Psalm 4. It was written by King David during one of the most distressing times in his life. His own son, Absalom, had revolted against him. That must have broken David’s heart. The country to which he had devoted so much of himself was split asunder in civil war. That must have wounded him terribly. So he gathered up a few of his followers and retreated to a place called Mehaniem. There he rallied and energized his forces as best he could. Having then done everything he could do, he prayed a prayer, Psalm 4. In the first two verses, he asked for God’s justice. In the second two verses, he acknowledged God’s faithfulness. In the third two verses, he prayed for peace. And how did he conclude the prayer? With these words: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep for Thou alone makest me to dwell in safety.” Do you catch that? When David had done all that he could do, he recognized the signs of drowsiness and gave himself to sleep. He trusted God to care for him and to restore him while he was sleeping. Make no mistake. David was not trying to hide his head under the blankets. He was not running away from his problems. He was running toward God. When he knew that he had done all that he could do, he claimed the gift God offers. He knew that “God gives to His beloved sleep.”
I read of two men who were spelunking in a cave in Carlsbad Caverns. There was a rock slide and they were trapped. Panicky, they tried with their bare hands to dig their way out. Soon their hands were bruised and bloody, but they could see no light, no sign of progress. At last, they exhausted themselves with fruitless effort. One of the men said: “Look, we are tired. Let’s pray and then rest a bit.” So they leaned back against the imprisoning stone and prayed together. Then before they fell asleep, one man took his light and shined it above their heads. It reflected off the vaulted ceiling of the great cavern which was covered with scintillating bits of quartz, sparkling and glistening in the light. With that above them, they fell asleep. One of the men later wrote: “It was as if God was pulling over us the blanket of rest.” After awhile, they awakened, refreshed and renewed. They set themselves to the task again, and within a few hours they had found their way out.
What I am saying to you is this: When you are trapped in the caves of exhaustion, when you get lost in darkness and discouragement, when everything in you cries out for rest, then take the time to tune out and turn in. Entrust yourself to the One who keeps you in safety. Let God give to you, His beloved, the gift of sleep.
Next, God not only gives us the gift of sleep, but He also gives us gifts while we sleep.
It is almost as if we have so cluttered our lives with clamor that the only time we can hear the still, small voice of God speaking is when we are quiet, when we are sleeping. I know that runs contrary to the conventional wisdom of our time. We have come to believe that progress is not being made in life unless there is a lot of noise and activity. But that is not so. The great Mississippi River, which carries on its broad back the commerce of the nation, moves in absolute silence. We are impressed by the thunder and lightning of the storm, but it is not the storm that alters continents—it is the gentle lapping of the waves through weeks and months and years and centuries. Or which one of us has ever heard the sound of snow falling? Which one of us has ever heard the procession of the dawn marching across the sky, defeating the darkness of the night? Which one of us has ever heard the frost snaking out with crystal fingers to grasp the earth? My friends, the greatest things that happen in life, happen in silence. And one of the greatest things of all is the way God works in us while we sleep. I stand with George McDonald who said, “Sleep is God’s contrivance to get into us while we are sleeping what He cannot get into us while we are awake.”
Understand me, please, that I am not simply speaking here of the dreams God gives in sleep. From Bible times to these times, God has occasionally used dreams to speak to His people. But I am speaking now of something much more specific than that. I know in my own experience that there are times when I have gone to bed with a knotty problem concerning an upcoming sermon or some decision at work or some personal matter, and I have not known which way to turn. But then, after surrendering to God’s gift of sleep, I have awakened in the morning with the answer completely outlined in my mind. The only possible explanation is that God gave me the gift while I was sleeping.
Brother Lawrence said that “those whose spirits are stained by the breath of the Holy Spirit go forward even while they are asleep.” Isaac Watz, the great hymn writter, wrote: “God is my portion and my joy; His counsels are my light; He gives me sweet advice by day; and gentle hints by night.” I say that it is when we lie down to sleep at night that God most profoundly ministers by His spirit within us.
Now you may be saying that that has not been your experience. It is not surprising that you would think that. But remember, a lot happens in your sleep that you are not aware of. You are not conscious of your hair or your nails growing while you are sleeping, but they do. Just so you will not always be conscious of spiritual growth taking place while you sleep. Of course, it would help if you prepared yourself to receive these gifts God has to give you. I am convinced that if we were open to these gifts, and prepared ourselves to receive them, then they would become more obvious to us in our lives.
Therefore, God not only gives us gifts when we sleep, but God gives us techniques to receive the gifts He gives.
I have searched the Scriptures and I have found this six-step technique for preparing yourself to receive the gifts God gives you in sleep. Note the steps down if you wish. They work.
Step One: Relish the glory of the night. When you are ready for rest, try to get away for a few minutes from noise and distraction. Go out and look up at the stars. The night will never reject you. It will fold you into its arms as a mother embraces a child. So for just a few moments let the glory of the night wrap itself about you. That’s the first step—to shake from your feet the dust of the day’s busy highways and walk for a few moments the moonlit path of the night.
Step Two: Relax your body. Stretch out on your back on your bed. Draw five deep breaths and slowly release them. Then stiffen your body from head to toe. Become tense and rigid. Then, slowly, starting with your head and neck, begin to relax your muscles and your joints. You will feel the physical tension beginning to drain out of you.
Step Three: Release your mental tension. For just a few minutes review the events of the day. Think of the things you did right, and thank God for His help. Then think of the things you did wrong, repeat God’s words from Jeremiah: “I will forgive your iniquity and I will remember your sin no more,” and then set those things aside.
Step Four: Rehearse the Word of God. Many people share with me that they have trouble going to sleep. One of the things I suggest to them, I suggest to you now. After you have relished the night and relaxed your body and released your mental tension, then pick up your Bible and read Psalm 121. There you will find a glorious affirmation of the God who never goes to sleep, and who, therefore, will keep us and guard us and protect us while we are sleeping. Psalm 121 makes for great bedtime reading.
Step Five: Recite the promises of God. Turn out the lights, lie very still, and recite these four verses from Scripture: “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest”…”Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee”…”Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid”…”God gives to His beloved sleep.” Those are His promises.
Step Six: Repose in the arms of God. Slip into prayer. You may find that before you have finished praying, you fall asleep. What a beautiful thing that is—to fall asleep when you are communing with God through prayer—to be so open and comfortable with Him that you can drift off while you are in His arms. If you come to the end of your prayer and you have not yet fallen asleep, then breathe a whispered “Nunc Dimittis”: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.”…or the words of Jesus: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” Then rest—and you will receive God’s gift of sleep and the gifts God gives while you sleep.
Those are the things I learn from this magnificent verse in Psalm 127: “God gives to His beloved sleep.”