Sleep is a gift from God. It is also a gift that he will withhold if he sees a more urgent need. Certain times demand more of our attention, and nothing grabs our attention as quickly as disruption of our rhythms. Church leaders, at times not of our own choosing, must yield to the sovereignty of God over such gifts as sleep, because a time will come, if it hasn't already, when his will for you is to wrestle with him all night – even with a full day's ministry ahead.
Our God is a good Father. He knows what is best for us at all times. Therefore, he sets out to accomplish his will for us regardless of how we feel about it. We may be tired, but if he has work to do in us that requires a troubled mind unable to soundly sleep, then our duty is to yield to the working of the Spirit – to cry out to God in the night as a child does for his mother desperately needing someone to make it all better.
God never sleeps. He has no need of rest because he is not restrained by the limits of created beings. And though he created us to require deep, regular sleep, we must be careful not to idolize a good night's rest. It is possible that the Lord has important lessons for us to learn through sleepless nights that turn into hard days: first the lesson of weakness, and second the lesson of gentleness and love.
Nothing makes us feel our weakness quite as acutely as weariness. When you haven't slept, even simple tasks such as driving home become the front line of battle where the enemy of sleep attacks at every stop light. You wonder at 4 AM how you will make it through the meeting at 2 PM, and how you'll have enough energy to play with your kids at 6 PM. You wonder if you will be cognizant and helpful in the counseling session at 10 AM, and if you can study and write for an afternoon at 3 PM. You will wonder why God hasn't granted you sleep and you will begin to rage at him, accusing him of holding out on you something so necessary and simple. Like a child throwing a fit for not getting a second bowl of ice cream, we forget that most nights we sleep as if on clouds. If he wants to rouse us, he certainly has the right to do so.
So weakness becomes the first lesson. We must learn to trust him at every moment of the day: when our sense of justice raises us to the world's judge we must remember that he is merciful and gracious, when the fuse of our temper runs short we must remember that he is slow to anger, when our apathy begins to bud and then flower we must remember that he abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness. Our weakness is no match for his grace, and his grace is no slouch for our weakness. The entire life of the service of a Christian is one done out of profound weakness.
Too often we fail to see how frail we truly are. We get puffed up by even the smallest accomplishment. A Tweet here, a blog post there, an email in the afternoon and we are as proud as Satan as he fell from the sky. Compared to his holiness we are but wicked sinners in need of constant grace. Nothing makes us feel this more than sleeplessness. To be weak is not anti-Christian, but rather profoundly Christian. We, like Gideon in battle, must be exhausted yet pursuing. We pursue not out of perfect strength, but out of deep weakness because God is worthy of all our life, not simply the leftover life. He has the right to turn our 22,000 troops into 300, or our 8 solid hours into 30 restless minutes.
The second lesson of gentleness and love is the natural outflow of the first. Our weakness exposes us to a degree we find entirely uncomfortable. The first to go is our gentleness; second is our love. Everyone has seen the child overtired from the day's activities losing his mind because he cannot find the words to express his dire need for sleep. He rages against his parents who love him and dared to give him green beans along with dinner. He slaps the table and throws the food and spurns the gift of health all because he has not learned yet to steward his energy. He has no gentleness, only rage. So too we are prone to such extremes. We become irritable and quick to anger. We snap at one another like crocodiles longing for lunch. We sigh as our wife asks us for a favor. We complain that the children aren't more well-behaved. We speak sternly and rigidly and are on the verge of losing our Christian witness in the world, or at least in our own household. We need the touch of grace, and even though the gift is there we refuse to enter the room to open it.
Along with our lack of gentleness comes a lack of love. Perhaps that's not entirely true. A better way to describe it may be love of others, for we certainly are filled with self-love. When we have not slept we are tempted to focus all our efforts on self-preservation. Save a little energy here, check out in that meeting there, just make it through the day without destroying something, but caring very little about giving love that we may not have the energy to give. If the life of a Christian is to be marked by love it will have to be tomorrow. Today has no more to spare.
But this is not the way of Christ. To lose our gentleness and love due to lack of sleep is to lose sight of who God calls us to be in a world hostile against him. This is a chance at living out of the Spirit in weakness, recognizing our temptation to sin, and calling upon his overwhelming grace to rescue and to redeem. The gears of the world churn on the fumes of tired men and women.
We must lose the illusion that our ministry comes out of what we put in, or that its effectiveness is due to our ingenuity and resourcefulness. It is emphatically not. Our ministry is the result of God working in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. I have no doubt he can do far more without us than he can with us, weak and sinful as we are, but he nevertheless chooses to use us. Let us not elevate ourselves pridefully to the place of which we no not the cost, but let us look to the Lord with open hands and accept all things from him.
Even our sleepless nights can bear fruit of ministry that perfect conditions spoil. The question of the day is not "are you going forth in the fullness of your strength," but rather "are you going forth in the fullness of Christ"? It may be that through weakness you are being brought there, though you go kicking and screaming. Just stop. Just yield. Just rest in the power of the risen Lord, even if you cannot rest on the softness of your pillow. His grace is a far more comfortable bed.