At Night My Heart Instructs Me: Reflections on Insomnia

To a friend who wrote to me asking for advice about insomnia, I sent the following reply: 

I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with sleep. Don’t you have any simple problems? This is a difficult one! Whenever I face a difficult problem I do three things:

1) I cry out to God from my heart for help;
2) I believe and trust that He will answer me;
3) I wait and listen for what He will say.

Difficult problems are meant to bring us to God, to cut the ground from under our self-sufficiency and cast us wholly onto the Lord. A prolonged period of sleeplessness can bring me to my wits’ end, which is a very good place to be for making advances in faith. We must give ourselves entirely to Christ—granted, a lifelong process, but surrendering day by day one small piece of our moribund existence in exchange for His eternal life.

Although I am not a chronic insomniac, I think I may have struggled with sleep almost as much as you have. Nighttime is to me the most difficult part of life, and my nights are often a battleground. It’s not my mind that troubles me so much, as with you, but my body, as I have some physical ailments which, while very minor in themselves, have a major impact on my sleep. Sometimes I like to add an extra petition to the Lord’s prayer: Give us this day our daily bread, and this night our nightly sleep. From the prayer for “daily bread” we know that God wants us to pray for practical essentials, and sleep is definitely one of those. 

I enjoy life a great deal, and I have a lot of peace, but I don’t like having to go to bed! Not much has changed since I was a little boy and wanted to stay up late and keep on playing without ever having to be told to sleep. Now that I’m nearly 70, I suppose the inner wounds linger from having struggled for so many years with sleep. And this remains true even though, on days when I’m extra tired, God often gives me extra energy. I’ve even noticed that everything—from work to social interactions—often goes better when I’m tired, as though fatigue allows readier access to certain gifts that arise from the semi- or subconscious.

But this requires rising to the many occasions life offers and not giving in to moping around and complaining of being ‘so tired.’ Sometimes the prayer for ‘my nightly sleep’ needs to become, “Lord, help me to use my fatigue today to good advantage for the sake of Your kingdom.” Don’t shrink from your own life, the only life you have. Step into every day, every moment, as if entering a luxurious restaurant for a sumptuous meal. 

Let God take care of you in the night. Sleep must be important to Him because He has decreed that we devote about a third of our lives to it. Probably this is because, like it or not, it is a form of enforced surrender to Him. Most people do not spend enough time praying, or simply enjoying God, but at night we must all give up our pride and bow down. If we cannot sleep, then this becomes an ideal time in which to pray. As David wrote, “On my bed I remember You; I think of You through the watches of the night” (Ps. 63:6), and “Even at night my heart instructs me” (Ps 16:7). It is not necessary to get up to pray; while lying in bed, one can simply turn the mind and heart toward Christ. For me, the one practice that is the most powerful aid to sleep is to focus on Jesus, especially on His cross. Without this, my insomnia would be as bad as yours.

Naturally it took me many years to learn this, to surrender all my busy thoughts to the Lord’s peace and love, and simply to gaze upon the cross. I had to learn this, not just because of nighttime struggles but because for years my waking life was riddled with anxiety and fear. I can say with sincerity that, while some of this neurosis remains, as I’ve grown in prayer a whole new life has developed within me that is greater and stronger than all my fears. And this is where I live now, not consumed by the old anxiety but rooted and grounded in the beautiful love of God.

Of course, every person is different and we all have to find our own answers. I pray for your health, peace, and rest.

Next Post:  Enoch: the man who walked with God

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