When You Find It Hard to Sleep
I’ve been awake at night quite a lot lately. Tossing, turning, eyes wide open, thoughts racing.
The last time this happened with this much regularity was when we brought our youngest daughter home from China four and a half years ago. I spent the first six months she was home wide awake from about midnight until my alarm went off at 6am. It led to a season of anxiety and depression on a level I haven’t experienced since.
So entering into seasons of sleeplessness can freak me out a little. I grow anxious that I am headed for another season marked by anxiety and depressions. (Sounds counter-productive, I know.)
But I learned a few things during that season of sleeplessness that I dusted off and pulled back out to try to help me sleep in the current season we are in.
Because there are a lot of things to wake up in the middle of the night about right now – things like a global pandemic, people I love who are in the high-risk category of catching the virus, a crashed national economy, closed stores and restaurants, joblessness, finances – or the lack thereof, and family dynamics with everyone home seven days out of the week.
While I might not be aware during the waking hours that I am overtly anxious about anything, what I am discovering is a low-level constant thrum of anxiety that underscores everything in my day and wakes me up when I am fast asleep at night.
My body has responded to this low-level thrum with headaches as well as sleeplessness, and after my fifth headache in ten days, I realized I had to get serious about dealing with the anxiety that was settling in on my soul.
Sometimes I can beat myself up for things like sleeplessness or headaches or weariness when I know I should be sleeping soundly and trusting the Lord instead of fretting and worrying underneath the surface.
So I was comforted and surprised to open my Bible to Psalm 63 this weekend and read these words:
(5) “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise You with joyful lips,
(6) when I remember You upon my bed,
and meditate on You in the watches of the night;
(7) for You have been my help,
and in the shadow of Your wings
I will sing for joy.
(8) My soul clings to You;
Your Right Hand upholds me.”
I was comforted to read that inserted into the Psalm 63 is the assumption that we will be up in the watches of the night. In other words, God knows there will be times, like times when there is a global pandemic, that His people will struggle to sleep.
He doesn’t berate us or beat us up for that, rather, He instructs us what to do and where to go when we find our thoughts racing at 3am. In verses five and six, David, the psalmist, implies that he is feasting on a meal in the middle of the night. But instead of feeding on worry, the psalmist implies he is feasting on God, so much so that his soul is “satisfied as with fat and rich food.” He isn’t making a meal of his worry; he is making a meal of His God. And he does that in two different ways:
Earlier on in the psalm in verses 2-3, he writes, “So I have looked upon You in the sanctuary, beholding Your power and glory. Because Your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise You.” In these verses, David is choosing to remember three specific things about God: His power – God is who He says He is and can do what He says He can do, His glory – who He is is more satisfying than anything else this world could offer, and His steadfast love – in a world where the only thing certain is uncertainty, God’s love never fails.
These are the things that hold David’s thoughts and feed David’s soul in the middle of the night.
Throughout Scripture, God’s people are commanded to remember who God is and what God does – His saving acts in history and His personal saving acts towards us.
And we are commanded to remember because we are a people prone to forget. I forget what we ate for dinner last night and the activities we did two days much less the countless ways God was faithful in my life a decade ago.
But when I wake up in the middle of the night, I have a choice: I can feed my worry by rehearsing all the ways I could fail the next day, all of the things that could go, and probably will go, wrong, or I can remember God’s power, glory, and steadfast love to His people throughout the centuries and in my very own life.
I’ll take the latter.
But it’s so very hard to do.
That’s why the second way David makes a meal of God’s character is so very helpful. Not only does he remember God’s character and God’s works, but he also meditates. He takes a passage, a verse, a phrase, or even a word or two from the Word of God and thinks through all of its implications for life (for a more complete definition of “meditate,” see Tim Keller’s book, The Songs of Jesus, January 1st). In other words, he slowly, deliberately, and methodically takes tiny morsels from the Word of God and feeds on them, chews them, and digests them by applying them to the very real needs and potential trouble spots or worries in his life.
While this sounds like a great practice, I don’t know about you, but this is very hard to do at 3:13am when my eyes pop wide open, my heart starts pounding, and my thoughts start racing. It feels like I have absolutely no control over my thoughts that are spiraling out of control.
But I have found that with God’s Word, I do. Sometimes this requires getting out of bed, taking my Bible in hand, and finding a quiet spot in the house to read and pray through Scripture until I am to fall back asleep.
But more often than that, remembering and meditating begins with the last thing I do before I fall asleep. I keep a Bible on the nightstand beside my bed, and right before I am about to turn out the light, I turn to one of a handful of psalms that speak to me about the faithfulness and goodness of God. I slowly read through the Psalm and choose one or two phrases to “meditate on,” or think specifically and deliberately about for three to five minutes.
To help me do this, I sometimes even take deep breaths – four counts in and eight counts out – and then I pray, committing my night’s sleep to the Lord, and turn out my light.
This exercise does not ensure I will sleep through the night – but what it does ensure that when my eyes pop open, my heart starts beating out of my chest, and my mind starts racing, I am more easily able to reign it in by remembering phrases from the psalm I read before I turned out my light.
I will often lie there in the dark taking deep breaths – four counts in, eight counts out – and rehearse Psalm 37:3 – “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness.”
Or I will slowly chew on the words from Psalm 23:4 – “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”
Or I will meditate on the character of God from Psalm 19:14 – “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
I have found the faster I can reign in my thoughts and focus on God, the faster I can slow down my heart, close my eyes, and reign my swirling thoughts back in. I don’t always fall back into a sound sleep, but when I make a meal out of God’s power, glory, and steadfast love rather than gorge myself on fretful thoughts about the next day, next month, or the next year, I wake up rested and able to enter into the duties of the day instead of feeling like I wrestled all night with an unseen enemy.
If you are struggling with sleeplessness during this season like me, consider putting a Bible, journal, and pen by your bed. Before turning off the light, consider picking one portion of Scripture to read, and then meditate on one or two phrases from that portion for 3-5 minutes. Take deep breaths – four counts in, eight counts out – and to close your time, write down one way God has been faithful in the past, either to you or to His people throughout history, and then write down one of His characteristics you can feed on during the night if your mind jolts you awake.
If you are not sure where to begin reading in your Bible at night, consider starting with some of my favorite places to turn: Psalm 4, Psalm 16, Psalm 23, Psalm 37, Psalm 63, Psalm 131, and Psalm 143. You can spend a whole week reading slowly and deliberately though one, or rotate through all seven, assigning a different one for each day of the week.
You can print off the image below and use it to help you create a bedtime routine, or follow the prompts and write them down in your own journal. But whatever you do, don’t feed on worry. It makes for a terrible meal and leaves you without energy for the responsibilities of the following day. But feed on God’s faithfulness. He has been there in the past and He will continue to be with us in the present and future, through every wakeful night and day.
For more encouragement throughout the week, follow me on Instagram @baker.susannah.