Rest and sleep

Written by Charles Ekong


I heard a teaching about rest and sleep recently. Though conceptually, I knew both were different, I hadn’t given the difference much thought. The preacher highlighted that both were imperative and not interchangeable. She pointed out that the first time we encounter rest in the Bible – it’s God resting on the seventh day after six days of creation [Genesis 2:2]. However, the psalmist also tells us that God neither slumbers nor sleeps [Psalm 121:4]. Humankind needs both – rest for the God-like aspects of our being and sleep for the survival of our mortal bodies. Both are gifts from God and necessary for a healthy life [Psalm 95:11, Psalm 127:2]. But do we take full advantage of these gifts?

The Hebrew words for rest in Genesis 2:2 and Psalm 95:11 are different but complimentary. The word in Genesis 2 is sabat, more commonly spelt sabbath. It means to cease from work or any labour. Ensuring we rest was so important to God that He had Moses make it Law for His people to dedicate an entire day each week to rest [Exodus 23:12, Exodus 34:21]. God even commanded them to periodically give their land a year-long sabbath, which was quite the prohibition for a nation of farmers [Leviticus 25:1-4]. The word in Psalm 95 is mnuha, which denotes a condition of rest or a resting place, as described in Psalm 23:2. It’s a lifestyle of rest devoid of fear, anxiety or worry. Scripture tells us that God is our resting place, and we must deliberately choose to enter His rest and remain there [Psalm 132:8, Hebrews 4:1]. While the biblical concept of rest is foreign to many cultures, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t want rest, as the Bible describes.

The Hebrew word for sleep in Psalm 121:4 was first used to describe what happened to Adam when God was about to form Eve [Genesis 2:21]. It simply means to be slack or languid for some time, which we experience during a relaxing sleep. My smart watch app says my body goes through several sleep cycles when I’m asleep – light sleep, deep sleep and REM. It says light sleep promotes mental and physical recovery. Deep sleep also promotes physical recovery. But it additionally helps our memory and learning capacity and supports our immune system. REM, rapid eye movement, helps regulate our mood and also helps our brains process and consolidate information into our long-term memory. If the science is correct, the benefits of sleeping well cannot be underestimated. The quality of our sleep affects our health and our relationships, two indispensable commodities of life.

The Bible identifies two things that can rob us of sleep and rest: toil and unbelief. The psalmist says: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. It is vain to rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – so God gives His loved ones sleep” [Psalm 127:1-2]. One of the biggest drivers of toil in many cultures is consumerism or a lack of contentment [Philippians 4:12, 1 Timothy 6:6]. So many of us spend more than our means on things we don’t need and invariably get ourselves into debt and stressful situations which keep us awake at night. Even when we’re disciplined with our budget and expenses, we fret over the cares of this world because of faulty paradigms [Matthew 6:25-31]. So, even as children of God, we labour for things we shouldn’t and rob ourselves of a superior life experience [Matthew 6:32-34, Matthew 11:28-30]. 

Toiling and unbelief go together. Our actions generally reflect the beliefs shaped by our paradigms. If I’m toiling for or fretting over what God has promised to give me, then I don’t believe God will come through. Many of us know people, even Christians, who have worked themselves to an early grave for bread. That cannot be God’s will. Toiling produces sweat, and sweat is a curse [Genesis 3:17-19]. Work isn’t a curse because God gave Adam work to do before there was sin in the world [Genesis 2:15]. So, there’s no excuse to be lazy [Proverbs 19:15, 1 Timothy 5:8]. But we must learn to distinguish between toil and work. I’ve recently been challenging myself on that distinction whenever I perceive that work is becoming toil – especially if the motivation for what I’m after is conceited. It can be a struggle to judge my intentions rightly at times. But God’s word will always provide clarity, challenge faulty paradigms and eliminate our excuses [Hebrews 4:12]. 

As many have said, it takes more faith for a believer to go to sleep instead of staying awake to find solutions in some situations. I tell myself that if I can see a promise in Scripture concerning my situation, and I’ve diligently fulfilled the conditions associated with that promise, then anything I try to do beyond the corresponding action of that promise is unbelief. It can be challenging to wait patiently for God, especially when the walls are seemingly caving in, but the Bible calls such patience good [Lamentations 3:26, Micah 7:7]. 

When our conscience is clear, and we’re in the will of God, we’ll often sense an inward serenity we might struggle to explain, irrespective of our present circumstances [Philippians 4:7]. When we discern the peace Paul described, we can tell our minds to stop rummaging for solutions and listen to our spirits for instructions on the next profitable step. Faith produces rest because it places us in Christ – our resting place [Psalm 62:1, Hebrews 4:10], and when our minds are free of fear, worry and anxiety because we’ve cast our cares on God, we’ll enjoy the benefits of sleep as He intended [1 Peter 5:6-7]. 

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