When sleep won’t come

A few years ago I asked Facebook friends, “Why am I awake when I should be asleep and sleepy when I should be awake?” One responded, “Welcome to middle age.” I can be dragging and nodding off before getting into bed, and then wide awake after.

I usually keep everything conducive to sleeping: lights off, soft music playing. Reading usually keeps me even more awake. One friend responded to my Facebook query that sleeplessness is an excellent time to pray. True. Sometimes I do pray then. But I also get frustrated when I can’t seem to dig in and get much done in the daytime because I need a nap because I am so groggy. It just seems like it would be so much more efficient to sleep at night and work during the day.

Still, I know that stewing about it only makes it worse. I remind myself in the night that even if I am not asleep, I’m resting. I can enjoy the quietness and freedom to just relax without any demands on my time. I breathe deep and slow, sometime pray, sometimes think, until eventually I drift off. And I catch a nap in the day time if I need to, but I try to keep it short so as not to perpetuate nighttime wakefulness.

Several nights ago, though, was one of my worst nights ever. I don’t think I slept more than an hour the whole night. And what’s worse, I had a three-hour drive the next morning and meetings all afternoon and evening. I wasn’t feeling particularly nervous about the trip. Last year I had made the same journey for a writer’s conference, and I was much more on edge then because it was the first time I had traveled alone or attended anything like a conference in years. But God got me through that, and I knew a bit more what to expect this time. So I had a bit of apprehension, but nothing like the year before. Perhaps underlying nerves were the problem, even though I wasn’t consciously feeling nervous at the time. I tried all my usual tactics, to no avail.

Then I had to fight worry. How was I going to drive and stay awake in meetings for a conference my husband had paid good money for without sleep? Some of my health issues get worse without sleep. What if they flared up? I knew these thoughts and concerns would only drive sleep further away, so I tried to give them to the Lord and stay relaxed.

On top of everything else, I was intensely uncomfortable. Hot one minute, cold the next. The sheets irritated my skin. I got up and went to the couch in the living room, thinking a change of venue might help. It didn’t. Maybe I was coming down with something?

I went ahead and got up at 4:30 a.m. and took my shower. But I was sad and frustrated and even a bit hurt because God had not answered my prayer. He knew I needed sleep. He made me to need sleep. He knew everything on the schedule this day. Why had He let me go most of the night without sleep when I earnestly begged Him for it?

I didn’t know. I sent a quick text to a friend letting her know what was going on and asking her prayers. I decided to just keep getting ready for the trip and see what happened. I felt like I was moving through molasses or walking like a zombie (to mix metaphors). I couldn’t eat much and began to feel nauseous.

I couldn’t remember if I had actually prayed about whether to go to the conference. Was this God’s way of telling me no?

After I got everything ready to go, I knew I could not drive safely in the condition I was in. I decided to try to take a nap in my desk chair and see what happened. I asked God to direct me and help me know whether to go or stay. I asked Him, if He wanted me to go, to multiply whatever sleep I could get in my nap like the loaves and fishes and make it enough. And I fell blessedly asleep for maybe an hour.

When I woke up, my stomach still wasn’t feeling 100% well, but all grogginess was gone. I left for the conference. The night before I had made a sandwich for lunch so I didn’t have to look for a restaurant first thing when I got to town: since I was running late, I was able to eat a few bites on the way. I got to the conference just after the first introductory meeting ended. Though I would have liked to have gotten there in time for it, it wasn’t entirely critical. I had enough time to peruse the schedule to choose which of the workshops to attend that afternoon. I attended the rest of the conference and had a wonderful time. I had no trouble sleeping in the hotel room that night.

Still I pondered why God had not answered my prayer for sleep the night before. One of the truths that had sustained me on a recent family trip was “Your heavenly Father knows what things you have need of (Matthew 6:8). One by one He met each of my needs on that trip. Why did He seem to withhold one this time?

Perhaps one reason was to increase my dependence on Him. I thought I already was depending on Him for a number of issues relating to the conference and travel! But maybe He wanted to take me to a different level.

Philippians 4:11-13 came to mind: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” I can’t say I have totally learned that contentment, but I am in the process.

And then 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 came to my attention. “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

God may have any of a number of reasons to allow us to suffer a need of some sort. He’s not being cruel or unkind: all of His Word and years of knowing Him testify to that. God told Israel that He let them suffer hunger in the wilderness to humble them, to test them, and to turn their focus from their physical need to the spiritual. Unanswered prayer can cause us to examine ourselves for any hindrances on our part. Sometimes He cuts off something we need to produce more growth, to bring us to maturity.

I still don’t know why God didn’t answer my prayer for sleep on a night when sleep was critically needed. But He did meet my need, even though not in the usual way. Even in the face of a sleepless night and a full day, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).

See also:

When I Don’t Get What I Need
When the Solution I Want Isn’t What I Need
Let Patience Have Her Perfect Work
Reasons Why Prayers Aren’t Answered

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth)

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14 thoughts on “When sleep won’t come

  1. I think many Christians THINK or BELIEVE God didn’t answer their prayer but in reality and from core Biblical truths, God always answers us!!!! It just doesn’t look like what we expect and sometimes the answer isn’t what we were wanting. But He ALWAYS answers us, it’s either a Yes. A No, or a Wait. And like my pastor sometimes jokes about is sometimes a “are you kidding, Me.”. 😜
    Seriously, though, this was good insight. I had my 2nd daughter at age 39 and she got me up every single night for her first 7 years of life and i hadn’t even hit menopause yet!!! Hahaha. We finally figured out around age 3 that her love language is physical touch. All she needed ( after the breast feeding stage i mean) was a hug and for us to tuck her blankie back into her arms. Fast forwRd to now…..and yes I’m post menopausal now…I’ve researched a lot about sleep and find that if i work out actively with some kind of aerobic activity during the day, my sleep patterns improve. I also don’t take naps mainly because i still teach full tim ebut also because napping does hinder sleep in post menopausal years. Rather, i get my body moving and that seems to perk me up. Even just a few stretches if i can’t squeeze in a half hour work out before dinner prep really helps. Sorry this is long. I literally just posted about this type of thing yesterday!
    Here’s to praying you get a good night’s sleep tonight!!

    • That’s what most of us mean when we talk about unanswered prayer – that it wasn’t answered in the way or time we had specifically been praying. It would probably be more correct to speak of prayer that God evidently said no to rather than unanswered prayer.

      I definitely need to get more exercise, for a variety of reasons. Most nights I actually do sleep well, but other nights, no matter how much I need it or how tired I am, I end up awake for longer than I like. But that had never happened for a whole night like the one I wrote about here. Though I hope never to repeat the experience, I’m glad for what God taught me through it.

  2. What a great post, and so honest and relevant to all the stuff we wonder about. Wouldn’t it have been just awesome if on your way to the conference (late and tired) you had seen a 10 car pile up on the highway that you miraculously missed because you were late–or if you had stopped for gas and led someone to Christ on the way and the answer to your delays and grogginess had been vindicated because you would have been riding on a holy burst of adrenaline for the rest of the weekend.
    Instead, we hold our questions, and we trust that God knows what He is doing, even if we do not get the answers we wanted.
    And this is the following life . . .

    • Amen, Michele. It’s awesome to see a reason why things went as they did. But so often we don’t, and we just have to trust. I was just telling another friend that maybe someday that will be my automatic reaction. 🙂 But for now I have to keep reminding myself that God sees the big picture and knows why He allows things to happen as they do. I think John Piper said that God is always doing 1,000 more things behind the scenes than what we know about (only he said it more succinctly and elegantly. 🙂 )

    • I love what MM said and in all truth – we will never know. Would it not be a wonderful thing if when we get to glory we can say, “Papa, remember that night I couldn’t sleep? Show me what was going on.” And, the video would reveal some Kingdom movement, which we had no idea of yet was critically impacted by your non-sleep and your prayers.

  3. Love this post, as I often deal with this issue lately. I have to say too, as an aside, that reading this (and likewise with most all of your posts) is just so … soothing. You have a really calming way with words that really is a blessing to me. Others too, I suspect. I have used many of the strategies you’ve mentioned here, and will continue to. You give really good suggestions.

  4. Barbara, it is rough when we can’t sleep…especially when it is at a time when something special is coming up and rest is of uttermost importance. Sometimes it is hard to know what to think when He doesn’t answer our prayers for something as needful for sleep. But I applaud you for taking that nap in your chair and how He gave you refreshment in that hour of sleep so that you could get on your way.

    Your comment about, “I remind myself in the night that even if I am not asleep, I’m resting.” made me think of Elisabeth Elliot. I know that both you and I are fond of her. I can’t remember if I read this or if I heard it on the radio but she was talking about this very thing and she said how when those times hit her she tried to enjoy the quiet…and the first thing she told herself was that she was resting whether she was sleeping or not and the second thing she enjoyed doing was thanking the Lord for her husband’s (I think it was Lars at the time) breathing in and out and how that calmed her to the point of sleep.

  5. Thanks for taking us through the ‘night watches’ and capturing all the thoughts and emotions that assail us then, Barbara.

    This is the time I start singing hymns in my heart, starting with the letter A and moving right through the alphabet. More often than not, happily, it ‘works.’

    He meets us in those dark hours. In more ways than one …

  6. What stands out to me in your story is that God brought to mind Scriptures to help you endure. Lack of sleep is definitely difficult and grueling. Even though you never got a definite answer, you used this circumstance to write about God’s goodness. I think there’s beautiful purpose in that. I’m also working on trusting God through a season of sleeplessness due to my young children refusing to stay in their beds at night! So I was really thankful to come across your post relating to struggles of sleeplessness. God bless!

  7. I relate to this dilemma SO many nights. At first I’m okay with the sleeplessness, realizing I’m still resting, but then I start the worrying too…about how tired I’ll be the next day, on and on. I know the Lord still has much work to do on me! I’m glad you were able to go on to your conference, despite the sleepless night before. The Lord may not always provide the way we ask, but he does always provide.

  8. I know about those sleepless nights. You described what I imagine many of us are feeling when we too cannot sleep. I am glad you still made it to your conference and I pray God continues to teach you during those sleepless moments. Blessings!

  9. Pingback: End-of-March musings | Stray Thoughts

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