My children are beautiful when they sleep. I can’t resist ducking back into their room after getting them into bed, sometimes only moments after expending considerable energy extracting myself from that same room. They’re in adorable positions—ankles crossed or bottom in the air—breathing softly through full, parted lips with their hair feathered across the pillow. The trappings of the day have fallen away and their faces are relaxed and peaceful, utterly at rest. There is no anger to furrow their brow, no movement to blur the lines of their body, not even laughter to sparkle in their eyes. They are unadorned, simply themselves, as though in resting the essence of their personhood can shine through. They always seem so vulnerable—achingly so—and it’s hard to remember the sibling squabbles of the day or the Sharpie on the couch. All I can remember is that I love them and want to protect them from all harm.
A few years back my husband and I synced our photos and I discovered that from the earliest days of our marriage he had been taking pictures of me sleeping. These photos have such a tender, loving quality to them and he confessed that he’s able to look on my face longer and more deeply when I’m sleeping than face to face. These photos are evidence of a doting husband, someone who sees me in my own moment of vulnerability with great affection. It’s a great comfort to know someone is watching over me with love.
But what happens when no one is watching over you? Sometimes you’re alone; the buck stops with you. It can feel scary to go to sleep, to let go of control and consciousness in order to enter darkness and total defenselessness. In some ways, sleep is a kind of death that we enter into every night. And the older we get, the more we resist it. We sleep less, work more, watch more, worry more.
Sometimes we can’t sleep even when we try. My sister-in-law calls this phenomenon “the worry pee,” when you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and then find yourself lying awake staring at the ceiling as you catalogue all the things going wrong in your life. You may think you are problem solving, organizing your thoughts, or even praying, when actually you’re descending a spiral staircase of fear and worry. As someone once said, “There are no silver linings at 3:00 a.m.” Like the disciples caught in the storm, we lose faith and cry out, “Lord, save us! Don’t you care?” (Matthew 8:25; Mark 4:38). In many ways, sleeplessness can be a kind of faithlessness.
Jesus himself wonders at this kind of thinking, saying, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” and again, “Why do you worry about your life? Your father knows what you need” (Mark 4:40; Matthew 6:8, 28). It’s easy to feel defensive at this chastisement; fear seems reasonable when surrounded by a storm while in a capsizing boat. But Jesus has the right to challenge us because he was in that same storm, that same boat … sleeping. Christ was so completely dependent on the loving protection of his father that he was able to sleep in the middle of a storm at sea. And as we all know, sleep is not something you can force. Jesus did not sleep in this moment as a matter of discipline, but rather his rest was evidence of a totally integrated belief that “He who watches over Israel never slumbers or sleeps …The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life” (Psalm 121:4, 7). It’s not hard to imagine that God found great delight in this radical display of faith, in the beauty of His Son’s sleeping face.
If sleeplessness is faithlessness, then our nightly routine can become an act of faith. We enter into the darkness of night, the vulnerability of sleep, as a kind of death and then trust in the Lord to take care of us, body and soul, and bring us into a new day. Just as the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper has the daily embodiment of a meal, so the sacrament of baptism has the regular embodiment of sleep. The very act of sleep—ordinary and necessary as it is— can be a declaration of faith. “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8, emphasis mine). And this kind of integrated faith in a loving Father becomes a source of joy to God, for there is great beauty in a sleeping child.