A Pepper Grinder Post

He Gives Sleep

I can’t remember where, but I seem to remember hearing that Edith Schaeffer chose to sleep only four hours a night so she could spend extensive time studying and writing on top of the heavy hospitality duties she carried as mistress of L’Abri.  I have heard of other exceptional people, like Thomas Edison, who could function well on four hours of sleep a night.  As for me, I sometimes do function on four hours of sleep, but you need to define “function” loosely.  I can get four hours of sleep and continue to breathe, circulate blood, and sit in front of a computer. 

I tend to feel guilty when I hear about people who sleep less than I do.  “If only I were a really self-controlled person,” I think, “I could do that too, and then, just imagine what I could accomplish for God.”
Does the Bible have anything to say on this subject?  It does, but it seems contradictory at first glance.  Here is what Solomon has to say on the subject in Proverbs:

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.  Proverbs 6:10  NIV

No doubt about it, Edith was right.  And yet, the Psalm that we are going to look at today and in the next post (which, like the verse above in Proverbs, is attributed to Solomon) seems to have a different message.  Here is my translation of the first two verses of Psalm 127:

Unless Yahweh builds a house, the builders’ work is pointless.
Unless Yahweh guards a city, it’s pointless for the watchmen to stay awake.
It’s pointless for you to get up early and put off resting, sweating for every mouthful,
Because he gives sleep to those he loves.

puppy sleepingSo, do we get to pick and choose which one we like better?  If you’re a workaholic, you put a plaque on your wall with Proverbs 6:10 engraved on it.  If you love to sleep in, you make Psalm 127:2 your life verse.  NO!!  This is something I hate about the way some modern Christians approach the Bible.  With tough issues, like predestination, a person will focus on verses which sound like they say what that person believes, and then he or she will just ignore the verses which don’t fit their view.  This is a perilous path. 

If two passages appear to contradict each other, we must dive into both of them more deeply.  Most likely, we are not fully understanding one or both passages.  At worst, we will have found an issue where there is a tension which our finite minds cannot fully grasp, and we will have to hold onto both ideas.  This is not nearly as comfortable as settling into a nice static position and assuming we are right.

What about in this case?  Are we missing something when we do a purely surface reading of each?

My purpose in this posting is not to look in detail at Proverbs 6:10, but I do want to point out a couple of things.

  1. If we read the verses surrounding Proverbs 6:10, it is clear that Solomon’s warning about sleep is directed to the “sluggard.”  This is a type of person who is portrayed in Proverbs as wanting to get the rewards of work without having to work.  He won’t plow his fields when it’s time to plow, he makes up excuses for not doing what needs to be done, and he can’t even be relied on to deliver a message.  Twice in Proverbs, it’s even said that the sluggard is too lazy even to lift the food from his plate to his mouth!  My point is that Solomon is not addressing a normal hard-working person who gets eight or nine hours of sleep most nights. 
  2. The Old Testament does not promote a workaholic culture.  There is a time for work, and it is absolutely clear that work should not be avoided when it’s time to do it.  On the other hand, right from the start, God established a work-rest balance by creating for six days and then resting on the seventh.  Not only did the Jews have a stringently enforced Sabbath, they also had periodic festivals when they would stop working, as well as one year off out of every seven (hence the term sabbatical), and even an extra bonus year of rest and celebration every 50 years!

So, I don’t think we can really use the verse in Proverbs to argue that everyone should try to get by with as little sleep as possible so they can do more work for God.

Does this mean that Psalm 127 wins the argument, and we should always make getting plenty of sleep a high priority?  Unfortunately for people who love to sleep, I don’t think that this really holds up very well either.  The problem isn’t that the first two verses of the Psalm are anti-sleep; the problem is that sleep isn’t the main point in them.

house under constructionRead my translation again.  What word jumps out at you?  The Hebrew word shava which I’ve translated as “pointless” is used three times in these two verses.  This isn’t the same word used over and over in Ecclesiastes (“’Meaningless, meaningless’, says the teacher”), but it is similar in meaning.  The idea it conveys is one of emptiness and futility.  So is this an existential treatise stating that all our work is pointless?

No.  The key here is the phrase, “Unless Yahweh…”  The message is that if the Lord isn’t doing it, you’re wasting your time.  I want to make a very important point.  The passage does NOT say, unless you are building a house for God, or unless you are guarding a city for God, your efforts are pointless.  It says, “Unless Yahweh builds a house…”  (Yahweh, as you probably know, was God’s personal name for the Israelites to use.)  I have known Christians who worked very hard to do things for God.  The problem is that if we are doing something for God that God doesn’t want, or even if we are doing something he wants us to do at some point but now is not the right time, our efforts are worth nothing.

Think about Moses.  He had a position of favor and power in Egypt, and yet, he didn’t forget his people.  He had the sense that he was going to be instrumental in their deliverance from slavery.  Then one day, he witnessed an Egyptian beating an Israelite.  Moses leaped in to do God’s work—he killed the Egyptian.  The next day Moses was fleeing for his life, alone, into the desert, rather than leading the Israelites to the Promised Land.

What went wrong?  Moses was absolutely correct in thinking that God would use him to deliver the Israelites.  What was the difference between this incident and the time 40 years later when God did use Moses to lead his people to freedom?  The first time, Moses was doing it for God.  The second time, God was doing it, and Moses was his instrument.

lake seen through treesSo the answer is simple.  Find out what God wants to do and do it along with him.  Unfortunately, now we run into the now-we-see-through-a-glass-darkly phenomenon.  It is often hard to know what God wants us to do.  Here are some suggestions.

  1. Ask yourself if what you are thinking about doing goes along with the teaching of the Bible.  This is the most objective measuring stick, and the most crucial and authoritative.  If we are serious about being guided by God, we must know the Bible well, and we must be prepared to follow its teachings.
    For example, the Bible clearly teaches us that a man who does not provide for his family (including his extended family, but ESPECIALLY his immediate family) has “denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).  So, if you are unemployed and without money (especially if you are supporting a family), you have some clear guidance—get a job.  Flipping burgers at McDonalds is better than denying the faith.
    The difficulty is, there are many cases where we have to choose between options that are equally biblical.  If a young man is choosing whether to go out with Heather Heathen or Brittany Believer, the choice is clear biblically (since the Bible says not to marry a non-believer, and what’s the point of going out with someone if there is no possibility of the relationship progressing to marriage?).  But, what if he is trying to decide between Brittany Believer and Christina Christian?  The Bible doesn’t say anything like, “He who has found a blonde has found a good thing.” 
  2. Has God spoken to you or given you a clear burden?  One time in my life, God woke me from sleep with audible words (to help find my great aunt’s hearing aid battery, of all things).  Most of the time I have made major decisions in my life, from marrying my wife to starting this blog, I have had words come into my mind with a sense of otherness and authority.  Can we be misled by this?  Absolutely.  However, I believe that if we truly WANT to be led and do not rely on this form of guidance alone, God will keep us on the right path.
  3. Is there something you are drawn to?  While we are sometimes called to do things that we don’t want to do, I think very often God guides us through our gifts and desires.  Obviously, this has to be held up to the Bible test.  For example, I have heard women say that they know they are called to be church leaders because they have the gifts and the calling.  If a woman, not desiring to be a pastor, studied the Bible and came to the conclusion that women teaching men was A-okay, and then felt the call and desire to be a pastor, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this (aside from a difference of interpretation of a number of important New Testament passages).  However, I had the feeling that most of the women I knew who came to this position started with the desire to be a church leader, and then, after some searching, came up with an argument to justify that.  Beware of any Biblical interpretation that goes against what an eight-year-old would hear if you read the passage to her, AND which justifies what you want to do.
  4. How does it feel?  Okay, this might be the most subjective of all, but it has sometimes been very important for me.  What I really mean is having your antennae up for certain bad kinds of feelings.  There have been times that I was all ready to hit Send after writing a hostile email and have become aware of a desire, carefully buried beneath justifications, to hurt someone who had hurt me.  Another thing I can sometimes “smell” in my actions is self-glorification.  My advice, if you think you might smell something bad in the action you are about to take, is to WAIT.  Hold off and come back to the decision later, and you may find that what was a vague discomfort at first may be much clearer to you.
  5. Ask for guidance and then move.  This is what I tend to go with if I have considered the above factors and still have no clue what I’m supposed to do.  It struck me at some point that if God wants to guide me (and why wouldn’t he?) and is all-powerful, and if I have sincerely asked him to guide me, I should assume that he WILL guide me, even if I don’t know he is doing it.  In Proverbs 21:1 we read:
    The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.
    I don’t think this means that rulers are having lots of visions and mystical experiences.  I think God is guiding them without their even knowing it.  If he can do this with a person in authority who may not even be submitted to God, he can certainly do it with us.
  6. Get advice from Christians you respect.  I have to confess, I didn’t even put this one in the first draft.  In theory, I think it is important as one of the ways for God to guide us.  My problem is that I have heard so much bland, worldly, and downright bad advice from Christians over the years that I am pretty soured on this one.  On the other hand, I have a great deal of respect for my wife, and I just about never make important decisions without discussing them with her.  The key is to ask advice from the right people.  I would not recommend making a decision by taking a poll of all the people in your Bible study.  I would not recommend asking advice from Charlie Churchgoer (or even Eddie Elder!), who seems exactly like most of the unbelievers you know, except that he doesn’t go out drinking or say bad words.  If you can find someone who has put his or her life on the line to follow God’s teachings, or whose life and decisions you greatly admire, ask him or her.  Even in this case, though, keep in mind that this person will probably tend to give advice in keeping with the calling God has given him or her, and your calling may be different.

hammock by the seaSo, assuming that Edith Schaeffer really did get four hours of sleep a night, was that bad or good?  It depends.  The crucial thing in all of this is attitude.  Are we doing our great works for God, or are we helping God do his great works?  Unless the Lord is drawing people to himself, your evangelism program is pointless.  Unless the Lord is giving people understanding, my Bible teaching blog is useless.  It doesn’t matter how noble and good our cause is.  If it is our cause that we are doing for God, it will crumble to dust.  If it is his cause and we are going along with him, it will succeed.  And, since it is his cause, we can relax.  There may be plenty to do, but we can put aside the thought that the success or failure of the project depends on us, because it doesn’t.  It is his project.  We can help.  We can also get some sleep.


*, we'll look at the rest of Psalm 127.

**Photo Credits: sleeping puppy by

Comments on this post:

Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it. You both greatly clarified a passage I never quite got a handle on (Psalm 127) and challenged me to analyze what I do, and why.
-Elisabeth   March 4, 2015