It may not sound like a very spiritual question, but it is a serious one.
Few of us are in danger of not getting enough sleep because we participate in all night sessions of prayer and study. The problem that most Christians face is trying to pray and study effectively – rather than sleepily – at the beginning or end of the day when they usually have opportunity for these spiritual activities.
But when we are tired at the end of the day or still tired in the morning after not enough sleep, it is difficult to seek God intently. Sometimes we need to seek God in very difficult situations – perhaps in the middle of the night – but under normal circumstances, in our regular day-to-day lives, if we really want to draw closer to God we need to “rest to be at our best.”
The principle is seen in an interesting story in the Old Testament. The Book of 1 Kings tells us that before meeting with God in difficult circumstances, the prophet Elijah did not study, fast, or meditate to be in top spiritual condition; he slept – and the account tells us he slept not once, but three times:
Elijah … went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night" (1 Kings 19:3-9).
Notice a couple of things about this unusual story. Elijah was on his way to meet with God at Horeb, the “Mountain of God,” but the account mentions specifically the sleep he took on the way – at least two naps and, presumably, a night’s sleep in the cave. Then God spoke to Elijah and the prophet entered into a conversation with him.
Fast forward to the New Testament and we find Jesus sleeping in the back of the boat before calming the storm (Matthew 8:24). This is not to say that Jesus had to rest before performing a miracle, but that he knew the value of rest even when conditions were difficult. That is why we find him telling his disciples to “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31), and the word translated “rest” in this verse can mean sleep as well as relaxation (as in Matthew 26:45, Mark 14:41).
Now the exhortation is to get “some rest” or “rest awhile,” as some translations have it, not to rest or sleep all day or in times when we urgently need to be seeking God (Matthew 26:40-41). But again, we are talking about our normal day-to-day activities and what is effective and what is not when it comes to spending time with God.
The truth is, none of us can perform at our best spiritually on an ongoing basis when we are not getting the rest we need. The Book of Psalms tells us: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:2). We can apply this principle to spiritual food also. The point the psalm is making is that God gives sleep to his people, those he loves, for a purpose – not just to be able to do another day’s work, but to help us most effectively seek and walk with him. David also put it this way: “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” (Psalm 3:5 ESV).
Sleep is a gift that we need for our spiritual lives as well as for our physical well-being – we just have to decide to accept the gift.