Praying in the Night When Sleep Eludes You
How do we respond to nights of sleeplessness and anxiety? (5 min. read)
In a few weeks, I will turn 75, a major plateau some might say. Certainly, it is an age that causes me to reflect on the goodness of our God in those years passed, on the present state of life and ministry, and on the days that yet remain to me. Coming to terms with one’s mortality and yet growing in anticipation of being with our Lord Jesus for a glorious eternity are both very important steps at this stage of life. And yet, at the same time, I’m feeling very much like the same person I was when I was 12, or 21, or 50!
And then, of course, there are the changes occurring in our physical bodies as we age. Muscles ache that didn’t used to ache, short-term memory forgets many things that it didn’t used to forget, roads signs are blurrier, the TV volume is turned up higher, and I say, “I beg your pardon?” way more than I used to.
the reality of aging may well be affecting our prayer life as well.
Now, all of this will be familiar to many of you, but it occurs to me that the reality of aging may well be affecting our prayer life as well. For example, many of us will be experiencing, as I am, a much higher occurrence of insomnia – either difficulty in getting to sleep or in getting back to sleep once awakened. And it’s frustrating because I used to be able to fall asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow, and once asleep, I was “dead to the world” for a good 8 hours!
Once awake, and even up out of bed so as to not disrupt our spouse’s rest, we are alone in the darkness of night, and quite possibly susceptible to the attacks of the enemy, especially attacks on the mind. Anxiety about our tenuous health, our dwindling finances, our children and grandchildren’s spiritual state, the fearful condition of the crumbling culture around us; all can come pressing relentlessly in upon us. Perhaps these issues were what woke us up in the first place. But, once we’ve embraced them, they can seem menacing and quite insurmountable.
When I first began to experience this sleeplessness, I found myself getting angry (a totally unhelpful response!). Eventually, I’d get up, get a bite to eat or a glass of milk, and perhaps watch some mindless TV sitcom rerun with hopes of getting sleepy. After an hour or so, I could usually go back to sleep. But it wasn’t long before I began to realize that this hour could have been used far more profitably. It could have been used in prayer and worship.
ask the Lord, “Is there someone specific that You would like me to pray for?”
While I was thinking about all this, I read several helpful articles that dealt with the issue of prayer and sleeplessness. Some suggested that all such incidents are God awakening us in order to intercede for someone specific that he will lay on our hearts. Personally, I struggle with putting the Lord in “Always” or “Never” boxes, but I do believe that sometimes that is the case and it has been my experience on several occasions. It is a good practice upon awakening in the night to ask the Lord, “Is there someone specific that You would like me to pray for?” If God makes that clear, then obedience should follow.
But what about the other times, the times of anxiety and fear that seek to overwhelm us? How should we pray then?
Well, let me begin by saying that the answer is not to beg the Lord to take these disturbing thoughts or dreams away nor to rail at them. The problem with that is that our focus remains on those thoughts and the cycle can and will continue. The key lies, as it always does, in changing our focus from wherever it’s been onto the Lord. In Psalm 63, King David gives us some practical help from his own life experience:
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
Psalms 63:5-7 ESV
Notice the progression of the Psalmist’s verb choices in these verses. First, he expresses his satisfaction with the loving care of his God, comparing it to a sumptuous banquet, and filling his mouth with praise as he remembers the specific examples of God’s help and protection.
Then he meditates on the Lord. Earlier in the psalm, he uses the similar image of “gazing at Your beauty”. This deliberate focusing on the Lord is what David shares with us as his strategy “in the watches of the night”. What does meditating on God mean in this context? Surely it means centering our attention solely on the Lord, gratefully remembering his many past blessings, delighting in his wonderful character and attributes, intentionally (and perhaps even out loud) reciting a list and examples of his amazing qualities: his Compassion, his Mercy, his Faithfulness, his Sovereignty, his Extravagant Creativity, his Power and Glory, his Kindness, his Fatherly Love, and many more. You get the idea.
we can meditate on the phenomenal accomplishments in Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead and ascension
As Christians, recipients of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, we can meditate on the phenomenal accomplishments in Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead and ascension to the right hand of the Father: Grace, Forgiveness, Freedom, the Gift of the Holy Spirit, a New Identity in Christ, and the Promise of Glorious Eternity spent with our Heavenly Father!
In Psalm 4, David comes to this remarkable observation:
In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4: 8 ESV
Even though David’s life was often in mortal jeopardy, he declares that he can trust the Lord to keep him in safety. In fact, he can both lie down AND fall asleep in peace because the only One who can truly cause him to be safe is on the job and up to the task. He knows, as we do, that our God “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121: 4) nor does he “faint or grow weary” (Isaiah 40: 28). We are safe in Christ! Sleep well!