Why I Don’t Use The Bible As A Lullabye

My insomnia is back. It randomly shows up out for a week or two, vexing me greatly, before disappearing just as randomly (usually for a couple months). I hate it, or course, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and every “Nae Nae” video. When you’re up at3:30 AM, knowing you have to take your kid to school in four hours and then officiate a funeral or preach at the rescue mission, there’s very little you can do but harrumph quietly (so as not to wake the wife) and get more and more angry.

Sometimes I’ll get up and read my twitter feed, because that (i.e., any twitter feed) is literally the most boring thing ever. I have tentative plans with fellow author/fellow pastor/fellow insomniac Noah Filipiak to meet at this greasy spoon twenty-four-hour diner called “Theo’s” a couple blocks from our homes when we’re both up in the dead of night, but we’ve never done it and likely never will. I used to post my frustrations on Facebook (“Arggh! Still awake!”), but I couldn’t take the comments, which were a combination of obvious advice (“Try Melatonin!” “Stop looking at your laptop screen BECAUSE BLUE LIGHT!”) and pious suggestions that were just too darn pious for the hour.

For example, “Sounds like a great opportunity for some in-depth Bible study!” or, “Maybe God is giving you this time as a gift and you should use it to pray!” The people making such suggestions mean well and, in the clear light of day, it all sounds fine. But I’m convinced these commenters are either way holier than me or (more likely) have never had real, enduring insomnia—at least not the brand I’ve had. Remember that scene in Fight Club when Jack is slumped on the couch, slack-jawed, not-watching some horrid infomercial at 4 AM and the voice-over says, “When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep and you’re never really awake?” That couldn’t be more true.

I am Xerxes Insominia

Don’t get me wrong. In the fifth hour (or fifth night) of insomnia, I do pray. Things like, “Lord, please let me fall asleep.” The Spirit also prays for me with groanings that cannot be uttered, which is good. But beyond that, my mind could not focus enough to truly pray for an extended period and I’d fall into the crass cliché, “Forget counting sheep; try talking to the Shepherd!” (read: use your blood-bought access to the King of Kings as a trick to get sleepy, because addressing your Creator is Dullsville). No thanks.

Likewise, while I’ve been known to read a Psalm or two on my device (yeah, it’s a 13-year-old Palm PDA) when I can’t sleep, I don’t want to use the Bible as some sort of sacred sleeping pill. I’ve heard of people reading the genealogies in Genesis or ceremonial laws in Numbers to make their eyelids heavier. In fact, I get the impression that many people only ever read such passages for that purpose. Maybe it’s the uptight pastor in me, but I find the idea distasteful and borderline blasphemous.

But wait, I hear someone object, isn’t there biblical precedent? What about King Xerxes and his insomnia in Esther 6? Isn’t that the same thing?  No. No, it’s not. For a few reasons:

  • That passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. We’re certainly not to emulate everything we see in Scripture. Even when God uses someone’s actions to further his sovereign plan, it does not equate to his stamp of approval on the morality of said actions (see Gen 50:20, Acts 2:23).
  • Even from a pragmatic point of view, Xerxes I is probably not the kind of guy we want to emulate, particularly in bed. While he was neither the psychotic, mesh-speedo-wearing god-wannabe of 300 nor the kind-hearted Flannelgraph chap of children’s Sunday School curricula—he was probably somewhere in between and very much motivated by self-glorification. After all, he banished his wife for not wanting to be a piece of meat for a bunch of drunken nobles and then created his own private sexual reality show to find the hottest possible replacement for her.
  • Even if we were going to emulate the guy, it wasn’t the Scriptures that he had read to him when he couldn’t sleep; it was the Book of Records—not I Chronicles, but the chronicles of stuff he and others in his own kingdom had done (kind of like a cuneiform twitter feed) . And we don’t even know if his intention was to get sleepier from the laundry list of historic court happenings or to be entertained, figuring he couldn’t sleep anyway so he may as well relive some of his more memorable moments.
  • Most importantly, even if Xerxes was hoping to drift off to the mellow tones of his kingdom’s chronicles, it didn’t work! Before long, he was out of bed, all worked up, newly aware of a way in which he’d dropped the ball, and having a midnight policy meeting with Haman.

And why did the chronicles fail to induce sleep? Because, while he was expecting to hear mundane details of his own life and work (even a list of conquered nations has to get old if it’s long enough), he wound up hearing about something God had been doing! What might have been a dry recounting of his own life and business (with which he was already well acquainted) and a pointless exercise in narcissism became an eye-opening, game-changing epiphany whose effects went way beyond Xerxes’ sleep patterns, touching the whole nation, re-orienting who the king trusted and who he executed, and sending ripples throughout the world and through history!

So here’s my question.

When you open the Scriptures, what do you expect? A narcissistic laundry-list of affirmations about you? Tedious accounts of long-dead people with only the thinnest thread of connection to your life today? Some dry lists of rules and names to make you drowsy at the end of a long day and give you pleasant dreams while fulfilling your spiritual duty? Or do you expect to encounter God and what he’s done and is doing for his glory in a way that will quicken you, rouse you from your slumber, spilling into every area of your life, never returning void and never leaving you quite the same? If you expect a sacred sedative, you’ll probably find one. If you search the Scriptures for life, knowing that these Scriptures testify of Jesus, you will find it.

To clarify, I have nothing against reading one’s Bible at night, even when tired. That’s a worthwhile discipline and I encourage it. I’ve been reading Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening each, um, morning and evening for years, along with an accompanying Bible-reading plan and I’ve found it beneficial. Nor is there any problem with praying through the night if one has the will power. Jesus himself did this on at least a couple of occasions and rebuked his disciples for failing to follow suit. On the contrary, my challenge for you and for me, especially as we’ve entered the season of “My resolution is to read the whole Bible through in 2016” is simply: what is your sense of expectation and anticipation as you approach the Scriptures? What role are they playing in your life? Are they a lullaby that beds you down or are they a big meal that gives you strength, patience, peace, and courage?

Remember those commercials for sugary cereals on Saturday mornings in the ‘80s, where they’d flash to an image of a huge, luxurious breakfast of ham, eggs, toast, bacon, and, like, caviar for just a second at the very end (“Honey Smacks are part ofthis complete breakfast!”)? Well, as we dig into God’s Word in 2016, may it be the spiritual equivalent of that complete breakfast (minus the Honey Smacks). May it be food for our souls, not a cure for our insomnia.

Zach Bartels

I’m pastor at Judson Baptist Church in Lansing, MI and the author of Playing Saint, The Last Con, and a few other books. I’m husband to Erin, father to Calvin, and lover of gourmet coffee and fine cigars. He's the author of Playing Saint and The Last Con