Wake up! (Rev. 3:2)
The Puritans were masters of diagnosing spiritual states (e.g. see William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, part 7). And one of the spiritual states they considered the most dangerous was sleepiness.
Why we sleep
Richard Sibbes, one of the English Puritans, in his third sermon on the Song of Songs, lists the similarities between the causes of physical sleep and the causes of spiritual sleep:
- Chemicals which bind the senses. Sibbes (writing a few hundred years ago) didn’t know all the biology but he got the basic idea. Our bodies produce chemicals which make us sleepy. Scientists now know there are two main ones – melatonin and adenosine. Melatonin production is inhibited by light so it only starts being created by the body in serious quantities when it gets dark. Adenosine is something that builds up during the day until it gets to a tipping point telling your body it’s time to sleep. It’s a great parable of the ‘spiritual fumes of worldly cares and desires that obstruct the senses of the soul’ (Sibbes). As we go through the day there is a cumulative build-up of worldly worries, riches and pleasures (Luke 8:14), internal weeds and thorns slowly choking the soul. And as we stop looking at the light of the Son, the flesh pulls us down into sleep.
- Grief which oppresses. Jesus’ disciples fell asleep, ‘exhausted from sorrow’ (Luke 22:45). It’s well known that lethargy and excessive sleeping is a symptom of depression and a stage of grief. The body and soul are tightly bound together and the lowness of the one often reflects and affects the other.
- Running which wearies. Just as an hour of Running for the Bibleless will quite obviously make you tired, so it is possible to wear yourself out running after riches (Prov. 23:4) or idols (Isaiah 57:10). There is good sort of running in the Christian life (see below) but weariness comes from running away from the God of life and rest to serve the hard task masters of this world (career, image, sex) and chase after their carrots.
- Music which enchants. There’s a section of C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair where the Witch “took out a musical instrument rather like a mandolin. She began to play it with her fingers – a steady monotonous thrumming that you didn’t notice after a few minutes. But the less you noticed it, the more it got into your brain and your blood. It made it hard to think.” In the same way our culture plays, an insidious music that says, “There is no God. There is no Sun. There never was any world but this one.”
- Lack of exercise. I’m a great culprit of this. I know the lethargy that comes from an aversion to getting trainers on. And I know that when I do get out and exercise (by my wife’s good persuasion) I always feel so much better for it. So in the spiritual realm there is a joy in running the way of Christ and a lethargy that comes from lack of training in godliness.
- Diseases which corrupt and numb. Just as illness sends us to bed, so the soul can get sickness which makes it sleepy. Whereas personal letters in the Greco-Roman world were heavily concerned with physical health (‘I was sorry to hear you were ill. How is your bad stomach? I pray to Zeus you will be well…’) in sharp contrast the letters of the New Testament are heavily concerned with the spiritual health of the churches. There is healthy teaching and there is gangrenous teaching (2 Tim. 2:17). Gangrenous teaching turns our affections away from heaven and Jesus and replaces them with ‘cold, earthly, gross affections about things here below’, numbs the soul and sends us to sleep (Sibbes).
- Poison which incapacitates. Snake venom – depending on the snake – can have various horrific effects. Some snakes use neurotoxins to shut down your nervous system causing paralysis. Some produce cytotoxins which eat your flesh away causing organ failure. Others inject you with hemotoxins which cause your blood to coagulate and stop flowing. Fortunately, most snakes won’t attack you without provocation. The vampire bat is particularly unpleasant because it gets you when you’re asleep and thanks to its needle-like teeth and natural anaesthetic you won’t know it’s got you. Satan combines all of that – he’s a stealthy, paralysing, eat-you-up, pull-you-down, slow-you-up, blood-sucker. He attacks when you’re low and you won’t even feel it. ‘Insensible evils are the most dangerous evils’ (Sibbes).
- Slothful company which is infectious. When someone yawns, you yawn. Being around sleepy people makes you sleepy. Sibbes sees this as the most common cause of sleepiness among Christians – surrounding ourselves with spiritual sluggards who are keen not too be too zealous, whose religion is proud and formal. They have lost their first love and they pour cold water on any one else’s passion for Christ, dragging you down into their own coldness.
What’s the solution? Well there are already some answers implicit in the causes:
- Get close to people who are on fire for Christ and who will warm your heart and gently poke you to wake up. This doesn’t mean existing in a Christian bubble. It means that slothful cold ‘Christians’ are more dangerous to you than non-Christians (1 Cor. 5:9-11). Invest in good Christian friends.
- Get under good healthy Bible teaching. That is the antidote to the venom of bad teaching. Don’t tolerate ‘a bit of prosperity gospel’ any more than you would tolerate a bit of gangrene or leprosy in your foot. Preach the true gospel of Christ crucified from the Scriptures whenever you get the opportunity – to others and to your own soul.
- Get exercising. A friend said wisely the other day, “You love what you do. The more you do something the more passionate you are about it.” As I need to push myself (or be pushed) out the door for a run, we need to push ourselves (and gently push one another) to get back into the Bible, to get praying, to get serving, to get evangelising. And then we’ll find that we actually love it.
- And most important of all, look to Jesus. Throw open the windows of your soul and let the light flood back in. Look in his radiant face and the spiritual melatonin will be driven away. Search the Scriptures for the Son and soak in his rays. Let his music drown out the music of this world. Let his comfort and presence heal our sad, sick souls.
iServe Africa is an indigenous Kenyan gospel-driven organisation that exists to promote faithful Bible teaching and servant leadership.