The Importance of Sleep

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James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God begins with a surprising soul training exercise (or spiritual discipline): sleep.

Back in 2009, I found myself in a seminar with Smith during a Renovare’ conference in San Antonio. Jim told us, “Tonight, when you go to your hotel, I want you to pray the 23rd psalm as you fall asleep. Don’t set an alarm. Sleep until you wake up, even if that results in your being late to our morning session.”

Sleep is a Need, Not a Luxury

When we’re sleep deprived, our lives don’t work right. Sleep deprivation has physical effects. And those physical effects have emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual consequences. The various dimensions of the human person are connected.

In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin writes:

At one time or another, you’ve probably thought that if only you could sleep less, you’d get so much more done. Or that you could just borrow time by sleeping one hour less tonight and one more hour tomorrow night. As enticing as these may seem, they’re not borne out by research. Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild sleep reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (for example going to be late one night, sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward. When professional basketball players got ten hours of sleep a night, their performance improved dramatically: Free-throw and three-point shooting each improved by 9%.

p. 189, emphasis mine

Levitin’s book is focused on brain science and how we deal with information overload. A big way we can help our brains keep things straight is by organizing our time, activity, and environment in ways that support cognitive well-being. This includes how we schedule sleep.

Regular Sleep is Good Stewardship

The implications for the spiritual life are plain. Jim Smith is right: sleep is cornerstone exercise for the training of the soul. As human beings we are finite and limited. But God is not. Each time we lay down to rest, we trust God to care for us and watch over us during the night. We also trust, and welcome, that moment when God raises us up for another day to serve, to grow, and to walk in relationship with God and others.

The Gain in Surrender

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He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.

Jim Elliot

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Jesus, Matthew 16:24-26

Christians believe there is only one person to whom we can surrender, to whom we can cede authority, giving that person everything, and who, in return, offers us gain that cannot be taken away. Jesus is that person. To acknowledge God as God means conceding we are not God.

James Bryan Smith, in his book The Magnificent Journey: Living Deep in the Kingdom, explains this well:

Formation in Christlikeness depends on surrender; failure to surrender is a sickness unto death; I cannot find rest until I surrender; I am exchanging a lesser for a greater; and giving what I cannot keep in exchange for what I cannot lose is wise, not foolish. Deep reflection on these realities goes a long way toward helping me choose to take up my cross and die to myself.

Some surrender to cultural pressures, social pressures, familial pressures, or fashionable pursuits of money, sex, or power. Surrender to Christ instead. Only in him will you find an eternal, inexhaustible gain, a life that truly is life.

The Magnificent Journey is Magnificent

One of my favorite books of this past year was The Magnificent Journey: Living Deep in the Kingdom by James Bryan Smith. Journey is the second in Smith’s latest trilogy of books, preceded by The Magnificent Story (2017) and to be followed by The Magnificent Mission, releasing in fall of 2019.

The Magnificent Journey addresses a lack found often in Christian history, but particularly in our moment: among those professing faith in Jesus, too few embrace discipleship to Jesus, which is learning the way of life with Jesus. Smith uses the metaphor of journey to remind us that in the kingdom of God there is always a sense that we are on the move, keeping in step with Jesus as he calls to us, “Follow me!”

If Jesus is leading, then we are following. We are not “in charge.” Obedience is part of this way of life, and one of Jesus’ commands is to take up a cross. The Christian life, paradoxically, involves death to self in order to find life that lasts, a life fully alive to God. We must “surrender,” but not only once. Smith explains that surrender is not only an action taking place at conversion, but that surrender is also a way, a daily decision to yield oneself to God, to trust, and to follow.

Smith expands this idea to show that it is through surrender that we learn “to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.” In other words, by surrendering our faith grows. We learn, through experience, that God is good and can be trusted. This is not always easy.

Life involves suffering. Sometimes we experience tragedy. Smith is no stranger to this truth, and he tells of how God has used his own heartaches and heartbreaks in life for good. Smith does not minimize the magnitude of pain, nor deny the depth of our wounds, but instead points to Jesus and reminds us of the comfort found in worshiping a God who is well acquainted with grief, suffering, and death, yet who overcame those realities in the resurrection, and who promises us everlasting life.

The remainder of the book expands on this idea: that through surrender to Jesus we are led to experience life as God intended it for us. The way of surrender calls us to live our lives “from above,” or from the perspective and power of God and the everlasting kingdom. As we do so we learn to listen to God first (and, consequently, to others more carefully), to develop a deep, abiding trust by walking in faith, to live with hope, to demonstrate love, and to experience deep joy. Smith contends that this is the life God has for us. It is the life Jesus came to demonstrate for us, and to deliver to us. It is a life we receive through faith, by grace, so that God can use us for good.

Smith’s greatest authorial virtue is found in his gentle, pastoral style, with which he effectively conveys historical, biblical, and theological insight. Professor Smith has clearly spent time listening, observing, and tending to those around him, beginning with his family, church community, students, and those who share his cultural moment. He has identified many of the ideas that keep people from embracing God, from responding to the love of God extended to us through Jesus Christ. I have long admired this quality in Smith’s writing, speaking, and teaching ministry. Smith displays this virtue in this book.

Of all Smith’s books, this is my favorite thus far. I recommend it.