A Cure for Insomnia
NOVEMBER 3, 2021
Do you ever have trouble sleeping?
Generally I don’t have trouble sleeping; but night before last, I just couldn’t sleep. No, it wasn’t guilt, okay? My guilt wasn’t any worse than it was the night before when I slept quite well. (Frankly, if guilt kept me from sleeping, I would never get any sleep.) So guilt wasn’t the problem. After all, I’m forgiven. And I wasn’t worried about anything, I didn’t drink too much coffee, and the bed was comfortable. I just couldn’t sleep.
Fred Smith used to say that nothing was more unproductive than beating pillows, and he always saw sleeplessness as a gift so he could get more work done. The week after he retired from First Presbyterian in Chattanooga, Ben Haden told me that he just couldn’t get to sleep that first Saturday night when he didn’t have to preach the next morning. Ben said, “Do you know what I did? I got up, went downstairs to my study, and wrote a sermon. Then I went back to bed and slept like a baby.”
I’m not into writing sermons or working in the middle of the night. I’m not even altogether happy about doing it during the day. So I looked for another solution.
Do you remember in White Christmas when Bing Crosby sang “Count Your Blessings” to Rosemary Clooney?
When I’m worried and I can’t sleep,
I count my blessings instead of sheep,
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.
That’s what I did! I started to list things for which I was thankful. After each item on the list, I told God how grateful I was. Of course, I was thankful for Jesus and all he’s done, family, you guys, my health and the health of those I love, provision and protection, friends, and biblical truth. I remembered and was thankful for friends who have “gone home” and I miss. Since God told us to be thankful for everything and in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18, 1 Timothy 4:4-5, Philippians 4:6, Ephesians 5:18-20, etc.), I also included being thankful for spinach, okra, liver, and other things about which I’m not exactly happy.
It went on and on. When I was up to about 150 items on my list, I prayed, “Lord, this is such a good practice and all, but do you know what time it is?” At about 154, I finally went to sleep. The next morning, being quite proud of myself (after all, I’m telling you about it), I had to repent of my self-righteousness.
Nevertheless, the night of thankfulness had pedagogical value to it. (You may have to look up “pedagogical” the way I did. ?) One could call it “Lessons in the Dark.”
The first thing I noticed was that the list was endless. In fact, the list was so long that I went to sleep before I came close to finishing it. Being thankful for blessings “known and unknown, remembered and forgotten” (as the liturgy puts it) is a practice born out of God’s unending abundance. Sometimes we forget about his abundance.
Abundance is what Jesus talked about in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Then when Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). Almost all of Ephesians 1 is one sentence (talk about run-on sentences), and Paul ends with saying that the Holy Spirit was a small token, “the guarantee,” if you will, “of our inheritance” (v. 14). Then Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2 that, if you have things about which to be thankful, you haven’t seen anything yet: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (v. 9). James said, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Paul’s benediction to the Ephesians also comes to mind, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think . . .” (Ephesians 3:20-21). It’s about God’s abundance.
When I was a teenager with a paper route, I won a trip to the North Carolina coast by selling newspaper subscriptions. It was the first time I had ever seen the ocean. I remember thinking, Wow! That’s big! I also remember thinking that it was the first time I had seen something of which there was enough. The next summer, a friend and I hitchhiked from North Carolina to Florida. On that trip, we were picked up by a man who owned orange orchards in Central Florida. The man let us off at one of his orchards, pointed to the acres of orange trees bent over with oranges, and said, “Take as many as you want. I won’t miss them.”
This Thanksgiving I plan to think of God’s “more than enough” abundance. I’ll remember that man’s words because God says the same thing, “Take as many as you want. I won’t miss them.”
The second thing I learned was how important it is to be intentional in thanking God—and not just at Thanksgiving either. Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” As you know, I’m a cynical, old preacher, and I don’t do that very often. In fact, the other night I figured I would be thankful for 10 or 15 things, and then fall asleep. The problem was that the list kept expanding and so much so that I was overwhelmed. The psalmist wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). That’s a good thing to do. What happens when you’re still and know that God is God? You start seeing his goodness, faithfulness, and love. His goodness is everywhere and I sometimes miss it.
A number of years ago, I was getting some routine X-rays. My wife Anna was in the waiting room along with my assistant Cathy. A frustrated nurse came into the waiting room and complained to them that I just wouldn’t be still. They said, almost in unison, “Yeah, he doesn’t do still very well.” I don’t, but I’ve decided to be still a lot more and intentionally count blessings. Frank Sinatra, when he got older, recorded a song with the lyrics, “Beautiful girl, walk a little slower when you walk by me.” God kind of says that too, “Child, walk a little slower when you walk by me.”
The third thing I learned during that night of gratitude was that the darkness gets in the way of praise. When I couldn’t sleep, before I started making my list, I began to revert to my default place of worry. John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That’s true, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t darkness . . . and sometimes so much so that it’s easy to miss the light. If you’re hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains with a pebble in your shoe, it’s hard to focus on the beauty surrounding you.
Do you know the story about the woman whose grandson was swimming in the sea? A riptide suddenly took him under water. “Lord, do something,” she cried. As soon as she prayed, the boy popped up to the surface and a wave carried him to the shore. She hugged her grandson, and then looked up to heaven, and grumpily said, “Lord, he had a hat!”
I don’t want to minimize the darkness. It’s bigger than a lost hat. Sometimes the darkness seems bigger than God’s goodness, doesn’t it? This Thanksgiving some of you are facing horrible loss and/or physical and emotional pain. Those demons haunt us in the middle of the night and God understands that. When Jesus taught us how to pray, he said that we should praise God (“hallowed be your name”) before we bring our pain (“Give us this day . . .”). I “get” that, but there have been times when I prayed, “Lord, I know I should praise you, but it hurts so bad that I need to cry first.” When I say that, God understands because, as the psalmist wrote, “He “knows our frame” (Psalm 103:14).
I’m sure you’ve heard Amy Grant’s wonderful song, “Better Than a Hallelujah.” She sings that God likes our praise songs; but sometimes a mother’s tears, a broken heart, and the cry of our misery, shame, and guilt are “better than a hallelujah.” That’s true and profound.
Still, when you can, don’t forget the list.
A number of years ago, I attended a worship service where, two rows in front of me, a woman was crying. I had no idea why she was crying, but I prayed a quick prayer for her before the service started. During the service we stood and sang the song, “God Is Good All the Time,” “God is good all the time and all the time God is good.” I noticed that the woman didn’t sing and didn’t even stand with the congregation. But by the time we sang the second verse, I noticed that she slowly stood up, raised her hands in the air, and sang with tears streaming down her face and with God’s people, “God is good all the time.”
This Thanksgiving don’t pretend there aren’t demons in the dark. But don’t forget the list either. The list is an act of faith in the dark. It’s the realization that God really is good all the time.
He asked me to remind you!