"And this do, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light…But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regards to its lusts." (Rom 13: 11-12, 14).
"so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation". (1Thes 5:6-8).
Throughout the entirety of the New Testament the child of God is repeatedly warned to stay awake and avoid falling asleep. Obviously the injunctions of Scripture in this regard are not an ascetic attempt to have us all do away with our physical need of sleep and impose upon us a rigid course of bodily abuse in some vain and misguided notion of monastic holiness. Sleep is a gift from God and is to be regarded as such as anyone who has missed a few nights of it can readily avow. So exactly what are the Scriptures referring to when they admonish us to avoid falling asleep?
To best answer this question perhaps it would be advisable to characterize the actions and demeanor of those who are indeed physically asleep. Let us begin with the person who has not yet drifted into a deep sleep but rather is drowsy and is dozing off and on, vainly attempting to keep their head up and their eyes open. Try carrying on an intelligent conversation with someone who is in this mode. You will be unable to do so. Why? Because what you are saying to them simply doesn’t register. Their minds, their cognitive functions are suspended. They will hear the sound of your voice but your words will not make any impression on them. Oftentimes they will mutter some sort of senseless reply that has absolutely nothing to do with the topic you are discussing.
Now we come to the individual who has actually fallen asleep and is dozing away taking what might be considered a short nap. This person cannot even hear the words of any conversation much less make some sort of unintelligible reply to your queries as did the former. If you want to get any sort of response from them at all you are first going to have to rouse them out of their sleep or startle them by some either shouting to them or shaking them physically. Once roused, they are sensible momentarily, only to roll over and drift off back to sleep as soon as the commotion dies down. Oftentimes, they have no recollection of the events that took place during their brief waking moments.
Lastly, consider the individual who has fallen into a deep and heavy sleep. This person is well nigh impossible to wake up. Loud noises, prodding, shakings, all prove to be of no avail as our dreamer slumbers blissfully on. He might as well be dead for all the effect that any attempts to rouse him produces. It will take an incredible amount of effort to awaken someone in this stage.
Now let us see if we can pull together some adjectives that might describe the various things that mark a condition of drowsiness, light napping and deep sleep.
Let’s look at the person struggling against their own drowsiness. First, their mind is unfocused, unable to concentrate on any subject matter that might be presented to them. Even if they can manage to bring their mind to bear on the subject matter at hand, they will quickly forget it and be unable to recall it soon afterwards. Second, their attention span is quite limited and consequently they are incapable of any deep or serious thoughts on the present subject matter. They are more prone to lapse into a type of auto-pilot similar to one who has drifted off at the steering wheel while driving and is unable to recall the color of the traffic light at the last intersection they just drove through.
The light napper presents even more of a challenge. Everything that marks the one struggling against drowsiness applies to him but to an even greater degree. He may be roused from his sleep momentarily by a timely shout of; "Fire", but after half-heartedly looking about and not perceiving any immediate danger he soon drifts back into his world of dreams and illusions more secure than before.
Lastly, the one who has entered the deepest stages of sleep possesses all of the above characteristics only he unable to be roused from his bed of repose at all. Should there indeed be a real fire, he will perish in its flames, not being awakened until they lick around his bed.
While there are differences among our sleepers, one thing stands out in common for all of them – they are all oblivious of their surroundings. In effect, they are insensible of the events transpiring around them.
The application should be quite simple to us as those who profess Christ. Just as sleep never comes upon a man instantaneously without any symptoms or warning signs, so too "spiritual sleepiness" never pounces upon the professing saint but by degrees and signs.
Drowsiness, the first sign, is evidenced by a lack of interest in the things of God. The one succumbing to drowsiness has no desire to do anything but find a place on which to lay their head and close their eyes. All that interests them at the moment is to obtain some comfort and ease. Everything pales in significance to this. So too, the drowsy "saint" has no heart to engage in anything that requires any effort on his part. The claims of Christ seem to him to be obstacles that stand in the way of his ease and comfort. Sermons are soon lost upon him as he is unable to recall their contents almost immediately after hearing them. The thoughts of his mind concerning the things of God are unfocused and fade in and out of consciousness. He is unable and unwilling to reflect deeply on any of the great truths of Scripture as they hold no relish for him. The love of God the Father in election, the love of the Son in redemption, the love of the Spirit in regeneration and sanctification, pass through his mind making only fleeting impressions upon his understanding and affections. He lapses into a type of spiritual auto-pilot where formalism and superficiality becomes the rule and Christian duties are performed much as if he were sleep walking. In short, he has lost his delight in spiritual things having succumbed to the elixir of this world and its goods.
Should he fail to fight off and overcome this lethargy, his condition becomes progressively more entrenched. Formerly, he had at least some fleeting impressions of the truth upon his heart and mind. Though not very deep at least they did register to a certain extent albeit only briefly or momentarily. At the next stage however, the vast majority of spiritual things make no impact upon him whatsoever. Only the sharpest of truths: warnings about perdition, the terrors of hell, the wrath of God, the Divine judgements can rouse him from his slumber. These will shock and startle him and his conscience will vex him for his carelessness and sinful indifference to God, yet he will soon fall fast asleep after the threatened danger does not materialize immediately. Soon afterwards, these same truths will lose their effect upon him altogether as he will dismiss them as things too far off to be of any immediate concern to his person. In effect, He will have been confirmed in his sleep and will then enter the last stage of deep sleep. In this stage he will be beyond any awakening whatsoever. No warning, no plea, no argument, nothing will be able to arouse him from his sleep of death. He will have proved to be an apostate in the end and go on to meet his solemn doom.
The sad truth is all of us are prone to spiritual sleepiness. None of us are immune or exempt from this temptation. Oftentimes the length of the journey tires us and we seek out a shady place to repose and relax. We seek a temporary escape from the spiritual battle against our own flesh and inward corruptions. We tell ourselves "that it is just for a little while Lord". This is natural and is to be expected from time to time. Our Lord knows that we are but dust and has made ample provision for us to obtain some "spiritual rest" by providing us a "green pasture" in which we may repose for a while and restore our souls. Yet as the Scriptures say so succinctly:
"Arise and go, for this is no place of rest because of the uncleanness that brings on destruction, a painful destruction" (Micah 2:10).
In other words, there is a difference between spiritual resting and spiritual sleeping. God intends for us to rest not sleep. In other words, we have to sleep with one eye open! We cannot forget that whenever we are most secure is when Satan will fall upon us. He does not sleep. He has no need to. He is a restless and malevolent spirit who is always looking for an opportunity to destroy us. Just think in your minds how easy it is for him to sneak up on someone who is sound asleep. They are not alert. They are not vigilant. They are not watching. Their faculties are numb. Their hearing is poor. Their vision is useless. Their weapons are of no use whatsoever. In short, they are easy prey, figs ripe for the picking.
Consider the case of poor Samson in the book of Judges. How may times did he fall asleep in the lap of Delilah while she attempted to betray him to the Philistines? God in His great mercy spared Samson upon more than one occasion. Yet finally, he fell asleep in Delilah’s lap once too often. After having confided in her the secret of his strength, this seductive harlot cut his hair and delivered him into the hand of his enemies who surrounded him and easily overpowered him. He spent the rest of his life chained to the gristmill of the Philistines with his burnt-out eyes a constant reminder of his folly. He stands as an object lesson for all time of the dangers of "sleeping" in the enemy’s territory. As the Puritans so pithily said, "Think not to fall asleep in Delilah’s lap and to end up in Abraham’s bosom".
This world is the Delilah with which we have to contend. It has all manner of charms with which to bewitch and beguile us. Not only that, there is a nature within us that longs for, even lusts after these charms. Add to this a cunning tempter who best knows how to present these charms to us so as to be the most effective and do the greatest harm. Is it any wonder that the Word of God admonishes us to stay alert and not to sleep?
How stands it with your soul Christian? Are you drowsy? Are you sleeping? Are you insensible of the dangers that surround you? Then rouse yourself and flee to Him who is able to gird you with strength for the battle. He is able to refresh your soul. He will give you the grace to "watch and pray" so that you do not enter into temptation.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
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