How well do you sleep? Are you one who drifts off into dream-land the second your head hits the pillow? Do you toss and turn for hours, trying find the comfortable groove in the bed by which your body will release its tension and you will sink into dreams? Do you rely on aids to help to you navigate the transition from being awake to being asleep?
There are many reasons why we have trouble sleeping. Some of these reasons may be medical, pertaining to the chemistry of our bodies. I would suspect, however, that most of our sleepless nights come from the anxieties of life, and the burdens we carry. You may recognize the scene: You have gone through an entire day facing a decision, a fight, a struggle, and by the end of the day you are exhausted in every way possible, physically, emotionally, spiritually. You drag yourself to bed at the end of the day, finally get some sleep, only to find that whatever struggle you have faced simply won’t let go. You lie in bed, unable to sleep, because your mind is racing with scenarios and speeches, or questions that you just can’t answer. Or, in those odd moments where you do drift into a light snooze, you find that all that has been part of the day now invades your dreams. In those moments you echo the cry of Job; “When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ But the night continues, and I am continually tossing until dawn.” (Job 7:4-5) Sound familiar?
I wonder if that is what drove Nicodemus to Jesus late at night. We find this odd interaction in the third chapter of John’s gospel. We read, “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night.’ (John 3:1-2) Think about this for a moment. Why was Nicodemus up? Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, meaning that he would have approached Jesus either in the late evening, or early morning hours of the day. The implication is that the world is dark and quiet, and everyone is at home at rest. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the hours where he should have been at home, resting in his bed. But he isn’t. Nicodemus is awake and he seeks Jesus out. While we don’t know what question he comes with, I believe the implication is that he is deeply unsettled. After all, you do not seek out Jesus in the middle of the night just to argue some point of theology. No, Nicodemus was burdened, maybe he even felt lost.
There are many things that can burden us, far too many to list here. But whatever burden we may face, it creates anxiety, maybe even fear, deep within us. And the result is often the same: Restlessness. Our bodies feel tense; our spirits feel stretched; everything within us feels as if it is suffering from dis-ease.
Where are we to turn in these times? Psalm 121 provides a blessed answer. “I lift my eyes unto the mountain, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” In those places when we feel overwhelmed, when like a mouse standing before a mountain we feel the weight of the world baring down upon us, we are asked to remember that we live in the presence of one who is bigger than the mountains. We are loved and cared for by the one who created everything in this life. God’s eye upon us will not fade, his care will not wane, and he will not prove unfaithful. The Psalm continues; “He will not let your foot slip. He who watches over you will not slumber. Pay attention! (which is the meaning of ‘behold’) He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.’ The Lord is never too tired to watch over us. This means that all our inner turmoil can cease. When we are exhausted and spent, when we feel emotionally frail or stretched beyond our means, we can lay all of that before the one who is big enough to hold it all. Because he will not slumber nor sleep, it means that we can. We can be at peace.
But how do we go about doing this? In those restless nights, how do we seek out Jesus so that we can still our restless souls? One of the ways I have found for myself is reciting The Jesus Prayer. In those moments of sleeplessness, I take a breath in and pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”; I then slowly exhale the breath and pray, “Have mercy upon me.” I repeat this over and over, as an intentional act by which acknowledge my burden or anxiety and picture myself placing it before Jesus loving presence. It’s not a magic trick and it’s not an instantaneous fix. There have been times where I have prayed this for prayer for a good 45 minutes. Yet somewhere along the way, I will find that I awake in the morning, having drifted off to sleep mid prayer.
To all sleepless Nicodemuses and valley-dwelling Psalmists, and to all of us wherever we may fall, Jesus opens the doorway into that rest that our souls so often long for. Every moment can be one in which we live with the peace that transcends all understanding. This inner restfulness, this centeredness that withstands anything in life, is rooted in Christ’s presence with us, and over us. We walk through each moment in our life, grounded in presence of our savior, and we take our rest at the end of the day knowing that our life is held by his gracious hand.