Sermons You Could Be Preaching in Your Sleep

Last fall I read David Murray’s Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017). As the title and subtitle express, Murray writes with a pastoral agenda to call men to reset the burnout tempo their lives to the rhythm of God’s grace (see his and his wife Shona’s co-authored companion volume Refresh with several revised chapters tailored for women). Murray targets those who are in vocational ministry, but any believer would benefit from reading this work. I found Reset eminently helpful. Proverbs 27:6 describes the “wounds” of a friend as “faithful.” With this work, Murray befriended me with a number of such wounds.

One section of the book, “The Sermons We Preach in Our Sleep” has proven especially fruitful. The section spans less than two pages, but its metaphor (preaching in our sleep) and the content he connected to it have produced lasting benefits for me.

In what follows, I simply want to lay out Murray’s five points and offer some reflections to them. There is much gold to be mined in the work as a whole, so my (not so) secret hope is that you will buy a copy and read it for yourself.

Murray’s Points

Murray frames this section with the following statement: “Few things are as theological as sleep. Show me your sleep pattern and I’ll show you your theology, because we all preach a sermon in and by our sleep” (54). He continues by providing the following example and points: “For example,” he writes, “if we pride ourselves on sleeping only five hours a night, we preach the following truths:

  1. I don’t trust God with my work, my church, or my family. . . .
  2. I don’t respect how my Creator has made me. . . .
  3. I don’t believe that the soul and body are linked. . . .
  4. I don’t need to demonstrate my rest in Christ. . . .
  5. I worship idols. . . .” (54–55).

A Few Reflections

First, Murray observes that a lack of sleep preaches that we don’t trust God’s sovereignty. How true this is. While God in his wisdom and grace has designed us to work (Gen 2:15) and granted us the opportunity and privilege of joining him in his work (e.g., Matt 9:35-38), we are instruments in his hands and he is the one who gives the growth (1 Cor 3:6–7). Ultimately, he is in control and we are joining him in his work. We should pursue effectiveness and efficiency through energetic, industrious effort (e.g., Col 1:28–29), but at the end of the day, we must always do so in dependence on him. A failure to stop at the end of the day, to cease from our labors in favor of a good night’s rest, betrays our lack of reliance on him (Psa 127:1–2). It speaks to an enthronement of self and an independence that subverts God’s reign.

Second, Murray observes that a lack of rest preaches that we deny God’s design for us. Human beings are embodied creatures. We are said to have both a body and a soul (or spirit). While it is sometimes popular to imagine the eternal state of humanity as disembodied, the centrality of the resurrection of Christ to the gospel, future hope of resurrection, and the glorification of our bodies after the pattern of Christ (see the entire chapter of 1 Cor 15) all show the wrongheadedness of such imaginations. As such, a failure to recognize our bodies’ need for sleep is a denial of God’s design.

Third, Murray observes that a failure to sleep preaches that our bodies and souls are not integrated. This, Murray writes, effectively says, “I can neglect my body and my soul will not suffer” (55). When my son Nathan was about two, he started fighting us about taking a nap. His older sisters would be playing in a nearby room, he would hear them, and then want to go play with them. Without a nap, he would often fall asleep during dinner. Ironically, while I see the fallacy of this kind of thinking in my two-year old who refuses a nap when he clearly needs one, I ignore my own need for rest when I come to the end of a day or a Sunday afternoon.

Fourth, Murray links a lack of rest with a failure to manifest our “rest in Christ.” He grounds this point in the fact that “the Bible repeatedly portrays salvation as rest” (55; see Matt 11:28-30; Heb 3:18; 4:1–11). Murray is certainly onto something here. While we Protestants have rallied around the Reformation phrases sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus (justification is “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone”), in practice we deny such phrases with a performance gospel that says we are made right before God “by perfection alone through effort alone in ourselves alone.” A failure to rest is one way we undermine what we formally confess about the gospel.

Finally, Murray frankly reproves rest-lessness as an indication that we love other things more than God (“We worship idols”). He writes, “What I do instead of sleep shines a spotlight on my idols, whether it be late-night football, surfing the Internet, ministry success, or promotion. Why sleep when it does nothing to burnish my reputation or advance my glory?” (55). Our innermost desires manifest in our behaviors. Staying up late to binge-watch a Netflix show (like Stranger Things) or to scroll through our Instagram feeds or to play blitz chess (I’m on as @jwatson1517) all reveal potential idols. I say “potential” because these things by themselves alone are not necessarily idolatrous. But when we value them above rest, we have functionally set them above God and his expressed will for us and “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Rom 1:25 ESV).

In conclusion, perhaps you, like me, have been preaching some poor theology through your pattern of work and rest. If so, I warmly commend Murray’s work to you as a helpful medicine for an ailment so widespread in our culture. Why not take a few minutes now to ponder Murray’s closing question: “What sermon are you preaching in your sleep?” (55).

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