“I cried aloud to God, aloud to God; and he may hear me.”
Fifty-eight percent of us are not sleeping well. That is the finding of a study by the National Sleep Foundation. The survey says that 58 percent of adults have symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week [Buysse, Daniel J. M.D. “Can’t Sleep? Learn about Insomnia.” National Sleep Foundation, sleepfoundation.org/sleeplibrary/index.php?secid=&id=58].
If you are in that number, you might try the standard suggestions for getting a good night’s sleep: drink warm milk before bedtime, avoid naps during the day, reduce caffeine, take a warm bath. Or, if you are lying there awake at night just picture something boring, and maybe that will put you to sleep. For some folks sermons seem to work well as a sleep-inducer.
But here is another suggestion: Try mentally composing a song. That may not work either, but judging from the number of songs that have insomnia as their theme, plenty of people have been trying it. For example:
“Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep),” sung by Bing Crosby in the movie, White Christmas.
“I’m So Tired,” by the Beatles.
“I Need Some Sleep,” sung by the group Eels, in the movie Shrek 2.
“Who Needs Sleep?” performed by a group of five Canadian men who are known as “Bare Naked Ladies.” I’m sorry that is the name of the band. Here are a few lines from their song:
Now I lay me down not to sleep.
I just get tangled in the sheets.
I swim in sweat three inches deep.
I just lay back and claim defeat ...
Lids down, I count sheep.
I count heartbeats.
The only thing that counts is that
I won’t sleep ...
That sounds pretty miserable, but then, if you’re one who has trouble sleeping, you already know about misery. And if you wrote a song about your sleeplessness, it would probably be a sad song.
What is more, in the hollow hours of sleepless nights, problems we might handle well enough in broad daylight have a way of overwhelming us, even impressing us with a sense of hopelessness.
For example, in Psalm 77, we read: “You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, the years long ago. I said, "Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart." Then my spirit made a diligent search: Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? (77:4-7).
Talk about an irrational leap by a tired mind! One moment the psalmist speaks of being unable to fall asleep. The next, memories of things long past flood in on him. Then, he concludes that God has abandoned him. When our minds will not shut off and let us go to sleep, we crawl to crazy conclusions like that.
Whether you are sleepless in Seattle, or South Carolina, you know what it is like. You lie there in darkness. The house is quiet. But you toss and turn, fluff up your pillow, try to lie still, try to relax, try not to think, but no matter what you do, you do not sleep.
And then your mind takes off as though there is a little person in your head who just will not shut up. That little person goes yammering on, obsessing about some problem that is worrying you. This is especially irritating if you have already come up with a plan of attack for the next day on that problem or decided to leave the matter in God’s hand. Yet there you are, lying in bed, compulsively turning the problem over and over in your mind as if you trust neither yourself nor God to work things out.
Of course, it’s not always a worrisome thing that keeps us awake; sometimes we don’t know why we can’t sleep; it just evades us. But those dark hours seem ready-made to cause us to pace down panicky paths of pathological ponderings. Evil possibilities that we would regard as implausible in the light of day, suddenly make terrible sense to us in the lonely darkness.
This is the condition of the Psalmist in Psalm 77. He is wide awake, crying out to God in anguish. Notice in v1 that he says he cried “aloud to God” and then repeats that phrase, “aloud to God.” Sometimes today, we pray only silently. We would be wise to learn to do as the ancients did, to pray aloud, boldly, even in complaint to God.
In v2 the psalmist speaks of his hands being stretched out to God, “without wearying.” He continues desperately seeking God. In v3, he says, “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.”
This is no gentle contemplation of the meaning of life. The Psalmist feels torn in heart, mind, and spirit. He feels that God has abandoned him. This sense of abandonment is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul.”
The term is taken from the writings of the Spanish poet and mystic, Saint John of the Cross, who lived in the 16th century. “Dark Night of the Soul” is the name of both a poem, and a commentary on that poem. These two documents are the best known writings of John of the Cross. They tell of his mystic development and the stages he went through on his quest for holiness.
The "dark night" occurs when a person who has had a good relationship with God comes to feel that God is no longer there. They have been believers. They are sincere followers of Christ. Their spiritual life is important to them. But suddenly they enter a time of their life when they do not feel the presence of God. Their prayers seem to go nowhere. All religion seems to be just so much talk and smoke.
You might say this is not supposed to happen. When we make our profession of faith, and come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, the rest of our life is supposed to be a period of growing in grace. We draw ever nearer to God, we become ever more holy, until at last in death, we go home to live with God forever. That sounds simple and inspiring. We would all hope that that would be a description of our own lives, but, in fact, life is never like that. The Christian life is not an ascent in which we become more and more conscious of the presence of God. The Christian life is more like a bumpy road full of holes and pits and abrupt stops. Sometimes we live in the bright light of the divine son. Sometimes we stumble in darkness.
And that is true even for the best Christians. Even Christians who have developed a strong prayer life, even Christians who are consistently devoted to God, may suddenly find that prayer does not seem to work. They may feel as though God has abandoned them.
While generally this spiritual crisis is considered to be temporary in nature, on occasion it may be extended. Mother Teresa is considered one of the greatest Christians of the twentieth century. For over forty years, until her death in 1997, she ministered to the needs of the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in Calcutta, India. Her unselfish giving of herself to the poorest of the poor is an inspiration to all Christians everywhere. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
Following her death she was beatified by Pope John Paul II and given the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. The Roman catholic church is currently considering her for sainthood.
Now surely we would think that this is a person who has got it all figured out. She knew what she believed, she never had any doubts, she lived every day for Jesus. Not so. You may know that her diaries and letters has just been published this year, and they indicate a lifelong struggle to believe. Various entries indicate that at times she seemed to doubt the existence of heaven, Jesus Christ, and even of God.
And if that is true of a super-Christian like Mother Teresa, what about the rest of us?
This is the kind of thing that we hesitate to talk about in church. Once we believe, we are supposed to always believe. In fact, we are supposed to be moving on to higher levels of belief. Once you believe you are supposed to be free of doubt ever after, but none of that is true, not even for the best Christians.
We all face sometimes the dark night of the soul when God does not seem to be with us. This is not a pleasant condition. If we are believers, we, by definition, love Jesus. Those who believe in Jesus, love Jesus and love God. But during the dark night of the soul, the one we love is gone. God is not there. So what do we do now?
If we are real believers, we continue in our love. The dark night of the soul is a test of faith. God is not there for us right now, so we live like God is still there. We continue in faith.
In Psalm 77, the psalmist, even though he is having trouble with faith, is still living a life of faith. He may have doubts about prayer, but he is still praying and still talking to God.
He remembers what God has done in the past. In v5, he says, “I consider the days of old, the years long ago.” Again in v11-12, he says, “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.” This is good advice for us. When you have doubts, think back to times in your own life when God acted with power to make a difference for you, or remember times in history when God acted with power and love.
Such memories should cause us to live in faith, that God will continue to act with power and love here and now.
In verse 7-9, the psalmist asks all the hard questions that anyone immersed in doubt could ask:
Will the Lord despise us forever?
Has God ceased to love us?
Are God’s promises over and done with?
Has God forgotten us?
These questions express the doubt and dismay of the Psalmist. In the past, he has experienced God’s loving care. Now everything seems to be going wrong.
In verses 13-20, the Psalmist returns to thinking about God’s mighty deeds in past times, with the implied hope that what God has done, God will do again. We see the Psalmist struggling here. Where is God now? In past times that God did great things. In v14, the psalmist says, “You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.” He says, I know that you have done great things, Lord. You created the universe. You created me. But I do not seem to see you right now. Where are you now?
People outside the church sometimes think that people in the church are just simpletons. We are always smiling, looking up to the beauties of heaven and never seeing the dark side of things on this earth. That is not true. Christians are very well aware of how ugly life can be, and sometimes we feel nearly overwhelmed by all the bad stuff.
But we are not overwhelmed. We may have doubts, we may not understand why God allows things to be the way they are. In our darkest moods, we may sometimes question everything, but that does not mean that we are forever lost and undone. In the dark night of the soul, we continue to live by faith.
William Cowper (1731 – 1800) was an eighteenth century English poet and hymnwriter. Cowper suffered from periods of severe depression. He often experienced doubt. He lived in fear that he was doomed to eternal damnation. He attempted suicide three times. He certainly knew about the dark night of the soul. But ultimately he found a way to deal with the darkness. It is the way of faith.
In our hymnbook, Cowper wrote #112. the first stanza reads: “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform; he plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.” There are times in our lives when it seems to us that God no longer cares, yet God has been quietly walking with us all along. Even though in our darkness, we do not see it, God is still with us.
So the next time you are lying awake at night, thinking bleak thoughts about yourself and God, follow the example of the psalmist. Remember what God has done, and have faith that God will still do it.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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