Most of us know the sinking feeling that is brought on by sleeplessness during a long, dark night. For many, the tossing-and-turning soon brings on additional anxiousness and worry. Is caffeine keeping me awake? Has the stress that I am under become to great for me to cope?
We often keep a supply of Benadryl or Ambien close by in order to surmount the sleepless nights, or worse, our fear of it. But what if we have the wrong idea altogether about a period of sleeplessness during the night?
What if our sleepless times were cause for joy rather than fear?
What if a full-night’s sleep is entirely overrated?!
My first awareness that a straight-8 of sleep may not be all that we’ve made it out to be came after I stumbled over a short story about the Apostle Paul and his sidekick Silas in Acts 16. There, our dynamic duo find themselves spending some time in incarceration. For many of us, a night in jail would indeed be cause for a sleepless night, but for Paul and Silas it seems to be more than that: “About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” (v.25).
For many years I assumed that Paul and Silas’s midnight motivation for prayer and praise was mostly circumstantial in nature. They are in jail, of course they are praying! But I now know that there was so much more going on than an impromptu worship service! For Paul and Silas, midnight prayer would have been a common event.Paul and Silas would have regularly interrupted the night's slumber for prayer. Click To Tweet
Would you be surprised to know that the Early Church regularly spent time during the middle of the night in prayer?
For example, the Psalmist had a nightly prayer routine that required interrupting his sleep. It is recorded chapter 119: “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules” (v.62). Many early pastors and bishops of the church strongly encouraged middle-of-the-night prayers, too.
Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – 254 A.D.) suggested that prayer “ought not to be performed less than three times each day… and not even the time of night shall pass without such prayer.” Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – 215 A.D.) told his congregation that prayer in the night is important because, “We must sleep in such a way that we might be easily awakened.” A mid-slumber waking for prayer was seen to help accomplish this.Early Christians interrupted their night's sleep for a period prayer. Click To Tweet
You may be even more surprised to learn that a single-sleep night is a relatively recent occurrence in human history, Christian or otherwise. Our ancestors intentionally spent several hours awake in the middle of the night. For a deeper discussion, check out this article.
Our ancestors slept twice, in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. It began with a short sleep of three to four hours, a period of wakefulness of up to three hours, then more sleep until morning. A surprisingly large body of support from literature, court documents, and personal papers confirms that two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.
What would they do during these nighttime hours? During the Middle Ages, we know that many people used the time to read, chat, smoke, and have sex. Many Christians, taking the example of the ancient church to heart, often used this time for prayer. Religious manuals from those times even include special prayers to be said during these mid-sleep hours.
It may be worth resurrecting a mid-night period of prayer as an act of devotion, worship, and prayer without ceasing.
Could this have been on Job’s mind when he himself cried out: “Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night,” (35:10).
PRACTICE: The next time that you awake in the night, rise and pray.