“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” – Prov 6:10-11
You can sleep when you’re dead. It burns me up when I hear that. It’s the anthem of self-righteous productivity crusaders. It’s a needle jab to people like me, who keep company with the accusing demons of life’s lost hours and lost years. Is sleep wasted time? Can’t a person take a nap, without waking up with a guilty conscience? If you’re one of those wretched super-beings, who shake their heads, and pretend to be concerned that they “can’t seem to sleep more than five hours a night”, the narrative of sleep being for the weak sounds pretty good. For the rest of us, a blanket warning against sleep sounds like it belongs to another world.
If you’re one of the driven, over-achiever types, and you take this proverb on face value (which is repeated again Prov 24:33-34), you’re apt to walk away simultaneously patting yourself on the back, and feeling like you’re a miserable failure. That’s usually a good sign you’re not tracking with the Holy Spirit. Because then the answer is to do more, do it faster, and smile less while you’re doing it. Plus we have to take into consideration contrary teachings of Scripture, like when Jesus tells us to come to him in order to find rest (Mt 11:28), and that God gives to his beloved sleep (Ps 127:2)
So what do we make of this? As with all Proverbs, there are multiple levels. There’s a face value truth, a wider, general application, and a spiritual-gospel application. At face value, if you habitually put off work so that you can “exercise self-care”, you’ll find yourself running out of money for your spa time. If you expand the proverb a little wider, to the level of principle, you can discern that a habit of procrastination, or neglect of disciplined duty leads to ruin more rapidly than you would imagine. The warning has much to do with correcting our perceptions of time and speed. What feels like a little break, a little pause, a little lapse in protective measures leads to what will feel like a disproportionately fast-breaking disaster.
What about Jesus? Jesus warns against being the servant who falls asleep while waiting for his master to come back. He’s not telling us we shouldn’t sleep at night. He’s telling us to be alert, be on guard, be tuned in to Him spiritually. Like every other aspect of our life, we don’t lose Jesus overnight. It happens like the Casting Crowns song: “it’s a slow fade”. It’s like being swept out to ocean by the tide. It doesn’t happen right away, but given enough time, it always happens. And it happens through passivity: “I’m not running away from God; I’m taking a break.” Everything we want to keep in this life takes maintenance. For better or worse, our lives are motivated in a cyclical way: the more you care about something, the more you maintain it, and the more you maintain something, the more you care about it. So go ahead and sleep.