I face two battles every day of my life: the battle to sleep and the battle to stay awake.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I know exactly why. I’ve stayed up too late watching TV, or I’ve left my phone next to my bed and caved to the infintie scroll. Other times, I’ve got my sleep hygiene down pat. My phone is out of reach, I’m sipping herbal tea, and I’ve wound down with a relaxing book—but sleep still eludes me. My mind whirls with worries, what-ifs, and tomorrow’s bottomless to-do list.
To truly rest, I need to remember that I’m not sovereign. God is on the throne; he’s the only one whose every purpose will come to pass. He’s made me with limitations and blessed me by prescribing the patterns of work and rest. Not work and a little more work and maybe just one more task.
But there’s also something deeper going on than just my failure to believe that God is always sovereign. My inability to sleep comes, paradoxically, from my failure to stay awake.
Think Like a Narnian
In C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum are on a mission to rescue Prince Rilian, heir to the Narnian throne. They find him enchanted and trapped in an underground cave. The witch who’s holding Rilian prisoner interrupts their rescue and starts casting a spell over the group—she produces a perfumed smoke from the fire and gently strums an instrument. The heroes grow sleepy and dull-headed, and they believe the witch when she tells them lies about the underworld being all there is—there’s no Narnia, no outside world, no sun, and, crucially, no Aslan. It was all a dream.
When it looks like they’re all about to fall completely under this spell, Puddleglum gathers the presence of mind to stamp on the fire in the hearth, breaking the enchantment. Eustace, Jill, and Rilian suddenly awake and are brought back to reality. They remember who they are and who sent them on this quest: Aslan. All at once, they’re thinking and acting like Narnians again.
I spend too much time under a similar enchantment. My world narrows to what I can see around me. With all the fervor of a Disney prince hacking at the thorns and facing down the dragon to reach his princess, I attack my inbox and try to hold my task list at bay to reach . . . what? Peace? Rest? The end of my to-do list? These are all fantasies, unrealities apart from Christ.
Writing about God’s omnipresence, C. S. Lewis said that the difficulty isn’t in trying to find where God is. “The world is crowded with him. . . . The real labour of life is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”1
I need to remain awake. To stop trying to craft my own story and instead remember daily that I’m already part of the greatest Story: God chose me, a ruined sinner, and set his love upon me. He’s delivered me from “the domain of darkness” and transferred me to “the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). My life is now shaped around waiting for Jesus’s return, when I’ll see him face-to-face and the kingdom will come in full. I’ll spend eternity praising him with all the redeemed—endless love, endless joy.
Even though we can’t see this kingdom now, it’s more true—and more wonderful—than anything I could try to conjure up myself.
Satan loves it when we fall for either of these lies: when we stay awake “eating the bread of anxious toil” (Ps. 127:2) or snooze our way through life, numb to the truth. So, how can we stay awake?
When Puddleglum broke the witch’s enchantment, it was costly. He burned his foot as he stamped on the flames. Even if it hurts, I need to wake up from this dreamworld where I’m sovereign. When I fail to stay awake, I see pain with completely the wrong lens: It’s something to avoid at all costs and to feel frustrated about when it comes. Pain is blocking me from the joy I should be having in life, and in God.
But Lewis teaches us that pain rouses us from our slumber. It reminds us that this world is not our home, that we were made for our Father’s kingdom, where every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21:4). The continuing presence of sorrow in this world can be a gift that keeps us from settling for less than God.
Right Kind of Joy
Pleasure can do this work for us too. There are joys, of course, that feed our unreality. Sinful pleasures, snatched from God in ways he hasn’t given them, or the relentless pursuit of our own appetites that curves us in on our ourselves, making us people whose “god is [our] belly” (Phil. 3:19).
But we can also enjoy pleasures as a good gift from our loving Father—we can enjoy him through pleasures instead of enjoying them in his place. There are innocent joys that make us feel as if we’re “coming home, recovering [ourselves].”2 Joe Rigney writes in his book on C. S. Lewis:
A walk in the countryside, playing a sport for the love of the game, a good book (or even a third-rate book enjoyed with innocence and self-forgetfulness)— all of these inoculate us against the twisted mockeries that dark powers offer up in their place. They have the ability to shock us awake when the dreary music of the world has lulled us into a stupor.3
We can use or be used by both pleasure and pain. When we’re in a dreamworld, pain is something to avoid at all costs, often by seeking more and more pleasure that will never satisfy. It’s up to us to make a good life, so we’d better get to work.
When we’re awake to the reality of the coming kingdom of God, we can joyfully receive pain and pleasure from the Lord’s hand. Even as we pray for relief, we’re thankful for the way suffering awakens us to the truth that this world is not all there is. And we receive whatever joys God has for us, seeing them as a pointer to the fullness of joy we’ll experience in heaven. Pain and pleasure become our servants, not our masters. We’re awake and free.
It takes active remembering—and the help of others who know the truth—to stay sensible of eternal realities. We need to keep our eyes looking toward the Celestial City, never letting this vision get turned aside. We need the Spirit reminding us today and every day: Go to sleep. Stay awake.
Go to sleep—God is sovereign.
Stay awake—God is near.