Let me tell you a secret. There is a simple, easily accessed, way to improve your preaching, massively. It won’t cost you anything, and is very pleasant in itself. It isn’t an app, or a new piece of kit, so you won’t have to splash any cash or declutter your study.
I guarantee (yes, guarantee) that if you deploy it properly, not only your sermons but all aspects of your ministry will improve.
Yet, weirdly, even the best pastors don’t seem to know about it – or if they do, they don’t talk about it or teach it to others.
In fact, many of seem to refuse to acknowledge its existence, or to think using it is a sign of weakness.
What is this secret technique, I hear you ask?
Go to bed!
I’ve just finished reading the best-selling Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, a professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Berkeley. He has devoted his career to studying sleep, why our bodies need it, the benefits it brings and the (scarily vast) damage its absence causes.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that he overstates his case, for the sake of book sales. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that he does that by a whopping 25%. That’s a safe margin of error, isn’t it? (Although his book is so peer-review data-driven, it’s hard to imagine that that is the case).
I’m still persuaded even if the book is 25% fib.
Every known animal species sleeps or has slept (yes, even sharks). They do so to varying levels, and our human bodies are designed to need 8 hours sleep. Sleep is when our whole system takes care of itself, actively building the immune system, repairing and restoring, filtering and cleansing. There is not one cell of your body that doesn’t use that 8hr sleep for its own good. Your good.
Oh, and naps are a good idea too.
But here’s the scary part – there is irrecoverable damage done by even a relatively mild sleep deprivation. Drop down to 6 hours for a night, even one night, and your entire system is out of whack. Your memory is weaker, your concentration shorter, your emotions more volatile, your self-control more disinhibited. Your workouts will be less effective, and your empathy at a funeral will drop.
Get an extra hour the next night, and you actually won’t catch up. Those memories (your brain uses sleep to make your memories stick) will be less stable. Your cells haven’t had time to do their work. Your brain has missed a REM cycle and the work it does in that time is lost.
Do this long term (and I’m still talking about getting six hours sleep, remember), and the damage is vast. You’ll be fatter, iller, gloomier, uglier, and more prone to cancer.
You’ll be slower in your sermon prep, slower in your thinking, and slower in your delivery. You’ll have more sick leave and retire earlier. You’ll die younger. Want more?
Now I know what some of you are thinking – what about people like Mrs Thatcher who only needed (allegedly) 4 hours a night? I’ve no idea if that’s a true story, by the way, but Walker assumes it is and very pointedly (p62) notes that lack of sleep is also connected to developing Alzheimers, something that Mrs Thatcher and her fellow night-owl Ronald Reagan shared. He’s talking long-term, life-limiting damage.
His use of data is overwhelming.
And I know what others of you are thinking too – doesn’t Paul talk about sleeplessness (2 Cor 6:5,11:27) in ministry? Yes he does – although remember that both occasions he is talking about lists of hardships and suffering, rather than something he did by choice. Didn’t Jesus go without sleep and scold the disciples for nodding off, in the Garden of Gethsemane? Yes he did – but he also had a famous nap in the back of a boat, too.
I’m sure it is a good spiritual discipline to fast and pray – but if you know your medical research you’ll know that occasional fasting actually does our body good. There’s no measure on which going without sleep does our body good. On Paul’s list it’s up there with nakedness and being beaten.
Occasional fasting actually does our body good. There’s no measure on which going without sleep does our body good.
Now we could go theological here. I could be persuaded that going to sleep is an act of deliberate trust in our father, to care for our every need when we’re unconscious, and rouse us when it’s healthy. In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety (Ps. 4:8). Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep (Ps. 121:4). I could be persuaded that it is a small but profound echo of death and the promise of resurrection, acted out every day to remind us.
But let’s keep it simple. Sleep is a good blessing from our heavenly Father In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat – for he grants sleep to those he loves. (Ps.127:2). You’ll be much more productive if you go to bed well.
Stop drinking coffee after lunchtime, and enjoy your night.