Confessions of a Sometimes Restless Insomniac

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I believe in the Kingdom come

Then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one

But yes, I’m still running.

You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains

You carried the cross of my shame, of my shame

You know I believe it

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

-U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Can you relate to this lyric? Can you relate to the cry for release that resides beneath it? Can you feel the tension of the “already” and the “not yet”? Can you identify, perhaps, with being on top of the world in the eyes of many while still feeling insecure about your place in the world? The quest for inner poise and equilibrium, the quest for the security of having been made complete, is a quest for all human beings, whether they believe in God or not.

For leaders and influencers, this inner conflict is especially common. As a leader myself, I am painfully in touch with my own restlessness, especially in the context of my work and goals. Though some would look at my work and chalk it up as some sort of “success,” the truth is that—even in my best and smoothest seasons of leading, when momentum is there and goals are being reached and a mission is being accomplished—the disequilibrium is still there.

My most common prayer request these days is that God would give me consistent, uninterrupted sleep because in the middle of almost every night, I lay awake for two to four hours wrestling. I wrestle with preoccupation, with self-doubt, with the dissatisfaction of unmet expectations and unrealized goals and dreams, with pressure that I put on myself or that I fear others will put on me, with the burdens of the day behind me and the day ahead of me, and with the sense that my work is never going to be satisfactory or complete. In other words, I wrestle over the unique calling of leadership—which is both an unspeakable privilege and a burden that must be carried, often alone.

Because the world is quiet in the middle of the night without the usual distractions of checklists, schedules, deadlines, meetings, interruptions, screens, and iThings, I also find myself wrestling with an inner dis-equilibrium in relation to God.

For me, the presence of God is most palpable when the world is quiet. But the presence of God is not always comforting to me. Sometimes being in the presence of God, or just thinking about God in the middle of the night, is disorienting and disruptive. There are few things like the presence of God that remind me that I am not yet what I am meant to be; that I fall short of the mark; that I am more small than I am significant; that, one hundred years from now, my name will be forgotten by the weary world in which I now live. I will die, and the world will move on. Even in my own church, a hundred years from now, its members will have never heard of me. Not even my own great-great-grandchildren will know my name or care what I accomplished.

Yes, my heart makes noise. My inner life is a paradox of comfort and accusation, inner rest and inner restlessness, enjoyment of God’s grace and despair at my own lack of grace, awareness of my completion in Christ and knowledge of feeling incomplete. Added to this, and related to my calling to lead, lies a feeling of simultaneous momentum and failure. In the middle of the night especially, God is my refuge on one hand, and the darkness is my companion on the other. In the presence of God and in the quiet, most of my anxieties and worries and self-loathing and guilt rise to the surface. And, if I’m being honest, in the middle of the night, the words of Jesus often fail me. Or, more accurately said, my heart fails the words of Jesus:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

For me, the yoke sometimes feels hard, and the burden sometimes feels heavy. And the single thing that comes between my heart and the easy yoke and the light burden is me. I am not alone in this. Not at all.

One of the privileges I’ve enjoyed as a pastor in Nashville is that I have been invited to serve as a chaplain to several musicians and bands. This experience has included many backstage conversations with the artists, several of whom also attend our church. Recently, I caught about ten minutes with a woman whose name and music you would easily recognize. Though the optics of her life and career are the envy of many, her private wrestlings tell a different story.

During our conversation backstage, I asked this artist what it felt like to be her. Specifically, I asked her what it was like to have such a large platform for her music, so many adoring fans, and so much opportunity to impact others.

She paused for a moment and then said, “Do you really want to know what it’s like to be me? Can I answer you honestly? Okay then. Here goes. Night after night, I fill arenas and stadiums. Night after night, I have thousands of adoring fans eating out of the palm of my hand. In just five minutes, I will step out on the historic Ryman stage and relive this experience once again, and again tomorrow in another auditorium in another city, and again the next night and then the night after that. And, from the moment I step foot on the stage until I walk backstage again, I am the loneliest person in the room.”

This famous, fragile image-bearer’s transparent response to me underscored the truth that our hearts are going to be restless until they find their rest in him. No amount of applause or praise or year-end bonuses or “attaboys” or “attagirls” from other people will satisfy the ache and help us to find what we’re looking for. Only the strong, authoritative voice of God can do that.

And he has.

On his way to the the cross, Jesus released his grip on the Father and cried, “Not my will, but yours be done” so that the Father could forever tighten his grip on us.

On the cross, Jesus lost the Father’s blessing and received a curse so that we, who have all our lives lived beneath a curse, could receive the Father’s blessing.

On the cross, Jesus, who is the firstborn of all creation, gave up his birthright so he could pass it on to us, so that we could find what we have been looking for.


Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
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13 responses to “Confessions of a Sometimes Restless Insomniac”

  1. Chas Morris says:

    Hi, I’m a fellow PCA pastor (Hendersonville NC) and just wanted to say to you directly how much I appreciate you. Though we have never met, your writing and preaching have given rest to to my own restless. I too struggle with major insomnia and know deeply how difficult (especially on a Saturday night) that can be. I’ve actually been praying for you about that.
    … And the other restlessness, the one on Sunday night, the one that says “you were not enough for those people today”, I’m praying for you on that too. Your doing great work and as slow as it may feel, each day your identity is getting more and more rooted in the gospel. I hear it in your preaching. Thank you for all you do.

    PS. I laughed out loud this morning when I downloaded your sermon. We literally preached the same text on Sunday and I (a few weeks back) had just used the Newheart illustration. http://graceblueridge.com/sermons/jesus-our-high-priest/

    Bless

    • Scott Sauls says:

      thanks for the encouragement, chas! i’m so sorry to hear of your struggle with insomnia. unfortunately, it’s not uncommon among us pastors. Jesus be with you as you seek to find your rest in him! Scott

  2. Linda Stanley says:

    Enjoyed this article very much. Just a humble note. At a time in my life when I was wandering in the wilderness of defeat in my Christian life, God used the two following ministries to bring perspective and victory in my life: Abiding Life Ministries International, founded by Dr. Mike Wells (CO)and Grace Fellowship International (TN), founded by Dr. Charles Solomon. You may be familiar with these, if not, hope you have time to check them out.
    In Christ,
    Linda

  3. Patrice says:

    I love that you included the passage in Matthew about God’s Yoke is easy and His burden is light. My problem is that I put ssooo many yokes and burdens on myself that God never, ever intended me to carry. I then struggle to separate what is from God and what is from me!! These days I am trying to give Him all those false yokes and burdens when I realize they are false and cry out for His freedom. I LONG to be FREE to just love and serve my King without all the other garbage the enemy constantly tries to put on me.

    I anticipate with great excitement the day when I am in heaven and all will be totally free and we’ll all be dancing and singing and rejoicing before our glorious Father. Come Lord Jesus.Come.

  4. Laura says:

    Thank you so much for your honesty about insomnia. The struggle has been real for me as well. I appreciate you.

  5. Bob says:

    I do resonate with your description of this tension between “already” and “not yet.” I have most recently been finding comfort in Paul’s struggles with it in Romans 7. If it’s good enough for Paul . . . . I thank God, also, that he immediately answers with chapter 8. My shame is what drives me to lie awake at night fretting over things I have no control over. My “not enough” in the midst of God-given gifts and success seems almost blasphemous. But God knows I am a spiritual wanderer and is always ready to bring me back from the wilderness of my self-sufficiency. My miserableness is the sign that I need to cry out again. After all, Jesus expressly came to bear my burden of shame.

  6. Dave Muntsinger says:

    Scott
    Your writings are so pitch perfect and resonate strongly with me. We are soulmates. The U2 song has been the banner song of my life for 30 years. Great use of lyrics with your devotional point.
    Advice: Dude, go to a career counselor! Get your life map done. I’ve been where you are. Sleepless nights are gone for me. You need a sabbatical, a new job description or a new job. Seriously. I can recommend two career counselors. You are an accident waiting to happen. It will be messy if you don’t. I say this from love and experience as a pastor.

  7. Meg Ulrich says:

    I heard you on the Annie Downs show a while back and I’ve never forgotten your words on insomnia. I actually spent an hour going through all of her archives to find your show so I could listen again. I’m going on my 4th year of insomnia and it feels like torture. I had a sleep study done and it was inconclusive, doctors haven’t been able to help. I’ve been praying for you. I’m curious, have you found relief or any new insights since you wrote this blog? Do you have any advise for people like me that are desperate for rest? I often think God is working in my suffering but then I also feel like I’m under a relentless attack from the enemy.

    • scottsauls says:

      I’m very sorry to hear that, Meg. Highly recommend the book, “Say Goodnight to Insomnia” and the process it outlines for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI). It’s quite effective for those who stick with the program.

  8. Evonne Bierlink says:

    Just reading this morning, not sure how it popped up in my “feed”.
    Insomnia is real and appreciate your 2020 update on that. But just amazing how God uses words from people brave enough to write them down for all of us to learn and grow from. Thankyou Pastor Saul for your life and for writing down your words. I’m 2017 we didn’t even have the pandemic yet!
    Also, “still looking”

  9. jim miller says:

    Scott, I’m a pastor of a different tribe, but I can sure relate to insomnia. To your list I would add despair because I’m never enough, and accusation. A pastor friend told me years ago that sometimes these experiences are attacks of the evil one. He suggested rebuking that presence when I feel it coming on. This sometimes works for me. Not always though. The struggle goes on.
    Thanks for your faithful ministry, from which I and members of our church have benefitted. We’ve used your books in small groups. Thanks again.
    Jim Miller

  10. Bonnie Jean says:

    I am one who almost never had a sleepless night (sometimes bad dreams will wake me up… but i easily fall back to sleep.) But i can identify with restless feelings at any time of day.

    Ibelieve that Bono has found Jesus (read Walk On by Steve Stockman – New Edition from 2005
    He may not be accepted in many Christian circles, but his lyrics speak to many around the world. “I still haven’ t found what i’m looking for….” is reminiscent of C S Lewis “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy,the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

    I have felt those lyrics and that quote are descriptions of much of the restlessness that we feel on this earth.

    We were made for another world.

    From a medical perspective, a sleep study may be good as you may have issues that can be fixed. And look into Adrenaline Burnout.

    Few Doctors can treat it, but one can find things to help rebuild our adrenaline “tanks” such as trying to keep to a routine as much as is realistically possibe ( diabetic pastors have to) and ways to reduce stress (Jesus rested and went off by himself to pray) and not allowing people who drain you to control your life (harder for a pastor, but maybe some things can be delegated and the burden is shared) and eating a healthier way ( not going nuts over this just eating more of things that build up your adrenaline system and less of what does not).
    Finally, exercise and sunshine and vitamin and mineral supplements that will help you. Also remembering that this all takes time.

  11. Gail Hatch says:

    Thanks so much for re-posting this as the comments reflect it was an earlier post. Amazing that just this week I’ve had that last line of this song dancing and lingering in my head and wishing I could fill in the lyrics around it. I can hear Bono singing that line with his back up instruments…and they let the line linger…
    Our world is full of people today desperately seeking real truth and real satisfaction. When the soul finally rests in JESUS as the very one who we’re all looking for to take all those deep un-met longings and imperfections upon himself and make them whole again we’ve finally met the perfect ONE – our very Creator Parent offering us HIS perfect love. Someday our fears will vanish as we are welcomed into His Kingdom, our homeland. So on my awakening night moments when my mind flutters and worries and goes over the landscape of all that’s troubling me I work at reminding myself: “in this incomplete broken world there will be hardship, trouble and pain”,says Jesus. Yep, OK- got that! So then I ask him to fill me with the reality that HE is near–right here. He knows. He comforts. All will be well. His perfect love never wearies of reminding me of that. What a gift. I then ask Him to replace the anxieties with his perfect love…and sometimes it’s an invitation to listen to HIS still small voice. Just as a loving parent quiets and comforts the crying child with loving words. And if then my calmed heart and mind is still awake I might read for a little while — all a lovely elixir for getting lulled back into sleep.

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