Everyone knows that diet and exercise are important to good health. Experts say that five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, along with 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise, are essential to personal fitness.
But so is sleep.
Miss a good night’s sleep, and you run the risk of gaining weight, becoming depressed, and increasing your chances of heart disease and stroke. Besides, writes journalist Maddie Stone, you need sleep “in order not to feel like garbage the next day.”
Sometimes the healthiest activity is no activity. Just stop working and go to bed!
Recently, a whole industry has grown up around the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. Popular sleep-trackers such as Fitbit, Garmin, and the Oura Ring can give you insight into how well you sleep at night.
Of particular importance is REM sleep, in which you experience rapid eye movement. In this sleep stage, your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Your arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed. And most interesting of all: Your brain activity becomes similar to what is seen in wakefulness. This is the stage in which you are most likely to dream.
According to Maddie Stone, “Research suggests that REM and deep sleep together play an important role in memory consolidation and stabilization.”
Skimp on your sleep, and you are certainly going to feel like garbage the next day. But even worse, you are going to miss some valuable dream time, in which your brain does very important work.
Jacob was one of the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, and he was living a very stressful life. In particular, he was locked in a bitter sibling rivalry with his twin brother Esau. First, Jacob tricked his father in order to receive the blessing that was destined for his brother. Then, when Esau made plans to murder his sneaky brother, Jacob fled toward the city of Haran to escape Esau’s fury.
If anyone deserved a sleepless night, it was Jacob.
But the book of Genesis tells us that Jacob came to a certain place on his journey toward Haran, “and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place” (28:11).
His heart rate and blood pressure increased.
His arm and leg muscles became temporarily paralyzed.
His brain activity became similar to wakefulness.
And he began to dream.
Now, Jacob was not wearing a Fitbit or Oura Ring. He was not using technology to track his sleep. But even without these devices, we can gain some very important guidance from the dream he experienced.
For us, Jacob is the Sleep-Tracker.
According to Genesis, Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth. Some translations say that it was a stairway or a ramp, but in any case, the top of it reached to heaven. The angels of God were “ascending and descending on it” (v. 12).
Weird dream? Absolutely. Almost as strange as the one experienced by the legendary man of Peru.
There once was a man from Peru,
Who dreamed he was eating his shoe.
He woke up at night,
With a terrible fright,
To find out that his dream had come true.
Jacob’s dream was very different, fortunately. But as strange as it was, it carried a message. You have to remember: The brain is working hard during deep sleep.
The Lord stood beside Jacob in the dream and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring” (v. 13). God promised that Jacob’s offspring would be numerous, spreading to the four corners of the earth, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed in Jacob and in his offspring.
Then God concluded with the words, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (v. 15).
When we track Jacob’s sleep, we move closer to God and make important discoveries about the nature of our Lord. Jacob’s dream reveals to us that:
God wants a relationship with us. The ladder between heaven and earth is a clear sign that God is not content to rule the universe from some heavenly height, but wants to be connected to us. This desire for a relationship was seen first when Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (Genesis 3:8). This longing for a close connection was seen most clearly when the word of God “became flesh and lived among us” as Jesus Christ (John 1:14).
Jacob’s dream reveals that God wants to be with us, not distant from us. God enters into the very center of human life, in all of its complexities and difficulties.
God also comes to us in grace, not in judgment. If anyone deserved to be judged for his sins, it was Jacob. He took advantage of Esau when the older brother was weak with hunger, offering him bread and lentil stew in exchange for his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34). Then, Jacob disguised himself as Esau in order to receive their father’s blessing (27:1-29). And yet, when the Lord appeared to Jacob, God offered him gracious gifts of land and numerous offspring.
Jacob’s dream shows that God gives us what we need, not what we deserve. “The LORD is gracious and merciful,” says Psalm 145, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 8).
God also promises to be with us wherever we go, and to remain faithful to us. The name Immanuel means “God is with us,” a name first spoken by the prophet Isaiah (7:14) and later attached to Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:23). God never leaves us or abandons us, but stays close beside us, through all of our pains and struggles and failures. Although we sometimes fall away from God, the Lord never falls away from us. “I will not leave you,” says God to Jacob, “until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15).
Jacob’s dream assures us that God is by our side, perfectly faithful to us.
Fitbit and the Oura Ring may be very fine technologies, but they don’t tell us nearly as much as Jacob the Sleep-Tracker. When we track Jacob’s dream, we discover that God wants a relationship with us, comes to us in grace, and promises to be with us forever.
Jacob invites us to respond to his dream by seeing and accepting that God is with us. Genesis tells us that when Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, “Surely the LORD is in this place — and I did not know it!” (v. 16). He discovered in his dream that God was far closer than he ever imagined, and that the place of his sleeping was “the house of God” and the “gate of heaven” (v. 17). Then Jacob called the place “Bethel,” which means “House of God” (v. 19).
This story makes clear that the life of faith is not all about frantic activity. It was while he was sleeping, not while working, that Jacob realized that the Lord was with him. He discovered the house of God and the gate of heaven when he was sitting still, not running around. We, too, can move closer to God by caring for our bodies, by taking time to rest, and by getting enough sleep. We discover that the Lord is near when we stop our relentless activity and allow ourselves to rest and dream.
The summer is a good time to track our sleep and strengthen our relationship with God. Along with Jacob, we can discover the truth of Psalm 46:10:
Be still, and know that I am God.
Be still, and know that I am.
Be still and know.
God wants a relationship with you. God offers you grace, not judgment. God promises to be with you always, and to be faithful to you. These are the truths of Jacob’s dream, and they will be true for you if you take the time to be still and know that God is with you. As you slow down and accept this truth, let it sink in far enough that it will remain true through the busy months that lie ahead. Remember that part of the value of deep sleep is that it allows for “memory consolidation and stabilization.”
Almost all of us have had our big summer plans put on hold – or scraped altogether, so in these slower summer days, consolidate the memory of Jacob’s dream and your own experience of God’s presence and God’s grace. Stabilize these beliefs so that they will remain real and strong as you face the challenges of the days to come.
Take the time to be still, to rest, to dream. When you do, you’ll move closer to God, and you’ll find yourself in Bethel, the House of God.