I was recently hospitalized for nine days for a freak – but fairly serious – injury (a Vertebral Artery Dissection, for those of you who are dying to know). If you have been required to stay in the hospital for any length of time you know that it can be a dreadful place to try to sleep. Besides the rhythmic interruption of nursing station intercoms, patient IV alarms, and automatic blood pressure cuffs, the nursing staff – in their care – regularly awaken the patient for medication, blood draws (which, for some unknown reason, evidently must be done at 4am?!), and checking of “the vitals.” The other obvious impediment to sleep in the hospital may also be whatever infirmity sent you there in the first place, which likely includes some sort of pain or general discomfort.
Regardless of the reason or the circumstance, one thing is certain – not being able to sleep can be incredibly frustrating. But, as I have experienced over and over in my faith journey, I found in these last couple weeks that God had a purpose for me in this aspect of “suffering” He was allowing. This time, He used my pain, worry, and sleeplessness to teach me a simple lesson in “counting sheep.”
The idea of counting sheep as a means to inducing slumber seems to have crept into our popular culture sometime in the early nineteenth century. Harriet Martineau – cited as the first female sociologist – describes the method in her 1832 writing, Illustrations of Political Economy. (No comment from the peanut gallery on why illustrations of political economy may cause insomnia).
And, if you consider counting goats and counting sheep essentially the same practice, there’s actually an even earlier documented reference in “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, from 1605: “”Let your worship keep count of the goats the fisherman is taking across, for if one escapes the memory there will be an end of the story, and it will be impossible to tell another word of it.” Hmmm … interesting.
(For what its worth, I’ve actually done a little research and found that there is really no scientific evidence that counting sheep in this traditional practice helps one to fall asleep any faster. And yes, there actually was an Oxford University sleep study conducted on the effectiveness of counting sheep to resolve insomnia.)
All that said, as I was lying in my hospital bed – unable to sleep – I got this idea in my mind about counting sheep. But instead of the “counting sheep” of popular culture that depicts cute, fluffy lambs bounding rhythmically over a random fence in the middle of a field, the thought that came to my mind was of Jesus’ sheep – His people.
After all, Jesus says in John 10:14 – “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” And earlier in the chapter He says, “The sheep listen to [the Shepherd’s] voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them…” (John 10:3) Psalm 100:3 says “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” There are, in fact, many references in Scripture to God’s people being His “sheep.”
So, as I lay there in the stillness of the dark, thinking about God’s people being His sheep and what it would mean to count “sheep” in this way, I asked God to bring to my mind those of His “sheep” for whom He would have me pray. Sometimes I knew something specific to pray for the person; sometimes I simply asked God to bless that person and meet their needs – whatever they were at the moment; He knew.
And what was the result of counting “sheep” in this way for me? My pain did not go away. My injury did not miraculously heal. But, every single time, my mind was stilled, my worry was soothed, and my heart was comforted. Though I had little sense of time in the middle of the night, it felt like I often lay there praying for quite a while: one little prayer – one person … one “sheep” – at a time. Yet, there was no frustration in my wakefulness. Instead, I had peace knowing that as long as I was awake, God had more praying for me to do then – not for myself, but for His “sheep” – His people.
It seems like such a simple — and frankly, a “duh” thing — for a Christian to do. But for me, this was a new application of a foundational lesson of the Christian life: In all things — in every situation — pray. Why? Well, here’s one thing the Bible promises us about prayer:
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV)
All I can say is: Amen and amen.
So, friends, the next time you find yourself staring at the ceiling, wide-awake in the night, replaying events of the day in your mind or anxiously anticipating activities of the next, listening to the ticks of the clock and sensing an increasing “urgency” to find sleep, I encourage you to engage in this simple exercise of counting “sheep”. Use that time — that wakefulness — to ask God to bring to your mind those for whom He wants you to pray — no matter how random, simple, generic, or complicated those prayers may be — and trust that He will use it to bless His people and bring you peace.