A Rest Sweeter Than Sleep: Nighttime Prayer for a Troubled Conscience

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Occasionally, as I lie down to sleep, a restlessness bends over my bed. A vague uneasiness. A nagging sense of some tension unresolved. Some door in the soul swinging on its hinges. The stirring of an unquiet conscience.

As I relive the day, I see why. Prayers hurried or skipped. An evangelistic opportunity avoided. Grievances nourished. Self-promoting words snuck into conversations. The “prayer request” that was probably gossip. Precious time squandered. Encouragements unthought and unspoken. As the old prayer book says, “I have left undone those things which I ought to have done; and I have done those things which I ought not to have done.”

Was this a fitting response to your God? I ask myself. Was this “walking in a manner worthy” of him? Sometimes I drift off with such questions unresolved, fitful and self-reproaching yet tired enough to succumb to sleep.

But not always. Some years ago, I found unexpected help in the poem of a long-dead pastor, who asked the same questions, felt the same guilt, yet found in Jesus a rest far sweeter than sleep.

‘Even-Song’

George Herbert’s (1593–1633) “Even-Song” closes a series of three poems in his collection The Temple, beginning with “Mattens” and continuing with “Sinne (II).” The titles “Mattens” and “Even-Song” refer to morning and evening prayers in the Anglican church. And “Sinne” — well, that captures what often happens between those morning and evening prayers.

“Even-Song” is not a prayer for every evening. Herbert does not assume we only ever end the day self-reproachful, with sin having wrecked the day’s resolves. But he does assume we sometimes do — and that, often, even the most faithful Christians kneel beside their beds deeply wishing they had walked in a manner more worthy of their God.

What do we say at the end of such days, when we feel the gulf between God’s kindness and our unworthy response? More than once, “Even-Song” has met me at my bedside, speaking clarity and comfort to my troubled conscience. It has become a faithful nighttime friend.

As Night Draws Near

    Blest be the God of love,
Who gave us eyes, and light, and power this day,
  Both to be busie, and to play.
  But much more blest be God above,

    Who gave me sight alone,
  Which to himself he did denie:
  For when he sees my waies, I dy:
But I have got his sonne, and he hath none.

As night draws near, Herbert looks back, remembering God’s morning gifts of “eyes, and light, and power this day, / Both to be busie and to play.” Our Father, “God of love” that he is, opens the storehouses of his heart from the day’s first moment. As Herbert celebrates in “Mattens,” “I cannot ope mine eyes, / But thou art ready to catch / My morning-soul and sacrifice.” “Yours is the day” (Psalm 74:16), the psalmist says. And Herbert, surrounded by God’s gifts, feels it.

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For sinners like us, though, one gift rises above the rest. The God who gives us “eyes, and light” for daytime labors also gives us another kind of sight, “Which to himself he did denie: / For when he sees my waies, I dy.” Alluding to Psalm 130:3, Herbert remembers that God, in Christ, does not “mark” our iniquities, even when we do; in a sense, he does not see the sins we see.

And why? Because “I have got his sonne, and he hath none.” God gave up his Son at the cross — and at the same time, he gave up the sun that would otherwise shine upon our guilt. Jesus buried our sins in darkness on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday, they did not rise with him. And so, in the glory of the gospel, God no longer “remembers” the sins of his people (Hebrews 8:12); he no longer sees them. They are buried, hidden, unseen, kept forever in darkness.

But they do not always feel buried, hidden, unseen. And so, Herbert takes us back to his “troubled minde.”

Troubled Mind

    What have I brought thee home
For this thy love? have I discharg’d the debt,
  Which this dayes favour did beget?
  I ranne; but all I brought, was fome.

    Thy diet, care, and cost
  Do end in bubbles, balls of winde;
  Of winde to thee whom I have crost,
But balls of wilde-fire to my troubled minde.

Like a good father, God meets us with favor morning by morning; his “diet, care, and cost” send us into the day strengthened and renewed. But all too often, as we approach home in the evening, we dig in our pockets, wondering how we could have taken so much and brought back so little. “What have I brought thee home?” Herbert asks. “I ranne; but all I brought, was fome” — or, a few lines later, “bubbles, balls of winde.” Insubstantial nothings.

Approaching God with fists full of wind may not trouble the spiritually nominal, who care little whether they please God or not. But for those who have tasted the kindness of God, and have seen the cross as its cost, such wind can become “balls of wilde-fire to my troubled minde.” The sun has set on the day’s regrets, with no time now to remedy them, leaving us with a thorn-pricked soul. A pillow of self-reproach. A smoldering conscience.

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On nights like these, some simply try to sleep their guilt away. Others search for some rationalization. Still others pray, but not in a way that douses the fire in their minds. What does Herbert do?

Closing Our Weary Eyes

    Yet still thou goest on,
And now with darknesse closest wearie eyes,
  Saying to man, It doth suffice:
  Henceforth repose; your work is done.

    Thus in thy ebony box
  Thou dost inclose us, till the day
  Put our amendment in our way,
And give new wheels to our disorder’d clocks.

Herbert, with wild fire burning his troubled mind, turns to God and says, “Yet still thou goest on.” The “God of love” has yet more love stored up, more favor to offer. He began the day by giving us “eyes,” and now, as night overtakes our burdened souls, he “with darknesse closest wearie eyes.” And not just with sleep: God, in mercy, closes our eyes to our sins, just as he, in Christ, has already “closed” his.

“In response to our weary, day-end regrets, God gives not more work, but rest.”

As God closes the soul’s eyelids, bidding them be blind to the day’s confessed sins, Herbert imagines him “saying to man, It doth suffice: / Henceforth repose; your work is done.” In response to our weary, day-end regrets, God gives not more work, but rest. Our work, however pitiful, can be done at day’s end because God’s perfect work of redemption is done (John 19:30Hebrews 10:12–14). And we, by faith, “have got his sonne.”

Thus God “incloses” us in “thy ebony box” — surely a reference to a coffin. The biblical writers saw sleep as an image of Christian death (John 11:111 Thessalonians 4:14), and Herbert, tapping into the theme, treats nighttime as a daily rehearsal for the moment when our ebony box will be made of wood and not of night. On that last twilight, some of God’s true children, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, will look back and ask, pained, “What have I brought thee home / For this thy love?” Our troubled nights teach us how to answer that question, readying us to lie peacefully upon our final bed as we wait for God to close our eyes, put us to sleep, and keep us for the resurrection day, which will “put our amendment in our way” — which will raise us sinless and whole, children of the everlasting morning.

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Until then, we live like old timepieces, “disorder’d clocks” whose hour and minute hands begin the day aligned with God yet often slowly get off track. And every morning, God rewinds us, no matter how disordered from yesterday, and once again strengthens us to run.

Rest Deeper Than Sleep

    I muse, which shows more love,
The day or night: that is the gale, this th’ harbour;
  That is the walk, and this the arbour;
  Or that the garden, this the grove.

    My God, thou art all love.
  Not one poore minute scapes thy breast,
  But brings a favour from above;
And in this love, more then in bed, I rest.

As God carries us from morning to evening, we move from favor to favor, mercy to mercy, kindness to kindness. By poem’s end, Herbert muses which of the two, day or night, “shows more love”: The gale that sends us through day’s waters, or the harbor that holds us at night’s shore? The walk that takes us through day’s labors, or the arbor that receives us into night’s rest? The garden of daytime strength, or the grove of nighttime forgiveness?

“In Jesus, we find a rest beneath our rest, a pillow under our pillow.”

The question cannot be answered. In Christ, God gives us power to work for him, and he gives us pardon to rest in him. Both have their peculiar favor; God’s children prize them both. And so, “not one poore minute scapes thy breast, / But brings a favor from above.” Not one minute of the day is unadorned by the love of God — whether daytime love or nighttime love, strengthening love or forgiving love.

Herbert closes, “And in this love, more then in bed, I rest.” In Jesus, we find a rest beneath our rest, a pillow under our pillow, comfort of soul surrounding the comfort of sleep. Such rest and comfort depend, ultimately, not on what we give to God (though we long to give him much and more), but on what he has given to us: “his sonne.” And so, even the frustration and futility we feel toward day’s end can become a mercy, delivering us into a deeper rest than sleep can give.

Scott Hubbard is an editor for Desiring God, a pastor at All Peoples Church, and a graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Bethany, live with their two sons in Minneapolis.

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