Greatest Need…


The Greatest Spiritual Need on my Campus



I don’t know what the greatest spiritual need in your church is, but I know the greatest spiritual need for most of my students.  Being a campus of mostly 18-21 year olds, we have lots of spiritual needs, of course.  Students are trying to overcome all kinds of sinful thought patterns, attitudes, words and deeds and to receive a variety of virtues from God to make them better people.  But the greatest spiritual need among my students is not to escape Internet porn, or to quit letting their boyfriend “go too far” in dating.  Its not even establishing more systematic devotions or even improved attitudes.   The greatest spiritual need for my students is… well, to be perfectly honest—their greatest spiritual need is sleep.  

Students are infamous for dismissing the need for sleep.  One of my students put it, “I get serious about the next day’s work somewhere around midnight when things start quieting down in the dorm.”   He meant starting work at midnight.   As part of the requirements for several of my classes students are required to send their assignment to me by email.   Frequently a dozen of those emails show a time stamp somewhere between midnight and 4 AM.  Another student said, “Sleep’s a waste—the less time I spend sleeping the more time I have to do the things I either have to do or want to do.”


This is, of course, not big news.  Sleep deprivation is a part of the culture in most colleges and universities.  For many students—especially male students—it is a kind of “badge of honor” to pull an all-nighter.   But it is dangerous.  Americans love to go without sleep.  The factor of sleep deprivation in automobile accidents is well documented—it is second only to alcohol as a factor in death.  Yet who is alarmed enough by this cultural disorder enough to start a Mothers Against Short Sleeping?  The very idea seems silly.  Going without sleep is a cultural badge of honor in the US; college students are just better at it than their parents.  Our grandparents in 1910 got an average nine hours per night.  That had fallen to 7.5 hours 75 years later.  It falls well below seven hours for many college students.


Sleep research is clear in its findings: such sleep deprivation is a serious matter both physically and psychologically.   In an article published in Lancet sleep deprivation among students (even a little as for one week) was shown to alter hormones and metabolism, mimicking the hallmarks of the aging process.   College students feeling like old people—and actually having the same physical symptoms like their grandparents!  Sleep deprivation has a cumulative debilitating effect producing increasing incapacitation as students go deeper in sleep-debt.  Fatigue is cumulative; rest is not.  Going without sleep affects a student’s GPA too.  Long  sleepers (9+ hrs) have consistently higher GPAs than short sleepers (6 hours or less). Incredible!  Wouldn’t you think the nine hour sleepyheads would have lower GPAs?  Nope.  The long sleepers had higher GPAs.  But the effect is not just academic.  Students who sleep less than six hours a night on average have more symptoms of psychological maladjustments than those who sleep longer.


Students think they can go without sleep to get ahead or catch up.  But it simply doesn’t work. Tests have shown that an all-nighter impairs a college student the same as a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit for driving.  Using up my sleep for study or preparation actually reduces learning ability, especially the ability to absorb new learning.  One study measured participants ability to absorb learning by measuring how much they slept after the learning.    Those who slept short after the learning event consistently scored lower than those who slept longer.  “Sleeping on it” after a day’s learning actually increases retention.  In fact, in this study the short sleepers still had problems even after they had “caught up.”


That’s the trouble with going without sleep—the more you “save” time by giving up sleep the less efficient the learning or work is the next days and the more you have to stay up to catch up later.  This produces in many college students a permanent “Sleep Inefficiency Cycle:  1) going without sleep to catch up,  2) producing inefficiency and poor learning,  3) thus requiring going without more sleep to catch up.  Some students become permanent walking zombies entering an advanced stage of fatigue they come to consider “normal life.”  It is not normal.  We professors see them in classes as their eyes fade back into their head any time they are inactive for more than three minutes.  (Plenty of college lectures offer frequent three-minute moments of inactivity, so they are constantly fading off).  These students then lose contact with the class content and thus wasting another class time as a learning opportunity.  Having lost the class learning they then must stay up more later to catch up before the every exam.  Going without sleep to get ahead is like drinking saltwater to quench thirst.  The more you drink the thirstier you get.

However my point was not that sleep deprivation had serious physical, psychological and academic consequences.  That has been widely substantiated.  I said sleep deprivation was a spiritual problem—in fact I went so far as to say it is the greatest spiritual need on my campus.  Why would I say this?  For two reasons: the effect of sleep deprivation on our relationships, and on our resistance to temptation.


Sleep deprivation has a devastating affect on relationships.  Going without sleep makes a person cranky, critical and moody.  Keep going without sleep and you’ll find yourself cutting others, giving curt replies, and even hurting your friends or intended spouse.  You’ll get miffed easier and become more sensitive.  You’ll start feeling “down” all the time and will well up in tears for no apparent reason.  Your patience will wear thin and you’ll have a hard time putting up with others’ foibles—it will be easier to just blow them of with a cutting remark or dismiss them as jerks.   You’ll find yourself with a growing critical spirit and you’ll start slouching about grumbling about just about everything.  Keep going without sleep and you’ll become a different person.  Your joy will leak away and you’ll become a foggy person living on the sidelines of life.  When you finally see the mire into which you have sunk, you’ll go to a professor or residence leader and say, “I need prayer—I need God to work in my heart to help my attitude.”


But There is an even more serious consequence: sleep deprivation erodes the will.  What do they do to POWs to get them to give in and condemn their nation’s actions?  They keep them awake!  They keep lights on; wake them every half hour depriving them of deeper levels sleep.  They put them in tiny rooms where they can’t stretch out or catch more than ten minutes snooze at a time. The prisoner’s will finally breaks and they give in.  Sleeplessness erodes the will to resist.  Or, what does the FBI do to erode the will of hostage-takers?  They drag in giant spotlights and shine them on the windows.  They play loud music to disturb sleep patterns.  Why?  Because sleeplessness erodes the will to resist.  It makes you want to give in.   Go without sleep and even the strongest willed person gives in easier. String several weeks of 5-hour nights and watch your will weaken and your resistance go into meltdown.  You’ll give in to temptation in a few moments. You’ll be too tired to resist.  Keep going without sleep and you’ll eventually experience a malaise and who-cares attitude toward sin in specific and life in general.  You’ll want to give up, quit, drop out. You’ll quit resisting temptation, or just resist it momentarily, before plunging headlong into sin.  You’ll get discouraged by how easily you fall into sin.  You’ll be amazed at the weakness of your resistance.  And when you finally see the mire into which you have sunk you’ll go to a professor or residence leader and say, “I need prayer—I need God to work in my heart to strengthen my resistance to temptation.”


But in either case God will not answer your prayers.  Or your professor’s prayer.  You’ll ask god to fix your attitude and strengthen your will, but He won’t.  You’ll go to second professor and they’ll pray for you too, but nothing will happen.  You might even go to the altar during spiritual emphasis week to seek “a new work of God to correct your attitudes and strengthen your will.”  But God won’t answer these prayers either. 


Why does God not answer these prayers?  Because God seldom does for us what He has designed in creation for us to get another way.   Take food for instance.  God could have created us to run without any food as fuel.  Think how efficient that would have been.  We would not have to waste several hours a day raising and preparing food, eating it, and cleaning up afterward.  But He didn’t.  God ordained that in creation we would get our body’s fuel from food.  Imagine a student who decided to quit eating in order to “save time.”  After several weeks this student would start getting weak and dizzy.  They’d see their strength waning and they’d find it increasingly hard to concentrate.  After two months without food they’d then get desperate an go to a professor for prayer “that God would strengthen me—I really need it right now with all that’s due.”  Would God answer this prayer?  No.  This student needs to eat not ask God to do for them what He has designed food to do.  God seldom provides for us what he has already designed nature to provide.


The same is true for sleep.  Sleep deprived students who come for prayer regarding their attitude and weak resistance to temptation seldom get satisfaction from God.  God has already provided a solution for problems that stem from sleep deprivation. The solution: a regular habit of sleep.  It is God’s design in creation.  It is God’s Sabbath principle at work every night.  Sleep is God’s means of providing a re-charge for our body and soul.  Ignore His design and we suffer the consequences.



My students are fond of quoting my saying, “Most of our students don’t need to go to the altar—they need to go to bed.”  I do not mean that some students do not need to repent and pray.  Some do.  What I do mean is that for many of my sleep-deprived students, their greatest spiritual need is to go to bed more than go to the altar.  God seldom will provide for them through prayer or a trip to the altar what He has already provided for them in nature. 


So, if you’re a student (or pastor or parent) and you are living the sleep-deprived life and wondering why God doesn’t make you a nicer person, take away your crankiness, give you more joy, remove your moodiness, and strengthen your resistance to temptation—the answer is you need to go to bed more—and do so on a regular pattern. God will not do by prayer or a trip to the altar what He has already designed in creation to do for you through a good night’s sleep. 


The discipline many students need to develop is not the discipline to get up in the morning.  It is to go to bed at night.


So, what do you think?



So what do you think?

To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response to

November, 2001. Revision suggestions invited. May be duplicated for free distribution provided these lines are included.

Other "Thinking Drafts" and writing by Keith Drury --


For Further Study

·          Ancoli-Israel, Sonia, All I Want Is a Good Night's Sleep, St. Louis: Mosby, 1996

·          Borbély, Alexander, Secrets of Sleep, New York: Basic Books, 1986.

·          Coleman, Richard M., Wide Awake at 3:00 A.M., By Choice or by Chance?, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1986.

·          Dement, William Charles, Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep, Stanford: Stanford Alumni Association, 1976.

·          Dement, William Charles, The Sleepwatchers, Stanford: Stanford Alumni Association, 1992.

·          Hobson, J. Allan, Sleep, New York: W. H. Freeman & Co., 1989.

·          Hobson, J. Allan, The Dreaming Brain, New York: Basic Books, 1988.

·          Horne, James, Why We Sleep: the Functions of Sleep in Humans and Other Mammals, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988

·          Lamberg, Lynne, The American Medical Association Guide to Better Sleep, New York: Random House, 1984

·          Moore-Ede, Martin, The Twenty Four Hour Society: Understanding Human Limits in a World That Never Stops, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993.

·          Regestein, Quentin R., M.D., with J. R. Rechs, Sound Sleep, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.