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Rest Sweeter Than Sleep: Nighttime Prayer for a Troubled Conscience

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Sometimes, as I lay down to sleep, a restlessness leans over my bed. A vague uneasiness. A nagging sense of some unresolved tension. A door in the soul that swings on its hinges. The agitation of an uneasy conscience.

As I relive the day, I understand why. Hasty or skipped prayers. An opportunity for evangelism avoided. Nourished grievances. Words of self-promotion crept into the conversations. The “prayer request” which was probably gossip. Precious time wasted. Unthought and unspoken encouragement. As the old prayer book says, “I left out the things I should have done; and I did the things I shouldn’t have done.

Was this an appropriate response to your God? I wonder. Was it “walking worthily” of him? Sometimes I drift off with such unresolved, restless, self-reproaching questions, but tired enough to succumb to sleep.

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

‘Vespers’

“Even-Song” by George Herbert (1593-1633) closes a series of three poems from his collection The temple, starting 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, this captures what often happens between those morning and evening prayers.

“Even-Song” is not a prayer for every night. Herbert does not assume that we end the day solely with self-reproach, sin having destroyed the resolutions of the day. But he supposes that we sometimes do – and that often even the most faithful Christians kneel beside their bed, wishing deeply that they had walked in a way more worthy of their God.

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

As night approaches

Blessed be the God of love,
Who gave us eyes, light and power today,
Both to keep busy and to play.
But much more blessed be God above,

Who gave me back my sight alone,
What he denied to himself:
Because when he sees my tears, I die:
But I have his son, and he doesn’t.

As night draws near, Herbert looks back, remembering God’s morning gifts of “eyes, light, and power this day, / Both to be busy and to play”. Our Father, “God of love” that he is, opens the reserves of his heart from the first moment of the day. As the famous Herbert in “Mattens,” “I can’t open my eyes, / But you’re ready to catch / My morning soul and my sacrifice.” “Thine is the day” (Psalm 74:16), says the psalmist. And Herbert, surrounded by the gifts of God, feels it.

For sinners like us, however, one gift rises above the rest. The God who gives us “eyes and light” for the work of the day also gives us another kind of vision, “which he refused himself: / For when he sees my wounds, I die”. 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 that we see.

And why? Because “I have his son, and he has none”. God delivered his Son to the cross — and at the same time he renounced Sun which otherwise would shine on our guilt. Jesus buried our sins in darkness on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday they were not raised with Him. Thus, 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, invisible, forever kept in darkness.

But they don’t always feel buried, hidden, invisible. And so, Herbert takes us back to his “troubled mind”.

troubled mind

What did I bring you home
Why your love? have I paid the debt,
What did this favor bring about?
I ran; but all I brought was fome.

Your plan, your care and your cost
Finish in bubbles, balls of wind;
From the wind to you that I believed,
But balls of wild fire to my troubled mind.

Like a good father, God welcomes us with favor morning after morning; its “regime, care, and cost” send us into the day strengthened and renewed. But too often, as we approach home at night, we reach into our pockets, wondering how we could have taken so much and brought back so little. “What did I bring you home?” Herbert asks. ” I ran ; but all I brought was fome” – or, a few lines later, “bubbles, balls of wind”. Insubstantial nothings.

Approaching God with fists full of wind may not trouble nominal minds, who care little whether they please God or not. But for those who have tasted God’s goodness and seen the cross as its prize, such a wind can become “balls of wild fire to my troubled mind.” The sun set on the regrets of the day, without having time to remedy it, leaving our souls pricked with thorns. A pillow of self-reproach. A brooding conscience.

On nights like these, some just try to sleep their guilt. Others are looking for some streamlining. Still others pray, but not in a way that puts out the fire in their minds. What does Herbert do?

Close our tired eyes

Yet you continue
And now, with weary eyes closest to the darkness,
Tell the man, It is enough:
Henceforth rest; your work is done.

So in your ebony box
You lock us up, until daylight
Put our amendment in our way,
And gives new wheels to our messy clocks.

Herbert, with wild fire burning his troubled mind, turns to God and says, “Yet you go on.” The “God of love” has more love in store, more favors to offer. He started the day giving us “eyes”, and now, as the night invades our burdened souls, he “has the most weary eyes of darkness”. And not only with sleep: God, in his mercy, closes our eyes to our sins, as he, in Christ, has already “closed” his.

“In response to our weary regrets at the end of the day, God does not give more work, but rest.”

As God closes the eyelids of the soul, commanding it not to see the confessed sins of the day, Herbert imagines him “saying to man: It is enough: / Henceforth rest; your work is done.In response to our weary regrets at the end of the day, God does not give more work, but rest. Our work, however pitiful, can be done at the end of the day because God’s perfect work of redemption is done (John 19:30; Hebrews 10:12-14). And we, by faith, “have his son.”

So God “encloses” us in “your ebony box” — surely a reference to a coffin. The biblical writers saw sleep as a picture of Christian death (John 11:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:14), and Herbert, drawing on the theme, treats the night as a daily repetition of when our ebony box will be in wood. and not at night. During this last twilight, some of the true children of God, like Christian in The pilgrim’s journey, will look back and ask, pained, “What did I bring you home / For your love?” Our troubled nights teach us how to answer this question, preparing us to lie peacefully on our last bed waiting for God to close our eyes, put us to sleep, and save us for the day of resurrection, which will “put our amendment in place.” our way” — which will raise us up without sin and wholesome, children of the eternal morning.

Until then, we live like old clocks, “messy clocks” whose hour and minute hands start the day aligned with God but often slowly wander off course. And every morning, God rewinds us, no matter how messed up yesterday, and again strengthens us to run.

Rest deeper than sleep

I reflect, which shows more love,
Day or night: it’s the gale, it’s the port;
It is the promenade, and this the arbor;
Or that the garden, this the grove.

My God, you are all love.
Not a poor minute escapes your chest,
But bring favor from above;
And in this love, more than in bed, I rest.

As God carries us from morning to evening, we move from favor to favor, from mercy to mercy, from kindness to kindness. At the end of the poem, Herbert wonders which of the two, by day or by night, “shows more love”: The wind that sends us through the waters of day, or the harbor that holds us to the shore of the night? The promenade that takes us through the work of the day, or the arbor that receives us in the rest of the night? The garden of daytime strength or the grove of nocturnal forgiveness?

“In Jesus we find rest under 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 forgiveness to rest in him. Both have their particular favor; The children of God appreciate them both. And so, “not a poor minute escapes your bosom, / But brings favor from above”. Not a minute of the day is devoid of God’s love, be it daytime love or nighttime love, strengthening love or forgiving love. .

Herbert concludes: “And in this love, more than in bed, I rest.” In Jesus we find a rest under our rest, a pillow under our pillow, the comfort of the soul surrounding the comfort of sleep. Such rest and comfort depend, ultimately, not on what we give to God (even if we yearn to give him much and more), but on what he has given us: “his son.” And so even the frustration and futility we feel towards the end of the day can become a mercy, plunging us into a deeper rest than sleep can give us.