Sleep, Science, and Sabbath

In 1965 seventeen-year-old Randy Gardner set a world record by going without sleep for eleven days.  Though others have attempted and claimed to accomplish similar feats since Gardner, Gardner’s case stands out because of Gardner’s youth and because of the extent to which his condition was monitored throughout his sleeplessness. Among those keeping watch was Stanford sleep scientist William C. Dement, who chronicled the effects of Gardner’s self-induced insomnia.

[Gardner] became irritable, forgetful, nauseous, and, to no one’s surprise, unbelievably tired. Five days into his experiment, Randy began to suffer from what could pass for Alzheimer’s disease.  He was actively hallucinating, severely disoriented, and paranoid.  He thought a local radio host was out to get him because of changes in his memory.  In the last four days of his experiment, he lost motor function, his fingers trembling and his speech slurred.[1]

Gardner survived and recovered, but the trauma of sleeplessness and the fear of what could happen during future record-setting attempts ultimately led the Guinness Book of World Records to cease tracking duration of sleeplessness as a record.  An exceptionally rare genetic disorder suggests the Guinness Book made a wise choice.  Fatal Familial Insomnia affects only about twenty families worldwide.  It typically manifests itself in adults in their thirties, and the condition makes it impossible for its victims to sleep.  Its symptoms include fevers, tremors, profuse sweating, uncontrollable muscular jerks and tics, feelings of crushing anxiety and depression, and psychosis.  “Finally, mercifully, the patient slips into a coma and dies.”[2]

The facts that a genetic disorder causes Fatal Familial Insomnia and that Randy Gardner ultimately recovered from his self-induced insomnia may lead us to the popular conclusion that sleep deprivation is a bit like middle school: inconvenient, but not fatal, and most recover.  The science of sleeplessness suggests otherwise. 

Consider, for example, the influence of fatigue on driving. “[F]atigue-related crashes account for 1.2 million accidents and 500,000 injuries annually – including 60,000 debilitating injuries and 8,000 fatalities,” and young people are disproportionately likely to drive drowsy.[3]  Furthermore, inadequate rest among young people has been associated with obesity, anxiety, physical distress, problems with memory consolidation, ADHD, and mental illness. This should give us pause. Sleep and rest – according to developmental and sleep science – are matters of life and death. Yet the broader culture shrugs its collective shoulders, and young people find themselves caught in the crosshairs.

Does youth ministry have any sense of what’s at stake when it comes to rest? Youth group lock-ins suggest not. Another tradition deep in the Judeo-Christian theological tradition suggests maybe so.

Sabbath: We’re Incomplete without It

Though theologians, pastors, and youth ministries frequently overlook it, the very first saga in Scripture features rest at its apex. Swiss theologian Karl Barth (rhymes with tart) looks to the seven days of creation in Genesis for vital clues about the identity of God, creation, and the nature of the relationship between the two. Barth insists that God’s goal and purpose for creation is to make possible the covenant relationship between God and humanity in Jesus Christ.[4] God creates the heavens and the earth so that God can be in relationship with creation, and with humankind in particular. The first six days already reveal the initial contours of this relationship, yet as Barth turns the page to the seventh day, he writes, “Creation is finished, but the history of creation is not yet concluded.”[5]

Does youth ministry have any sense of what’s at stake when it comes to rest?

There is more to the story than the first six days.  While Barth clearly did not use the NRSV in his study of the seventh day, the NRSV translation of these verses lifts up a dimension of the text which Barth emphasizes.  Note the confusing use of the word “finished”: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (Genesis 2:1-2). The first use of “finished” appears to point backward to the work of the first six days. That work is finished.  And yet, on the seventh day, God “finished” the work that God had done.  How do we make sense of this?  How is it possible that on the seventh day God both finished and rested from all the work that God had done?

Barth insists the finishing and the resting cannot be separated.  This, however, does not mean that God continues creative activity similar to the first six days. Rather, it means that on the seventh day, it is God’s very rest that brings the whole creation – and humankind as part of that creation – to completion. Imagine. It is no material thing that finishes creation. Rather, it is God’s Sabbath rest and the implied invitation to all of creation to join in that rest. On this read, we remain incomplete and unfinished apart from Sabbath rest.

Now What?

The sleep science and the Sabbath do not say exactly the same thing, but they do surely raise common questions. Faith and science converge on questions of rest, sleep, and young people. They converge to ask, what if it is true? What if Sabbath and sleep science both echo a deep and mysterious truth about what it means to be human? What if our very lives and even the whole of creation remain unfinished and incomplete apart from regular and sufficient rest? How would this change our young people? How would it change our ministries, our teaching, our parenting, or our relationships to work and technology? How would it change us?

Though vibrant and relevant answers to these questions require input from those closest to us and our ministries, I’ll offer here a few ideas to get the ball rolling.

Mandatory Naps

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I know a youth pastor who scheduled mandatory nap time into all the retreats and trips she led for her youth group. It took some time for the tradition to take root, but it wasn’t long before the youth named nap-time as one of the primary reasons to go on youth trips. When new youth come along, they sometimes scoff, yet the youth who know the grace of the naps quickly defend the quiet time. The napping tradition echoes the theological conviction of the seventh day of creation: rest is integral to our identity. It’s just part of who we are.


In 1859, nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale wrote, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel abuse of care which can be inflicted on either the sick or the well.” Contemporary science suggests Nightingale had it right, but do we ever give our young people the gift of silence? Or are we more likely to frantically fill every moment with noise (talking, music, videos, earbuds, etc.)? Just this week, I spoke with a youth pastor who works in an affluent community in Florida. She incorporates extended times of silence into prayer with her junior highers. At the end of a recent gathering, she gave them the choice of ending a bit early or doing silent prayer. They chose silent prayer. How might we regularly include silence into the rhythms of our ministries?

Slow Food (not what you think)

For many of us, quick meals at fast food joints while traveling from one place to another are part and parcel of our youth ministries. We have to get to the retreat by 8:00 Friday night; we left right after school; we stop in a hurry; “Everybody eat as quickly as you can so we can get on the road!”

What would it look like to orchestrate meals with our youth that are intentionally slow? In Genesis 1, the description of the sixth day includes explicit mention of food. God provides food for all creation (Genesis 1:29-30). Then comes Day Seven. It implies there may have been some slow dining on that first Sabbath. When God provides manna in the wilderness for the Israelites, the Sabbath instruction forbids gathering manna but commands eating (Exodus 16:25). What if a slow meal sensitizes us to God’s presence and provision?


I’m on tricky ground here because many who lead youth ministries also take the lead when it comes to worship. That may not feel like rest. It may not be rest. Yet vast swaths of the Judeo-Christian tradition have included and continue to include worship of God (prayers, song, teaching, sacraments) within their Sabbath keeping. At some level, we might even argue that worship is the whole point. At its best, our worship of God reminds us that human achievement, status, and accomplishment have never been enough to bring us to life or save us from ourselves or others. God alone brings life and salvation. Both Sabbath and worship point to this. Maybe we can thoughtfully put them together. Even if leading worship is part of our job, at the least we can teach young people how worship at its best embodies holy rest.

A Word of Caution

I’d like to think all of this sounds enticing – like a delectable multi-course meal. Through the Sabbath, God does offer an extraordinary invitation. Yet if we’re addicted to noise, productivity, and fast everything like I think we are, then we should be prepared for a real struggle. The Sabbath challenges identities rooted in ceaseless motion or getting stuff done. It calls for their passing. If your journey is anything like mine, this means that the Sabbath journey will go through anxiety and death, not around it.

Thankfully, we serve a resurrection God who would never lead us through the death of any identity unless a truer, more faithful identity was already prepared. The hope is that in the end we may hear God’s stunning affirmation: “You are my beloved child.”

May it be so.

This blog is excerpted and adapted from Disorienting Grace: Youth, Sabbath, and the Hope of a Grace-Rooted Identity by Nathan T. Stucky, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, forthcoming.

[1] As reported by John Medina.  John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008), 151-2.

[2] Medina, Brain Rules, 152.

[3] Richard T. Moore, Rachel Kaprielian, and John Auerbach, “Asleep at the Wheel: Report of the Special Commission on Drowsy Driving” February 2009, available at

[4] Ibid, 42ff.

[5] Barth, CD, III/1, 213.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at or on Facebook at

About the Author: Nathan T. Stucky

The Rev. Nathan T. Stucky, Ph.D., hails from Kansas but lives in Princeton, NJ, where he serves as Director of the Farminary Project at Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA), Nate’s work with the Farminary integrates theological education with small-scale, sustainable agriculture at Princeton Seminary’s 21-acre farm. He has a special interest in the role of community formation and Sabbath in the education of pastors, church leaders, youth ministers, parents, and young people.  A musician, frequent retreat speaker, and farmer, Nate holds a B.A. in music from Bethel College (Kansas), and a M.Div. from Princeton Seminary.  Before coming to Princeton Seminary, Nate worked in youth ministry and farming.  He and his wife, Janel, are the happy parents of Joshua (11), Jenna (8) and Isaac (5).