Sleeping on It

January 14, 2012

“Sleeping on it” seemed counterintuitive when I was younger.   One of my pet peeves has always been procrastination.  Responding in a timely manner to requests, phone calls, emails, and project deadlines values other people and is a best practice in all organizations, including the church.  I become impatient with myself when I can’t make decisions or motivate myself to get a job done, especially when my delay negatively affects other people.

Unfortunately, I had gotten into the habit over the years of making decisions too quickly.  Rather than take careful time for discernment, I would find myself saying yes on the spot.  Unfortunately, the next day I’d regret my haste and berate myself, “Why did you do that, Laurie?  Why didn’t you make room for God to weigh in?”

     It’s only been in recent years that I have learned to value the spiritual necessity of intentional delay.  I now know that I make better decisions when I wait rather than respond immediately to major requests.  After making one too many commitments that I could only keep by doing shoddy work, I promised myself to do all in my power not to say yes right away.  Sleeping on it gives God a chance to speak when I am resting and open.

A few weeks ago a colleague asked me to take on a major responsibility.  It was intriguing and fit my skills and passions well.  I almost blurted out “Sure, I’ll do it” but bit my tongue.  I listened carefully, asked many questions, and replied, “This sounds very interesting, but I can’t make a decision now.  I need to pray about it for a day or two, then I’ll get back to you.”  Two days later I said no, explaining that the timing was not right.

     Knowing when and how to delay an action or decision is not only an art and a skill, but it’s a mark of spiritual maturity as well.  In his recently published book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, author Frank Partnoy writes about the advantage that the great tennis player Novak Djokovic has over other professional tennis players.  It’s the fact that he waits a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball.

Partnoy writes, “Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate – at the speed of light.  During superfast reactions, the best performing experts in sport, and in life, instinctively know when to pause, if only for a split-second.”

Tennis players have only 300 milliseconds to react to a serve and try to return it.  Amateurs cannot possibly move to the right spot and swing with accuracy and power in 300 milliseconds.  However, Djokovic can do it in 100 milliseconds.  Because he has so much physical speed Djokovic has more time to process the serve and swings at the last possible millisecond.   Why should we wait?  Because it gives us time to observe, process, and prepare.

Great athletes, writers, actors, musicians, and leaders pause as long as necessary.  Have you ever noticed that the best hitters in baseball know how to wait for the best pitch?  Writers don’t publish the first thing that pops into their head but allow ideas to percolate and compose many drafts before they are satisfied.  Actors practice pausing over and over until they know how to best convey their message.  Rests in music are deliberately and strategically positioned by composers in order to maximize the effect of the notes.   The pregnant pause is a rhetorical technique in public speaking and preaching.

Patience in investments can reap enormous returns.  When Warren Buffet is asked how long he will delay in buying a stock, he will say “indefinitely.”  Partnoy quotes Buffet, “I call investing the greatest business in the world because you never have to swing.  You stand at the plate, the pitcher throws you General Motors at 47, US Steel at 39…  All day you wait for the pitch you like; then when the fielders are asleep, you step up and hit it.”

     When making important decisions, science has taught us the value of “sleeping on it.”  Simple decisions are best made by our conscious mind.  Overthinking easy decisions like what to eat for breakfast, what to wear for a routine day at the office, and what pew to sit in on Sunday morning robs us of the energy we need for more important decisions.  Hence, the origin of the “my pew” syndrome!

Most complex decisions, on the other hand, are best left to the unconscious mind.  Rather than stay up all night and agonize about a problem, sleep allows us to clear our minds and relieves us of the immediacy of making a decision.  Our own biases interfere when we brood incessantly.  By literally sleeping on important decisions, however, we allow the unconscious mind to bypass our own distortions and better assimilate information and solve problems.   Christians have been known to call it “giving it up to God” or “waiting on the Lord.”

Researchers tell us that when we are considering a major decision, like buying a car or house, taking a new job out of state, or getting married, “sleeping on it” offers a deeper perspective that complements the conscious weighing of the pros and cons of the situation.   It appears that the many factors affecting complex decisions can frustrate our conscious mind and are better processed by our unconscious mind during sleep, resulting in better choices.

When angels appear to individuals in the Bible, I wonder whether it might actually be a case of “sleeping on it,” even if a dream is not specifically mentioned.  An angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple, proclaiming that his barren wife Elizabeth would become pregnant with a son named John.  An angel appeared to Mary, announcing that she would bear the son of God.  An angel appeared to Joseph, urging him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.  After Jesus’ birth the same angel told Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt, and in a subsequent dream the angel said it was safe to go back to Nazareth.  An angel appeared to the magi, urging them to go home by a different way.

Is it any coincidence that angelic appearances in the nativity story occurred when individuals were asked to make major life decisions that involved no little degree of faith and trust?  Could it be that Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the wise men all needed to “sleep on it”?

     Churches have much to learn about the value of “sleeping on it.”  What frustrates many about decision-making in churches is that even the simplest decisions are often slow as molasses.   Church members procrastinate in completing projects because they are busy.  At times we put people in the wrong positions, and they don’t have the skills to lead others in making effective and timely decisions.   Leaders don’t follow up, committee meetings are not well run, and things slip through the cracks.

     Congregations can become more effective in their ministries by learning to make simple decisions more quickly and complex decisions more slowly.  Complex decisions might include a building program, the initiation of a major outreach project, starting a new worship service, developing a strategic plan, or entering into holy conversation about the sustainability of a declining church.  

At these times churches must allow their collective unconscious mind to be open to God’s leading.  Clearly, we cannot drag our feet, nor should we be influenced by a “heavy hitter” to act prematurely.  We need to exercise appropriate delay but not lose momentum.

When congregations engage in periodic prayer vigils and take time in meetings for discernment, we are better able to let go of our own biases, fears, and judgments and allow God to work through us, individually and corporately.  We seek God’s will, nothing more, nothing less.

Unexpected challenges will continue to crop up in our personal lives and in our churches in 2013.  We’ll be asked to take on major commitments and make critical decisions.  Occasionally, we should trust our initial gut instinct and go for it, impulse shopping and knee-jerk Facebook postings excluded!  Most often, however, rather than react instantly and regret unthinking words or decisions, we would do well to wait by practicing a standard reply, “I’d like to pray about this and will need to sleep on it.” 

“But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.”  (Isaiah 40:31)