Counting Sheep
by Pastor George Van Alstine

We all rejoice in a “good night’s sleep.” That’s because we’re all familiar with nights when sleep hasn’t come easily. Insomnia is a long-term serious problem for some of us, but even those who usually sleep well sometimes experience those frustrating nights when we can’t fall asleep, or we wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to dreamland.

For me, there’s usually a late cup of coffee or a pepperoni pizza involved in starting my problem. Once I’m awake, the many anxieties of the day take over — unfinished business and unresolved relationship problems. All of these things seem much worse in the middle of the night, and they overload my mind with messages of concern. Once this process begins, I can’t turn it off until some sort of mental fatigue mercifully ends it, and I sink into uneasy sleep.

Many people try to deal with this problem by using drugs of various kinds: homeopathic, prescription, alcohol, etc. Others have favorite mental gimmicks, the most famous of which is counting sheep. I guess you’re supposed to be focused so completely on the number of sheep that you become distracted from the other issues that have been keeping you awake. I’m a city-boy, so this has never worked for me.

Recently, I’ve come upon a more effective technique. Rather than struggling to fight off the many concerns flooding my mind, I concentrate on them, looking at each one squarely, analyzing why each bothers me so much. All the time I’m asking myself, “Is there something I can do about this?” If the answer is No, I move on to the next issue. If the answer is Yes, I consider if there is something I need to do tomorrow, one little step to take; then I store that action in my memory and move on to the next concern.

Occasionally, I’ll come across an issue that I can act on right now, in my mind. I focus intently and push myself to think it through more completely than I have before. On several occasions, God has helped me, through this process, to solve important problems in the middle of the night. That’s how this Messenger article came about. I’m still on vacation, but I had committed to write something and send it to the church. I was really stuck for ideas, until God caused me to realize that my very sleeplessness was a story that might help someone.

As I thought again about the notion of counting sheep, the picture in my mind was suddenly changed, as I was reminded of the wonderful teaching of Jesus about how a Good Shepherd cares for his sheep:

“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? . . . so it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
(Matthew 18:12-14)

If I understand this correctly, counting sheep doesn’t put the Good Shepherd to sleep; it keeps him awake! He won’t doze off as long as one of his sheep is lost. I thought of this about three AM last night, and it came to me that my Savior, who “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4), was up all night concerned about me, and that he wouldn’t let me be overwhelmed by my worries and responsibilities.

I asked God to help me remember this until the morning. Then I fell asleep.