Have you ever tried to not think about pink elephants? If you have, I can pretty much guarantee that you couldn’t do it. Once you decided not to think of them, your head was probably filled with crazy images of pachyderms in shades of flamingo, fuchsia, and bubble gum.
I thought about this recently while watching a video based on Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God*. John Ortberg was interviewing Willard about the topic of sleep. The classic advice for people who struggle with insomnia is to “stop thinking about” whatever it is that worries them. If the advice-giver is a Christian, he or she might add “and pray about it.”
The problem is—and Willard acknowledged this—it is nearly impossible to simply “stop thinking about” something. It’s like trying not to think about pink elephants.
But there is a way around this problem. Willard said that can release something only by grabbing onto something else. To use the pink elephants analogy, if you don’t want to think about pink elephants, then focus instead of purple cows.
What Willard was saying, I think, is that while you can’t just stop thinking about something that matters deeply to you, you can intentionally focus your thoughts on something else—like the Lord.
As he talked about this, I realized that he was offering a truth God had led me to more than a year ago. I’d had a string of sleepless nights. I tried praying about all the stuff that cluttered my mind, but in reality I was just worrying my prayers. I wasn’t really releasing anything—I was just rehearsing my problems to God (with my helpful suggestions attached).
So God taught me to use “Alphabet Praise” to help me focus on Him instead of the concerns that preoccupied me. The idea is simple: I think of attributes and praise Him for them, one at a time from A-Z. Usually I fall asleep long before I get to “Z.” (See “Worship for Sleepless Nights.”)
Since then, I have tried many variations on that theme. Sometimes I intercede for people whose names start with A, B, C, and so on. Or I pray for countries in the same manner. Sometimes I pray blessings on people, offering a different blessing for each letter of the alphabet. Sometimes it’s petitions, with 26 different requests based on the letters as they come in order. Sometimes it’s thanksgiving. You get the idea.
Usually I fall asleep before somewhere in the first third of the alphabet. Sometimes I wake up again—but when I do, I just pick up where I left off and usually drift off again quickly. But even if I don’t—which sometimes happens—I still feel rested. Because I’ve focused on God and not on my personal “pink elephants,” I rest, even if I don’t REM.