I recently received an email with a very good question about dreams and how they fit into the Christian’s spiritual life. My guess is that many people have similar curiosities, so I decided to flesh my response out here a bit and tackle some of the common inquiries.
Do dreams mean much of anything or are they just crazy thoughts we have while sleeping? Does God speak through our dreams? If so, to what extent should we be looking for divine answer or direction in our dreams?
Do dreams mean anything?
We probably need to briefly comment on how dreams have been handled historically. We don’t have time here to trace how each culture addressed dreams, but in modern history, Sigmund Freud was, without a doubt, considered a leading voice in dream analysis. Even that term (i.e. “dream analysis”), still used commonly today, comes from Freud’s school of thought. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud argued that the motivation of all dream content is wish-fulfillment. He believed that the instigation of a dream is often to be found in the events of the day preceding the dream, which he called the “day residue.”
While many of Freud’s thoughts on the issue have been dismissed by scholars today, the basic notion that dreams, generally speaking, seem to express what you want or what you fear, remains an accepted component of Freud’s theories. The Bible even seems to support this idea – Ecclesiastes 5:3 “As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.” It appears that Solomon here is saying that people dream the most when they are overwhelmed by emotions, such as extreme want or fear.
Does God speak to us through our dreams?
Without a doubt, God did use dreams to communicate to his people in history. Famous men of God such as Joseph and Daniel, two men who are portrayed in about as positive of a light as any mere mortals in the Bible, both had the unique gift of dream interpretation, not only for themselves but also for others (Gen 37; 40; 41 & entire book of Daniel).
Consequently, for anyone to suggest that God couldn’t speak to someone in a dream today is overstepping the bounds of what God has already told us he’s done. I fully understand someone’s desire to use the Sola Scriptura rallying cry of the Reformation here (more on that later), but if you suggest in absolute terms that God could not speak to someone by way of a dream, you paint yourself into what I believe would be a biblically indefensible corner. We have to acknowledge that it’s possible that God could communicate to someone today in such a way. In fact, in portions of the planet where the gospel is far less accessible due to less opportunity for Bible contact and fewer Christians, there have been MANY recorded accounts of visions of Jesus. We don’t have the time needed to fully address this, but if you investigate Muslims who have claimed dreams of Jesus coming to them and their consequent conversion to the Christian faith, it’s interesting to say the least. With Muslims specifically, you can assume there is some history of knowledge of Jesus and the Bible. Do I buy all of it entirely? Hard to say. It does seem to fall in line with Paul’s words to the Athenians: From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)
With that said, an important point to keep in mind is that God’s direct and immediate revelation to people seems to have come to an end with the completion of the New Testament compilation as did the other supernatural spiritual gifts given to the early church. The Apostle John, in the book of Revelation, 22:18-19, mentions that there is not to be any “adding to or subtracting from this book” (paraphrase). In the narrow sense this would suggest the book of Revelation, but since John is the last living writer of Scripture and since the early church does not attest to any post-Apostolic inspired writing, his statement here seems to apply equally well to all of Scripture. His basic point is – there is no need from here on out for someone to suggest that God is authoritatively speaking something into their lives when all that is necessary for salvation in Jesus is complete. MANY have claimed direct & immediate (i.e. non-biblical) revelation from God. In the worst cases, they have led very influential anti-Christian religious movements (e.g. Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, Sun Yung Moon, David Karesh, etc.) Disastrous consequences came to those who sought to hear God’s voice and feel God’s guiding hand outside of the direction of the Bible.
So, when it comes to dream interpretation and God’s influence, my application points would be…
1) Test the spirits (1 John 4:1). I’ve had a lot of crazy dreams that I know probably had little to do with God trying to tell me something and more to do with chalupa-fueled indigestion ignited by my lunch at Taco Bell.
Generally, I’ve found that most often my dreams appear to stem from my subconscious trying to solve some of the problems that I’m stressed about in my day-to-day affairs. So….keep in mind that God certainly would not suggest anything that might contradict Scripture. Let the Bible be your guide when it comes to investigating the merits of a dream.
2) God will not send you a message that you cannot detect. People are particularly inclined to look for divine guidance from recurring dreams. While recurring dreams might indicate a stronger presence of an unresolved emotional issue, I don’t see anything that suggests it’s more likely to be divinely implanted. If God wants to get a message across to you, he will not leave it up to interpretation gifts that you don’t have to figure it out.
Look, for instance, at Samuel’s call into ministry (1 Samuel 3). In his ignorance, Samuel did not get it at first because he wasn’t listening for God. Or, take Jonah’s call. He heard it but rejected it (Jonah 1). Nonetheless, God guided him back on track. God will find a way of making any of his intentions known to you. The obvious way he does this for us today, again, is through Scripture. In his providence, he does continue to direct our footsteps through life as well. Point being, you won’t take some drastically bad turn in your life as the result of missing a “sign” from God.
3) Making practical decisions in uncertainty is a necessary aspect of faith and faith development. Romans 8 is a beautiful section of Scripture for understanding this point. If God truly works all things out for the good of those who love him, you can’t really make “good” or “bad” decisions in non-moral areas as much as you can make decisions “with/without seeking God’s glory.” In other words, when you consult God by seeking him through prayer and biblical guidance, and your heart’s desire is that God be glorified, there aren’t “rights” and “wrongs” but “rights.” God will figure out how to use your choices in life to carry out his purposes. You don’t have to worry about that. He hasn’t asked you to take on that kind of responsibility – only he’s big enough for that task!
When Christians panic and start seeking signs or supernatural ways that God might communicate something to them, it strikes me more as Saul consulting the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) more than prayerfully exercising faith. Obviously it rarely gets that extreme, but I think you get the point. It requires more faith to trust God’s presence and make decisions in his silence than it does in his speaking. Joseph received dreams from God and eventually interpreted dreams for others, but remember, for a stretch he sat in jail for years. I’m sure he’d hoped for a sign at that point. But God saw it fit for him to remain in silence for a lengthy period rather than give him a direct sign. Obviously, we know how the story ended and see God’s purpose in it. If we apply that same truth to our lives, it helps us grow….in patience…..in confidence…..in faith.