Does God speak through dreams today? Do your dreams accurately reflect the state of your soul? Should every dream be analyzed? What should you do when a dream upsets you? These are the questions we will address in this post.
A GENERAL OVERVIEW
Dreams are not something we choose to do, they are forced upon us by God. For His own mysterious reasons, God created the human brain with a need to dream, just like the physical body needs to eat. Studies have taught us that if people are blocked from dreaming while they sleep, they will start hallucinating while they are awake—in other words, they will daydream. Whatever dreams do for the brain, it needs them to happen on a regular basis.
The general pattern of dreams is that you go to sleep and the dream just happens to you. You don’t get to choose its contents or control what happens in it. In some cases, people have been able to mentally direct the plotline of a dream they were having. In other cases, people have been able to teach themselves to wake up if they see certain cues in their dreams. But those who can interact with their dreams can’t control them all, and no one gets out of having to dream.
While everyone dreams on a regular basis, not everyone remembers their dreams. The brain cycles through several phases of sleep at night, and dreaming doesn’t happen in all of them. If you wake up in the middle of a dream cycle, you are more likely to remember what you were dreaming. If you wake up in a different cycle, you might not remember dreaming at all.
In general, the memory of what we just dreamt fades quickly. If you want to remember your dream longer, the best thing to do is to mentally review it the moment you wake up. This will preserve it in your mind much longer. If you want to forget what you dreamt, do just the opposite—push the images out of your mind and start thinking about something else. If you do nothing, then you are likely to only remember a few snatches of the dream unless it was particularly vivid.
THE PURPOSE OF DREAMS
Dreams are best thought of like a psychological sorting system. Through dreams, your mind mulls over issues that you are concerned about. Anything that has been weighing on your mind either in the foreground or in the background is quite likely to show up in your dreams. When we try to shove upsetting thoughts out of our minds, they don’t really fall out of our heads—instead they get pushed into the background of our minds where they continue to have an effect on our psychological wellbeing. In dreams, your brain will often shuffle through its back files and invent symbolic ways of expressing your current list of mental and emotional concerns. It will combine conscious worries—like how you’re going to pay for the expensive repairs your car needs—with background worries—like how long it will take your friend to start speaking to you again.
When we remember that God created us in His image, the strangeness of our dreams is almost humorous. When we read through the prophetic books in the Bible, we hear God using all kinds of bizarre imagery and nonsensical descriptions. Often His choice of metaphors is so strange that we don’t get what His bottom line message is. It is the same with our dreams. When we dream, we discover that God has woven His love of wild symbols and crazy metaphors into the human mind’s dream making process. Like Him, our brains come up with extremely creative and utterly nonsensical ways of communicating their thoughts to us. Often the delivery style is so strange that we have no idea what our brains are trying to express. Just as God represents His enemies as multi-headed beasts and a lusty prostitute in the book of Revelation, our brains will often come up with symbolic characters that represent real people in our lives. Our demanding father might be transformed into a shouting drill sergeant. The coworker who stole our credit at work might be presented as a scary looking dog who runs in on our picnic and steals the sandwich right out of our hand. Our Creator’s zeal for creating is endless and He has obviously shared a drop of that zeal with us. We, too, love creating. We create when we are awake and we create when we are asleep. Perhaps you don’t consider yourself to be a very creative person. Perhaps you would flunk a creative writing class because you can never think of an interesting plotline. Well, at night, you prove that creative skills and originality do lurk within you—at least within your subconscious mind. Dreams prove that we all have the ability to imagine, create, and twist reality into such a wild string of metaphors that it becomes unrecognizable. How God-esque.
WHEN OTHER WRITERS GET INVOLVED
Sometimes you are not the only one creating your dreams. Sometimes you get unsolicited help from the spiritual realms. Demons love to get involved in your dreams. Whenever they get permission from the Holy Spirit, they rush in to take over the plotline and you wake up with some very disturbing images in your mind. Dreams, then, become just another way for them to harass you.
Do not let anyone sell you the rot that your dreams accurately reflect the health of your soul. This is a complete lie. Your core attitude towards God is what determines how you’re doing spiritually, and that is something you can assess for yourself. Do you want God to have His total way in your life? Are you upset by the idea of Him being upset or disappointed with you? If you can say “yes” to these questions, then you are in alignment with Him. Your soul cares about pleasing Him. This is what matters to God. Now while your soul wants to please Him, your flesh couldn’t care less. You might be struggling with all sorts of ugly lusts and temptation might be winning the day. Your mind might be filled with inappropriate images and those same images might be showing up in your dreams. But this does not mean that your soul is off track with God. Your soul and your flesh are two separate things.
There are several ways that demons will try to use dreams to make a sincere Christian worry that he is spiritually flawed. Here are some of their classic tricks.
- When demons can’t get enough of your attention while you’re awake, they will try to take over your dreams. When you’re asleep, you’re like their captive audience. You can’t stop yourself from dreaming, nor can you mentally escape the upsetting images they shove on you. The night becomes a perfect time for demons to bombard you with all the upsetting images they’ve been trying to shove on you during the day. When you are generally joyful during the day and feeling at peace with God, yet every night is a bad dream night, and you wake up feeling like you have a negativity hangover, you need to recognize that demons are involved. Don’t buy the theory that you must have some underlying spiritual problem or that your daytime peace is just an illusion. Instead, take it as a compliment that your daytime defenses are holding so strongly that harassing you through dreams is all that demons have left.
- Because dreams can be very sensual experiences, they can be excellent ways for demons to introduce temptations to us. Suppose a Christian man is dedicated to his wife and they have a good relationship. But she just had a baby and is constantly exhausted. The married couple hasn’t had sex in quite a while. The husband is trying to be patient because he sees how stressed his wife is, but the passing of time is making the mental battle more difficult. Meanwhile, he’s been assigned a new project at the office which means he has to work up close to a very attractive woman who wears super tight skirts and low cut shirts. Throughout the day, she keeps leaning over and giving him a face full. He is trying hard not to think about it, and the demons harassing him are becoming very frustrated. The woman is being quite cooperative with them and she’s dying to start an affair. All they need is a way to take the man down. Finally they get permission to give him a super sensual dream in which he sees himself having sex with his naked coworker. The dream is so real and vivid that the man wakes up in a panic, thinking that it actually happened. When he realizes it was just a dream, demons rush in to try and entice him into starting an affair. But when he rejects the notion, they reverse their strategy and start heaping on the condemnation. “How unfaithful of you. How lustful. You’re committing adultery in your mind—to God that’s just as bad as actually doing it. You say you’re dedicated to your wife, but how would she feel if she knew what you were dreaming about? How disgusting.” In this case, the man needs to recognize what’s really going on. He knows that his heart attitude is right and that demons have been trying to use his coworker as a temptress. He knows that when he has control over his mind, he is choosing righteousness and resisting their attacks. The choices he makes in his waking hours show where his priorities really lie—not some dream that he had no control over.
- The more dedicated you are to God, the more nauseating you are to demons. If they can get permission, they will give you terrifying nightmares that involve all of your worst fears happening. Overt attacks like this are desperate attempts to rob your peace and fill your waking hours with fear and anxiety. Once again, we need to recognize the classic indicators of demonic involvement: lingering fear, general anxiety, condemnation, and shame. Graphic and gross details are also signs of demonic involvement. When you avoid watching movies with a bunch of blood and guts being splattered all over the place, yet you have dreams filled with such imagery so that you wake up feeling totally grossed out, you need to recognize that demons are just trying to upset you.
Demons can’t invade our dreams without God’s cooperation. He allows them attack us through dreams so that we can practice deflecting false accusations and disowning things that we are not responsible for. You know in your heart whether you really care about pleasing God or not. When you are aligned with Him, bad dreams cannot get in your way. When demons get involved in our dreams, we need to deflect them just as we would any negative, fearful thought that comes at us in the day. When you wake up from a bad dream, start thinking about something positive right away. Don’t go over the details of the dream in your mind, because this will just make it harder to forget. Move on with your day and refuse to take ownership for the garbage demons shovel into your mind at night.
WHEN GOD TALKS THROUGH DREAMS
In the Bible, we find many incidents of God talking to people through dreams. He still talks to people through dreams today, however we must not start obsessing over this idea. Every dream is not a message from God. Whenever God wants us to understand something, He will make His message clear to us, regardless of what form it takes. The burden of communicating rests with God, not us. This means that if you think that God might be trying to tell you something through a dream, you need to stay calm and let Him clarify His message to you when He’s ready to do so. Sometimes we sense that a dream is significant for some reason, but we don’t immediately understand why. The best thing to do in these cases is to ask the Holy Spirit to show us anything He wants us to know. Then we need to be patient. If He tells us something, fine. If He doesn’t, we need to let the subject drop. God will not let us miss any important message. We need to have confidence in His communication skills.
INTERPRETING YOUR DREAMS
Because dreams have a mystical attraction to them, there have been many books written about dream symbolism. These books try to suggest that there are certain common symbols that can be translated the same way for all humans. For example, a car or house represents yourself. Water represents stress. Don’t waste your time trying to chase down some dream symbol code book. Symbols mean very different things to different individuals. Within one culture, we might find some common trends. If an American dreams about the white house, for example, we might say he was thinking about the president or power or the government. But an American architect might dream about the white house and all it would represent to him was a style of building. You are the best interpreter of your own dreams.
Most dreams are simply your mind shuffling through its current concerns. There can definitely be value in trying to interpret the symbols of your dreams, as long as you don’t get too obsessed. Sometimes our dreams can provide helpful cues about our mental health. When our minds are feeling overstrained by too much stress, repressed traumatic memories, or unresolved fears, they can “complain” about these things by bombarding us with frightening dreams. We can then pick up on this cue and go to God for direction on what to do. When we have particularly upsetting dreams, or when we keep having the same dream over and over, it’s a good time to pull out our interpretation skills and ask God to show us any issues we need to address.
The first step in interpreting your dream is to remember as much about it as possible. Mentally reviewing the dream as soon as you wake up will help it stick in your mind. Then you can write down the events of the dream in the order that they happened. Pay particular attention to emotions that you experience in the dream, for they are a critical part of understanding what your mind is thinking about. The more details you can remember, the better. Next you want to consider the symbols in your dream and ask yourself what those symbols represent to you. Again, emotional reaction is the key. Are the symbols familiar and pleasant or are they upsetting and threatening? If you dream about a dog, are you patting its head or being chased down the street by it? If you dream that you’re driving a car, is it hurtling down some steep hill with non-functioning brakes or is it working normally? If there are people in your dream, do you view them as friends or enemies? Do they remind you of people that you know in real life? Only you know yourself, which is why you are the best one to interpret your dreams. Friends or counselors can make suggestions, but in the end, only you can decide when something sounds like a correct interpretation. That said, no dream should be interpreted alone. You must always rely on your resident Counselor—the Holy Spirit—to direct your analysis.
The dream world is a fantasy world in which anything can happen. It isn’t the things you take casually that are significant, but the things that you have a clear emotional reaction to. Let’s use an example.
One night, Mary dreamt that she was walking about on the ocean floor without any scuba equipment. She was breathing underwater as if it was the most normal thing in the world. But then suddenly a huge octopus appeared out of nowhere and started swimming towards her. In the dream, Mary panicked, and then she suddenly woke up.
The octopus is the most important symbol in this dream, because it is the thing that Mary reacted to. Even though she was doing things that were physically impossible—like breathing water—in the dream these things seemed normal and natural to her. They might symbolize something to her mind, or they might just be the meaningless background of a fantasy world.
Next, consider the plot of your dream. Was there a clear sequence of related events that led up to some kind of crisis? What was the tone of the dream—was it happy, scary, stressful, funny or mysterious? Was there more than one dream involved? Sometimes our minds quickly change channels and present us with several unrelated scenes instead of a continuous plotline. Describe the emotional plotline of your dream. For example, Mary would summarize her dream as: “I started off calm, then something very scary suddenly appeared in front of me and I felt helpless and terrified.” Next, compare your summary sentence to your real life—does it remind you of anything? Have you recently experienced a similar pattern of emotional changes?
When Mary thinks about her summary sentence, she tries to remember the last time something really upset her. Nothing huge comes to mind, but there have been several little things. Last week her car broke down and she just found out the repairs will be very expensive. Then her daughter fell off her bike and broke her arm. Then her husband got demoted at work, which means money just got a lot tighter. But Mary has never been one to let things get her down. She’s a trooper, and she keeps telling her friends that she knows everything will work out alright.
The overall tone of Mary’s dream is negative. The emotions in it are fear, dread, and panic. It’s possible that demons are just messing with her, but it’s also possible that her brain is trying to cue her about some issues she’s not dealing with. More work needs to be done to analyze the most important symbol in the dream, which is the huge octopus. In Mary’s creative mind, that ugly mass of tentacles symbolizes something negative, threatening and dangerous. Since no recent life events seem to be a good match, Mary should think farther back in her life for another sequence of events that would match her summary sentence: “I started off calm, then something very scary suddenly appeared in front of me and I felt helpless and terrified.”
When Mary starts thinking about terrible things that caught her off guard, her mind immediately goes to the ugly divorce she went through five years ago. Finances were tight then, too, and Mary had gone back to work to help pay the bills. She worked days while her husband worked nights. They barely saw each other for two years, and then one day her husband announced that he wanted a divorce. He’d been having an affair with his secretary and he said he was tired of living with a stranger. Mary had been devastated. During the divorce proceedings, her husband cheated her badly and left her with almost nothing. That divorce had certainly taken her by surprise, and she’d remembered feeling overwhelmed by all of the confusing paperwork and rules. She could see how the octopus in her dream might symbolize the divorce, the way that it suddenly appeared without warning. It’s many flailing tentacles had made it look like a very complicated, frightening thing, which was how the divorce had seemed to Mary five years ago. But now she has moved on with her life, and she’s happily married to another man who is very faithful to her. She has done her best to process the past and the Lord has helped her to forgive her ex-husband in her heart. She has a good relationship with her husband and has no fear about him cheating on her. So where is the octopus coming from?
Now that Mary has identified a real life event that seems like a good match for the octopus in her dream, she needs to consider the possibility that the fear of divorce is somehow entering her life again. To understand why, she should compare the events leading up to her previous divorce with her current circumstances, and look for any similarities that might have triggered a stress response for her.
The night before her dream, Mary remembers talking to her husband about their finances. With hospital and car repair bills to pay and a cut salary, things are going to be extremely tight. The possibility of Mary going back to work was brought up during the conversation and she remembered feeling suddenly upset. She’d tried to hide her reaction from her husband, since he obviously had enough things on his mind. But now that she thinks about it, her returning to work was the thing that seemed to destroy her first marriage. It was just too easy to drift apart when everyone was on a different schedule.
Mary now realizes that her dream was about her current fears, not past traumas. Mary is very afraid that if she returns to work, the monster of divorce will suddenly spring on her again without warning. By analyzing her dream, Mary has been able to recognize a major fear that is lurking in the back of her mind. She can now bring this fear to God and ask Him to show her how to deal with it. She can also explain her fear to her husband, and they can find a way to work things out so that they won’t have any less time together even if Mary goes back to work.
As this example illustrates, there can be value in interpreting dreams. But at the same time, it can quickly be overdone. Not every dream holds some deep dark secret or some prophetic message. Many of them are just our brains reshuffling the mental files. A bunch more can be tossed aside as demonic harassment. Now and then there is one that can help point us in a good direction, but overall, we need to keep our focus on the conscious, waking hours. In dreams we don’t have control over what we do or say. When we’re awake, we can pray and choose to follow God’s leading in our lives. Don’t let your dreams become a major focal point of your life. Instead, rely on God to guide you one day at a time and let you know when there is a mental issue that you need to address.