Can God really speak to us while we are sleeping?

Do you ever have weird dreams? (Let’s face it, who doesn’t?) And if you do, should you spend time and energy trying to work out what the dreams mean or should you just forget about them and get on with your life? Take my friend Eric for example. One night, he had a dream. In real life, he was thinking of changing his car, and he had a habit of going to car auctions to gauge prices. In his dream, he was at an auction. It was evening, there wasn’t much light, and he hastily bid on a car that seemed to be very good value. But, in the morning, when he was able to have a proper look at the car, he was horrified. He had bought a grey Citroen 2CV. This was the one car he couldn’t stand; it was always a target for jokes, and grey was his least favourite colour. Gazing at the unappealing paintwork, Eric saw that light was coming out of the car; it was translucent. Glancing inside, he saw only one seat – a folding picnic chair. Not only had he bought the last car he would ever have chosen, he’d bought the picnic version!

Once inside the car, Eric couldn’t see through the windscreen. He wiped it, but found it was crystal: light came through, but he couldn’t see out. Then he discovered the steering wheel didn’t turn. He saw a cable going from the steering wheel to the passenger side where there was a keypad on a box, like a computer, but with no screen. It seemed he had to press the keys to direct the car. What did all this mean? Eric was perplexed.

Most of us have dreams; some we remember, and some we do not. But do they ever have a deep significance, and should we, as Christians, try to find out what that is? Or is dream interpretation New Age nonsense which is best avoided? In this article, we will be looking at dreams as distinct from visions, which happen when you are awake (for example, Peter’s vision in Acts 10).

Dangerous or time-wasting...

Some Christians would warn against trying to interpret dreams as a dangerous, close to occult practice. An old translation of Deuteronomy 18:10 says, ‘Let there not be found among you him who observes dreams.’ Other practices are outlawed, too: soothsaying, sorcery, casting spells, consulting spirits. A quick search on the Internet will lead to many New Age websites commending dream interpretation alongside these other spiritual practices.

Other Christians would say that trying to interpret dreams is unnecessary and time-wasting. The Evangelicals Now website has an article on dreams which includes: ‘Mostly they will be crazy pastiches of past memories and recent visual images and sensations. It is futile looking for symbolism and hidden meanings in these fleeting apparitions – there is certainly no suggestion in the Bible that we should do so. It is worrying that writing down one’s dreams for discussion by church group leaders is creeping into some evangelicalism.’

Dr Stephen Catto, lecturer in biblical and theological studies at Moorlands College, acknowledges that, like many people, ‘Dream interpretation is not something I’ve had much contact with…I think we need to recognise that, in scripture, it was a fairly infrequent way that God chose to reveal himself. Peter and Paul’s missionary activities were not regularly guided by such dreams; rather, they seem to be a one-off. Should we be carefully recording and analysing every dream we have to see if God is speaking to us? Should we expend lots of effort and time in this? My feeling is that we might be better spending that time focusing on what God wants to say to us through scripture. I’m not saying “ignore your dreams”, but I would urge caution.’

...Or normal communication?

There are Christians who are more positive about attending to our dreams. Russ Parker, director of the Acorn Christian Healing Trust, points out that there are more references in the Bible to dreams than to the Church. He quotes Herman Riffel from his book, Your Dreams: God’s Neglected Gift: ‘… if we added together all the direct references to dreams and visions, all the stories surrounding them and all the prophecies that issued out of them, this material would cover about one third of the entire Bible.’

The translation of Deuteronomy 18:10 which includes interpreting dreams is now commonly accepted as a mistranslation. According to Mark Virkler of the Christian Leadership University in New York State, God has said that he normally communicates with prophets in dreams (Numbers 12:6). All who now receive the Holy Spirit through Jesus will prophesy and dream dreams (Acts 2:17, which quotes from the prophet Joel).

James Ryle, American Vineyard pastor and author of A Dream Come True, writes: ‘… the Bible doesn’t teach about dreams and visions in any systematic manner, yet by giving many significant examples, it validates their existence and use by God as a means of communicating to man …’ Ryle points out that it was in a dream that Joseph the carpenter heard an angel tell him what Mary’s son’s name was to be. ‘The name of Jesus! Every time you say his name, you validate the fact that God speaks in dreams.’ He goes on to detail ‘Two Thousand Years of Dreams and Visions’ in which leading Christians heard God speaking to them through dreams: Augustine, Patrick, John Bunyan, John Newton, William Booth, Charles Spurgeon, Dr TJ Barnado. Even Thomas Aquinas, who had argued fiercely against dreams and for a rational, rather than mystical, approach to Christian theology, was so overwhelmed by a dream that he ceased to write and dictate.

Heart speak

Even ‘pro-dream’ Christians would be horrified, however, if anyone stopped reading their Bible in order to concentrate on their dreams. Virkler points out that the New Testament uses two Greek words for ‘the word of God’, logos and rhema. The logos word speaks of the eternal character and purposes of God; the rhema word applies this broad message to our individual lives today. The logos of God shows me the many ways in which the life of the spirit is to replace the life of the flesh in me. The rhema word indicates which of these aspects of holiness it would be good for me to work on now. Dreams can bring us the rhema word of God, which does not replace the logos word, but confirms and applies it personally.

Most Christian teachers in favour of dream interpretation would also say that dreams rarely bring us a direct word from God. ‘The vast majority of my dreams are about me doing my stuff,’ says Russ Parker. ‘We are more honest when we are asleep than when we are awake… We will tell ourselves things when we are asleep that we would not dream of telling ourselves when we are awake.’ Isaiah 29:8 says, ‘a hungry person dreams of eating and wakes up still hungry, or a thirsty person dreams of drinking and wakes up faint, still thirsty…’

The core message of most dreams is: ‘This is how I am feeling.’ The book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha says ‘What is seen in dreams is but a reflection, the likeness of a face looking at itself.’ This basic nature of dreams is also how they are seen by modern psychologists.

Symbols and feelings

A dream from God is one thing, understanding and interpreting that dream is another. Russ Parker has written two books on dreams, Healing Dreams and Dream Stories. He says, ‘Dream interpretation is an orthodox part of the Christian faith, but, as in all pastoral work, we need to have good practice.’

This means that we need to: ‘make sure that no interpretation of dream symbols is made which does not ring true with the dreamer.’

Mark Virkler agrees: ‘The dreamer’s heart will leap and witness and say, “Aha!” when it hears the right interpretation so never accept an interpretation that does not bear witness in the dreamer’s heart.’ For instance, a dream dictionary may say that cats always mean danger, but if cats are your favourite animals, bringing you comfort and delight, your dream about a cat will probably be wholly positive.

‘Most dreams are symbolic (including biblical dreams) …’ continues Virkler. ‘Throw the switch in your brain that says, “Look at this symbolically.”’ Dreaming of an animal – for instance, a cat – will not usually mean anything to do with cats, but will be a message about what, for you, is a ‘cat-like’ emotion. Virkler recommends, ‘Ask, “What emotion might this animal be symbolising to me?”’ This could depend on a number of factors. For instance your geographical home, your personal experiences, your knowledge of the Bible, and your own culture.

Starting with the dream symbols, however, is not Virkler’s recommended way to begin an interpretation. ‘Isolate the feeling of the dream first. How did you feel upon first awakening? Was your heart pounding in fear? Did you feel loved, excited, happy, or content? In what aspect of your life are you also feeling this emotion? If it is not immediately obvious to you, ask the Lord to reveal it to you.’ Russ Parker also starts with the feelings of the dream. ‘The real way in is the emotional content. The symbols are explained by the feelings, not the other way round. I ask “Is there anything in your life with the same feeling package?” I invite the person to build a bridge to a waking life event. In over 30 years of leading dream workshops, every person has built that bridge.’

Other Christian teachers tend to begin with the symbols while recognising that they are expressions of the heart – therefore, feelings are important, too. When talking about dreams, people are often more comfortable beginning with the symbols, rather than with the emotions which seem more private. ‘I firmly believe,’ writes Parker, ‘that if we listen well and do not force interpretations upon people then the moment will eventually come when both the emotional content and the understanding of symbolical meaning will cohere; they should match up.’

Expect also that the interpretation will be about your own life, rather than someone else’s. ‘At least 95% of your dreams will be about you, your inner self, your current situation, your relationships’, writes Virkler.

Parker agrees: ‘There is a basic rule in dream work and that is that “the dream is for the dreamer.”’

Asking God

Christian teachers agree that it is vital to ask God for the right interpretation. As Joseph said to Pharaoh, and Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, ‘God will give the interpretation.’ Take time, with God, to mull over a dream. Talking with a trusted friend may help. If you consider the Holy Spirit is leading you in a dream towards a decision, check out that guidance with the Bible, and with a mature Christian. Don’t stop reading your Bible. Remember that anything new about revelation should be dismissed – God’s revelation in dreams will always match up with scripture.

So what of Eric and his 2CV? He prayed about his dream and it occurred to him that a car might well be a symbol of his moving forward. In the dream, he was feeling perplexed. In what aspect of his life was he feeling perplexed about moving forward? Well…his Christian ministry seemed to be going nowhere. As he thought about the car as a symbol of ministry, it made sense. The car’s body gave out light, showing the supernatural aspect of ministry. The seat was a resting, enjoyable seat rather than a working seat. To Eric, this was showing that power comes through resting and enjoying God’s world. The crystal windscreen meant that only God could show the way forward; with him it would be crystal clear. The keypad attached to the steering wheel meant that his ministry had to be directed by every word given by God. All in all, the ministry context God was leading him into was probably the last place he would have chosen for himself. His perplexity came from God’s mysterious ways. As Eric continued to pray and talk about this interpretation, it felt just right.

Charles Spurgeon addressed the fear of talking about dreams in a sermon he preached in his New York church in April 1868. He spoke about a dream he had had, and about dreams more generally: ‘We must take care that we do not neglect heavenly monitions through fear of being considered visionary; we must not be staggered even by the dread of being styled fanatical, or out of our minds. For to stifle a thought from God is no small sin…If you have dreamed a dream from the Lord, turn it over and over again till you are quite sure it is not steam from a heated brain, or smoke from hell. When it is clear to your own heart that it is fire from off God’s altar – then work, and pray, and wait your time!’