Last night I was dreaming. What were my dreams about? I’ve no idea. I slowly emerged from sleep, through that strange phase where dreams and realities blend with one another, opened my eyes, knew I was awake. At that point I could still remember what I had dreamed. Ten minutes later my dream was forgotten. When I try to remember it now, I can’t.
I remember some of my dreams longer than others. Often I can recall a dream for an hour or two – but the details become more and more blurry. Occasionally, in the case of a dream with a clear storyline, I can still tell my children at lunchtime what I dreamed. But as the day goes by, the memory fades.
Even if I say to myself, ‘That was an interesting dream – I must try to remember it’, I can’t. I don’t have a clear memory of any dream I’ve ever had. I know that I dream regularly about certain people: particular relatives, some church members, old friends. And I dream about certain places: my secondary school, the house where I spent my early childhood, a church-building now demolished. But I couldn’t tell you what I’ve dreamed about those people or places.
I know that in some of my dreams, I’ve thought, ‘This is familiar – I’ve been through this before.’ But I don’t know whether I’ve actually had the same dream on repeated occasions or whether that sense that I’d had the dream before was just part of the dream! In any case, I don’t remember even what those familiar dreams were all about.
Some dreams leave me feeling frightened and shaky. I wake sweaty and trembling. Others leave me feeling very peaceful and happy. Others again leave me feeling guilty. But I don’t remember any of them for very long.
I’m not unusual in being unable to remember dreams. Researchers tell us that there are lots of people like me who remember nothing of their dreams. On the other side there are people who remember nearly everything they dream – just as they remember real-life events. Those are the two extremes – and there are people who can be found at every point between. Some people remember certain types of dreams but not others. Some people find that a dream that they had forgotten can come back to them if something happens to trigger the memory.
Most dreams: insignificant
The fact is that most dreams are insignificant. They are just confused imaginings in the sleeping mind. You don’t need to remember them and you don’t. Once you’re awake, you realise that the things you were dreaming about had no basis in reality and you get on with the business of the day.
The Bible often talks about dreams as passing and insignificant. Moses declared that humanity is ‘like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers’ (Psalm 90:5-6). Dreams are short-lived and transient, he declares – and so is human life.
Another psalmist compares wicked men to dreams: ‘like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms’ (Psalm 73:20). He takes it for granted that we should recognise our dreams as ‘phantoms’ – unreal and irrelevant – and that we should ‘despise’ them.
Some Christians put a great emphasis on dreams. They try to remember their dreams; they write them down each morning before they can forget them; they try to unravel what all the strange things they see in their dreams might mean; they expect God to show them the future through dreams; they look to God to give them guidance in their dreams.
Well, I don’t. I accept what the Bible says: that most dreams are just ‘phantoms’. They don’t give you any clue as to what’s going on in the real world; they don’t give you any hint about what God’s planning to do in the future. ‘… a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating, and awakes with his hunger not satisfied… a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking, and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched…’ (Isaiah 29:8).
In a dream I may imagine anything. I may imagine that I’m eating or drinking or that I’m the Emperor of China. It doesn’t mean that it’s actually happening or is going to happen.
Learning from my dreams
Does that mean that I should ignore everything which happens in my dreams? No, not always. Most of my dreams arise from things that have actually happened to me, or that I’ve read about, or that people have said to me. It’s as if my sleeping mind takes all those experiences, and breaks them into bits and rearranges them in a thoroughly confused way. And when I wake, I can recognise where the bits have come from.
Sometimes my dreams help me to put my finger on something that’s bothering me. Psychologists tell us that if we’re worried about something but refusing to think about it while we’re awake, it may surface in our dreams.
I think that’s probably true. If I dream about an unpleasant confrontation with someone I know, it may well be that there is some issue that I need to sort out with him, and I’m putting it off. If I dream that I’m in hospital and being operated on, it may be that I’m more worried about my health than I like to admit.
So if I wake up in the morning and can remember anything of my dreams, they may give me hints about things that have been on my mind, or situations that I need to resolve. And then I need to face up to those things. I need to admit to myself that I’m worrying about this situation, or running away from that duty. And then, I can spread those concerns out before the Lord, unburden myself, entrust the situation – whatever it might be – to him, and get on with doing what I need to do.
What about those dreams that leave me feeling guilty or ashamed? Suppose I wake up from a dream in which I’ve had a violent fight with somebody and beaten him up? How should I react then? Is it sinful even to have such a dream?
Well, I can comfort myself that I’ve not chosen to have the dream – it’s certainly not deliberate sin. But I still have to say that it’s a sign that I belong to a fallen race. I can’t believe that an unfallen man – Adam before he fell – would have had violent, brutal dreams. So if I have such a dream, then I must grieve for the one act of disobedience (Romans 5:19) that has affected all Adam’s children, and which taints my dreams.
But I must do more than that. I must search myself and ask, ‘Have I been harbouring angry or hating thoughts about that man? The rage I felt against him in my dream – is that my real feelings towards him showing through?’ ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!’ (Psalm 139:23).
It may be that when I search myself and examine my feelings, I can say with a clear conscience, ‘No, I’ve got no hatred in my heart towards him. This is just the muddle that comes in dreams.’ And then I can ask God not to allow such troubling dreams to invade my sleeping mind again.
But if I search myself and I find that I do have angry or hating thoughts against the man I dreamed about, what then? Well, then I must repent, and plead for cleansing through the blood of Jesus. I must commit myself afresh to love that man, and start praying for his good. And I must ask for the Holy Spirit to keep me from sinful thoughts or feelings, awake or asleep.
For many Christians, it’s not hatred or anger that invades their dreams and leaves them feeling guilty and ashamed when they awake; it’s lust. Their dreams include sexual elements, often relating to specific people. Well, I would give just the same counsel as in the case of anger or hatred. Vividly sexual dreams are not in themselves sinful. They’re not voluntary, and at certain stages of life (especially for boys in the teenage years) they are almost inevitable.
But if a believer does experience such dreams, he should ask whether it is a sign that he has been indulging in lustful thoughts when he’s awake. Has he been reading unhelpful stories or watching unhelpful films? Again, if you find that your conscience is clear, give thanks. And if you find that in some way you’ve opened your heart to lust, repent and believe that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.
I should add this: don’t spend a lot of time trying to remember or analyse such vivid dreams. The very act of remembering them may stir up the very feelings you’re trying to confess and repent of. Lengthy and detailed confessions can be unhelpful. Better simply to say, ‘Lord, I know that what I dreamed last night came from the sins in my heart. Please forgive me and cleanse me, for Jesus’s sake.’
Does God speak through dreams?
We’ve said firstly that most dreams are insignificant. We’ve recognised secondly that some dreams may be an indicator of underlying issues that need to be dealt with. But that leaves a third question. Are there dreams in which God speaks directly to us and reveals things that we couldn’t know otherwise? Well, there’s no doubt that there are lots of episodes in the Bible where God did use dreams to speak to people directly.
I can think of at least twenty such episodes. In a dream God warned Abimelech, king of Gerar, that he had sinned by taking Abraham’s wife Sarah (Genesis 20:3). In a dream Jacob saw a stairway between earth and heaven (Genesis 28:12). In another dream he was told to leave Laban’s home (Genesis 31:10-13). God warned Laban in a dream not to obstruct or harass Jacob (Genesis 31:24). Joseph was shown his destiny in two dreams (Genesis 37:5,9). Later, he was able to interpret the dreams God sent to Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and his baker (Genesis 40:5). Then he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s own dreams (Genesis 41:5,6). A Midianite was sent a dream during the night before Gideon’s attack on the Midianite camp (Judges 7:13). The Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked him what one gift he would choose (1 Kings 3:5). Daniel interpreted two dreams that God sent to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:36, 4:5). Daniel himself had an extraordinary dream in which he saw the whole course of future history (Daniel 7:1). Joseph the carpenter was told in a dream to take Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:20). The wise men were told in a dream not to return to Herod (Matthew 2:12). Joseph was told in dreams to take the baby Jesus to Egypt (Matthew 2:13); then to return to Israel (Matthew 2:20); then to settle in Galilee (2:22). And though we’re not told that the dream was sent by God, we may add the fact that Pilate’s wife ‘suffered much because of [Jesus] … in a dream’ (Matthew 27:19)
So it is clear that God can speak, and has spoken, to people in dreams – at least in certain special instances. If you look at each of these episodes, it’s obvious that the people who had these dreams knew that they were special dreams with great significance. Unlike my dreams, they could remember these dreams in all their detail. Somehow they knew that these dreams were not just jumbled up memories or a reflection of their worries. They were sure that all the details had meaning, and if they could not discern the meaning themselves, they searched for someone who could tell them.
But was God constantly – or even frequently – speaking to people in dreams? Hardly. Twenty instances across the whole of Scripture history is not many. And these are recorded as special, noteworthy, remarkable events. God seems to have given few people such reliable dreams, and raised up even fewer people who could interpret them reliably.
Pharaoh’s cupbearer spoke with awe about the young Hebrew he had met in prison who could interpret dreams. Until Joseph was summoned, there was no one in all Egypt who could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Likewise, Daniel is introduced to us as someone who had ‘understanding in all visions and dreams’ (Daniel 1:17). Remember, there was no one else in all Babylon who could interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.
It’s striking that many of the dreams were given to unbelievers rather than to believers. Abimelech, Pharaoh’s cupbearer, his baker, the king of Babylon, pagan astrologers. God used dreams to warn these people, to trouble them, to awaken them – and then he brought believers across their paths through whom he could speak to them in clearer and more direct ways.
Apart from the events surrounding Jesus’s birth, we have no instance in the New Testament of God communicating with a believer through dreams. We know that apostles such as Simon Peter, John, and Paul had visions in which God revealed wonderful things to them. But from the time when the Lord Jesus took up his work on earth, we have no example of God speaking to a sleeping believer in a dream.
So be cautious. When Christians tell you dramatic stories about the things God has shown them in dreams, you’ve got every reason to be sceptical.
Predicting the future
Believers should never claim on the basis of a dream that they know what’s going to happen. There are countless examples – especially in the last fifty years – of Christians who have announced that God has shown them the future in a dream. And again and again, they – or those who have believed them – have been left disillusioned or humiliated.
Search the internet and it won’t take you long to find thousands of pages of ‘prophetic dreams’ that have come to nothing. Especially, you will find abundant examples of fanciful dreams heralding forthcoming revival. Here’s a typical example. I won’t name the dreamer, but he recounts a dream ‘given to him at 5.10 am on Sunday 7th September 1998’. In his dream he saw revival coming to Wales.
‘In Wales the Father’s house is locked. Someone locked the Father’s home and threw away the keys…’ Apparently, the keys had been buried under ‘the dust of tradition and formalism’ for many years. But ‘…I saw a great shaking beginning to start. It was as if a great earthquake came upon the land – this was very sudden and quick. The earth opened up, and deep down in the ground, still shining and clean were seen the keys. The moment the keys came to be seen the shaking stopped…’
He describes each key in detail and how they were retrieved by a chain of brave men. And then he declares: ‘The Lord is about to do something that is beyond our imaginations for Wales. This is indeed the “Kairos time for this Nation”.’ Well, that was 1998. And the people who believed that ‘the Kairos’ (decisive time) had arrived are still waiting…
That dreamer is just one of many. Remember the ‘Kansas City prophets’ and their dreams? Again, they were confident that revival would come to the UK in October 1990. And many Christian leaders endorsed their predictions.
More recently, many American Christians were convinced that Donald Trump would win the 2020 Presidential Election and secure a second term in office. Why? Because a large number of ‘prophets’ had had dreams heralding that event. Some are still expecting that the outcome of the election will be reversed and that Trump will enter the Oval Office before the end of this year. Why? Because the prophets have had new and updated dreams!
Looking for guidance
So believers should never imagine that their dreams are a reliable guide to the future. Even more important, they should never think that their dreams are a sure guide by which to make decisions. There are many passages in the Bible that warn God’s people against relying on dreams rather than on God’s Word for guidance:
‘If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul…’ (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).
‘For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD’ (Jeremiah 29:8-9).
‘I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has chaff in common with wheat? declares the LORD’ (Jeremiah 23:25-28).
When we want to know what it’s right for us to do in any situation, there is only one safe way of finding out. We must search the Bible – the written Word of God – understand the principles it teaches, discover what God has commanded, and put it into practice.
Believers have been led into all sorts of foolish and immoral behaviour by paying attention to dreams instead of trusting God’s commands in the Bible.
So my advice to believers when it comes to dreams is simple. Be very cautious. If you can learn something about yourself and your hidden worries, thoughts, and feelings, that’s fine. But even then God’s book is a far more reliable guide to what’s going on in your heart. And never look to dreams to show you what’s going to happen or what you should do in any situation.
Unbelievers and their dreams
But what about unbelievers? Do I think God still uses dreams to awaken unbelievers? Well, I can’t see any reason why not. And many sane, cautious believers can look back to the days before they were converted and remember a dream which either set them seeking God or encouraged them along the way.
One of the most striking examples I can think of is John Newton’s dream of the lost ring. Years before he was converted Newton had a startling dream in which he threw away God’s mercy, symbolised by a ring. He knew himself to be lost and was in despair until a Saviour came and retrieved the ring from the depths into which Newton had cast it. (You can read the account in full in Newton’s Authentic Narrative).
The dream left Newton shocked, hardly able to eat or sleep for two or three days. But its effect soon wore off. He says, ‘It hardly occurred to my mind again, till several years afterwards.’
Newton’s dream did not save him. Dreams cannot save anyone. Paul tells us plainly, ‘For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.’ (Romans 10:13-17).
God’s way of saving his elect is that he sends someone to tell them the gospel – the message of Christ. They hear the message; they believe; they call on the name of the Lord; they are saved. Yet we can still believe that God used Newton’s dream to prepare him for the day when he would be drawn to Christ. And it may be that he does the same for many other people.
In recent years I have met a number of Iranians who are open to the gospel and want to find out about the Lord Jesus. If my memory serves me right, without exception they have told me that their interest in Christ began as the result of a dream. Living in Iran, they had no opportunity to hear the gospel. But, they tell me, God spoke to them through dreams and they began to search for the truth. In some cases, they say that Jesus himself appeared to them in a dream.
I have no difficulty in believing their stories. The Lord uses all sorts of means to set people searching for him. In the case of Nebuchadnezzar and, it seems, my Iranian friends, he has used dreams to make them aware of him.
But such dreams can only be a starting-point. We must not imagine that just because they’ve had such dreams, these folk are now – or will be – saved. They may never have thought of themselves as sinners needing a Saviour. They may know little or nothing about Jesus, the only Saviour. So now begins the happy work of opening the Scriptures to them and preaching the gospel of God.
In some cases, the dreams they recount are striking and impressive. In other cases, they seem vague or weird. It doesn’t really matter. If people want to tell me about their dreams, that’s fine… providing that in the end they’re willing to move on from their dreams and be led to Scripture and to Christ. It’s the Scriptures that make sinners ‘wise for salvation’ and then equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). What more do we need?
Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001
This article first appeared in the monthly bulletin of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.