Dreams: A Way of Listening to God
“In a dream, a vision of the night,
When sound sleep falls on men [and women]
While they slumber in their beds,
Then God opens [their] ears,
And seals their instruction.” ~ Job 33:15-16
In my early years as a Christian, I was taught that the age of prophecy is over and that God no longer speaks to us in dreams. Too often the modern church is suspicious of mystical experiences like dreams, healing, and miracles and tends to trust more rational ways of thinking about God. Yet if we are open to another dimension of reality, then dreams may be one of the most common ways God reaches out to speak to us.
Many people claim they “never dream,” but in reality, they are just unaware of their dreams. By electronically measuring brain-wave activity, scientists have determined that we all have distinctive patterns of sleep. Dreams usually last 15-90 minutes, and sleep cycles are repeated 5-7 times during a typical night of sleep. The longest and most important dream is often just prior to waking.
“The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and
most intimate sanctum of the soul.” ~ Carl Jung
How does God speak to us in dreams?
God can use dreams to tell us what we do not already consciously know, inviting us into new insights. Dreams can expand our conscious point of view by revealing information that may have been overlooked, hinting at unexpected solutions, or showing situations in a new light. Although others may contribute ideas, only the dreamer, through prayer and reflection, can determine with certainty what meanings their dream may have.
All dreams are about the dreamer. Sometimes dreams bring forth actions or thoughts of the past we have repressed and forgotten because they cause us pain. When we dream about other people, the meaning is usually not about them, but about a part of ourselves that is like that person.
Pay attention to repetitions. I once had a series of dreams involving newborn babies that spoke to me of God birthing something new in my life. During another season, I kept dreaming of a house on fire, eventually realizing that I needed to let the house burn down. It was a symbol of childish things in me that needed to die.
Sometimes it is possible to use our imagination to resolve a troubling dream. In waking, try returning to sleep and allow the dream to finish. When we return to a negative, destructive dream imagining Christ at our side, we can allow the dream to resolve in a more positive way.
It is dangerous to expect dreams to predict the future. Dreaming is not fortune-telling or fatalism. Dreams only show the possibility of what may occur, giving one the choice of doing something in order to change the message of the dream. A “good” dream needs to be actualized; a bad dream can be avoided. Dreams may provide a warning to be more careful. For example, Lincoln had a dream the week before his assassination that he was lying in state in the White House. However, he still chose to go to the theater without any bodyguards.
“An uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter.” ~ Talmud
Why are dreams so difficult to interpret?
Dreams are difficult to understand because they come from our unconscious and may have multiple meanings and layers of revelation. As Joseph reminds us, interpretation is a gift of God: “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (Gen. 40:8)
God is more interested in our relationship than with giving us information. As we seek to understand possible meanings of a dream, we spend more time with God. Dreams invite us into prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal more about ourselves. If we complain that Jesus should speak more clearly, we need to remember that Jesus spoke His deepest truths in the language of images—in parables!
How can I remember my dreams?
Deciding that you desire to remember your dreams is the most important step in dream recall. Simply ask God to speak to you during the night and trust that he desires to reach out to you.
Next to your bed, place a journal or notebook and pen within easy reach. If you wake during the night with a dream memory, jot down a few key words or images. It may be enough to stimulate a fuller recollection upon awakening.
You are more likely to remember a dream if you don’t use an alarm and awake naturally. Immediately record what you remember, even if it’s only a scene or image, a feeling or just a color. Note any key symbols. Then…
- Give the dream a title.
- Note its overall theme.
- Note the dominant emotions.
- Ask “What is this dream trying to say to me?”
- Be still and listen for God’s interpretation.
Actualize or “concretize” your dream. Make it concrete in the same way that you take a photo to remember a particular person or event. This can include writing about it in a journal, illustrating it through art, or listening to music that reminds you of the feelings you experienced in the dream: guilt, shame, fear, anger or courage, joy, acceptance, peace.
When writing or sharing about your dream, use present tense. Sometimes it is helpful to share dreams with others, either in an established dream group or with a trusted friend. Don’t fret if you can’t remember many dreams. Quantity is less important than finding meaning in those dreams we do remember.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961) wrote extensively about how dreams reveal the unconscious. Both believed in the “collective unconscious.” In other words, dreams speak through a language of universal symbols. Pay attention to any symbols in your dreams (For example, a flood, garden, bird, sword, etc.). Do the symbols have any significance? Meditate on them, just as you might meditate on an image in scripture. Sometimes it can be helpful to dialogue with dream symbols.
Again, being intentional and expectant is the key to remembering and understanding your dreams. This is a portion of a prayer I often pray at bedtime:
O Christ, Son of the living God, may Your holy angels guard our sleep,
May they watch over us as we rest and hover around our beds.
Let them reveal to us in our dreams visions of Your glorious truth,
O high Prince of the universe, O High Priest of the mysteries.
May no dreams disturb our rest and no nightmares darken our dreams.
May no fears or worries delay our willing, prompt repose.
May the virtue of our daily work hallow our nightly prayers.
May our sleep be deep and soft so our work be fresh and hard.
I will lie down and sleep in peace
For You alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
From Aidan Compline, Celtic Daily Prayers, page 30-33
Please share your thoughts, questions, or experiences with dreams. How has God spoken to you in a particular way through your dreams?
Susanne will lead a Dreams 101 workshop on Thursday nights, October 6 and 13. Space is limited! To register: www.holypaths.org/retreats.