Recently I was asked my opinion (specifically my theological opinion) of dreams and dream interpretations. I must admit I had never really given any thought to a person’s experience in dreams, and my theological background gave me skepticism about such things. Although I will admit that dreams are fascinating things. Films and picture frames within your mind that turn and move while you are sleeping, it’s pretty cool how the mind works. However, most people I have met or read that emphasized dreams were either mystics or secular psychologists inspired by Freud.
But as a human being I can see how people are drawn into the spiritual world of dreams and dream interpretations. Almost everyone has had the experience of a dream at one time or another, and many times those dreams can feel and seem very real. Even in our western culture, dreams are a powerful aspect of the American spiritual experience. In the area of American spirituality the dream world fits well with other forms of religious expressions, like Pentecostal revivals, alien encounters, paranormal investigators, Elvis sightings, and Native American dance rituals. Human beings long for an interaction with the Transcendent. People desire to experience and understand something more to life than the material world. Dreams can and have been a viable avenue for religious/spiritual expression and experience.
One of my favorite stories in literature describes a person whose life changes from a dream that happened to him one Christmas night. The infamous Ebenezer Scrooge is the stereotype for doom and gloom around the holiday season. Besides hating Christmas, Scrooge was a greedy miser, misanthrope, cynic, unethical businessman, harsh employer, and all around person of low character. However, as the story goes Ebenezer is visited by three ghosts in a dream (possibly a vision, but there’s a bed so I view it as a dream). Now before I go on, I must say that I don’t believe he was visited by Jesus (I know the second ghost had a beard, but no). I’m also not endorsing any aspect of paranormal investigation. The main emphasis is an experience through a dream that affected a human being in a way that transformed his life.
The experience that Christmas night revealed to Ebenezer who he was, what he was doing, and ultimately the consequence of his actions and life style. After Ebenezer woke up that Christmas morning his mindset, attitude, ethics, and social interaction changed. Not only did he buy the Christmas turkey for Tiny Tim, but he also changed the way he treated his employees, showed care and affection for his family, and contributed to the welfare of society. His dream transformed him morally and existentially. Now to be honest I know people who could be described as a Scrooge. Do I have hope that they will oneday change their business practices and treatment of their family…sometimes? I mean Scrooge could have changed through going to church, family intervention and counseling, self-help books, motivational seminars, business ethics courses, hippie communes, gurus, meditation, and time. But this transformation didn’t happen over years and special programs, but in one night. The dream was an avenue of moral change and character transformation.
As a person who studies theology I rarely find anyone who takes the idea of dreams or interpretations seriously. One reason is that within western spirituality dreams have mainly been emphasized by New Age movements, Native religions (they call them dream catchers for a reason), and various cults. Most evangelicals who study theology would not take a contemporary analysis of dreams seriously. The major issue for many theologians is that dreams are very subjective and deal with people gaining knowledge through experience outside of the Bible. Dreams should be judged by a higher authority than a person’s experience. However because we live in a society that emphasizes individual freedom and truth to the highest degree, to critique another person’s spiritual experience is viewed as religious, close minded, or tyrannical.
But the idea of people being impacted, guided, or transformed by dreams is very biblical. The Old and New Testament describe God’s intervening in human history and the lives of His people through dreams. God revealed His will through the dreams of Joseph, who later interpreted the dream of the most powerful man in the world at that time, the Pharaoh of Egypt (Gen. 41). The Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream and bestowed the gift of wisdom to the Israelite king (1 Kings 3:5-15). The prophet Daniel interpreted the dream for the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, once again one of the most powerful men in the world (Daniel 2). Pilate’s wife cautioned him before his interrogation of Jesus because of a dream (Matthew 27:19). With these few examples, I can see that dreams are a way that God interacts with His church and with the world.
With regard to the world and the public square, many of the people within Scripture who are impacted by dreams are people in power. Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Solomon, and even Pilate’s wife were politicians. God used a dream to reveal something to them, and to the rest of the world, that got their attention. The Bible teaches us that dreams go beyond what is meant for that individual and can have an even bigger impact on a society and the leaders that are in power. In fact you could say that God uses dreams to give His people a voice in the public arena and with people of power, whether having or interpreting them.
Now for the disclaimer regarding dreams. Stereotypically the corners in this spiritual boxing match are usually mystics in one corner and more rational theologians in the other. Mystics love that I have provided a footing for an individual’s dream and experience to be given validity, something that can be hard for the rational/theologically minded to understand. Although I have briefly emphasized the importance and biblical place for dreams… there are boundaries. As I stated before with good reason people question the validity of dreams. From cultic dreamers/schemers to the strange Youtube video of someone describing a dream that Obama is the anti-Christ, it is important to understand that not all dreams (let alone experiences) should be counted equal. Dreams should be reflected upon and interpreted through the lenses of the Living Word (Christ) as revealed to us in the Written Word (the Bible). Also, the wisdom and counsel of fellow believers guided by the Holy Spirit (the Church) should be another priority in discerning dreams.
So if you were to desire something this year, pray for a dream. Pray that God gives dreams to your unethical boss, wayward child, pastor you disagree with, and President you don’t care for. You never know…someone you least expect could come up to you and say “let me tell you about this dream I had.”