This week, my wife had a very symbolic dream, and asked me what I thought it meant. Now, I came out of (but am not antithetical to) a Charismatic background, where dreams and dream interpretation are part of the common milieu, along with prophecy and words of knowledge. Like these latter practices, which are very subjective, and some would say doctrinally dodgy, dream interpretation can be poorly done, and sometimes with superstitious and controlling overtones.
Having been both theologically and psychologically trained, I would like to outline some simple principles of dream interpretation from a Christian point of view. This post addresses the possible sources of dreams.
The Sources of Dreams
One primary assumption that will affect our dream interpretation is out theory of the sources of our dreams – where to they come from?
There are four possible sources, but from a Christian world view, only two of these sources are actual sources for dreams.
The bible is replete with stories of God speaking through dreams to both believers and unbelievers. The story of Mary and Joseph has two incidents:
After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. ~ Matthew 1:18-22 (NKJV)
Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way. ~ Matthew 2:12 (NKJV)
Unbelievers usually have troubling dreams, because God is usually warning them in their ignorance of His will and ways. For example, Pontious Pilate’s wife was warned in a dream that the crucifixion of Jesus was not something Pilate wanted to be on the wrong side of:
While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.‘ ~ Matthew 27:19 (NKJV)
In the Old Testament, two separate pagan rulers were warned in a dream, and the Hebrew of God’s choosing was there to properly interpret – here’s two passages, one regarding Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar, and the second Joseph and the Pharaoh of Egypt:
One night during the second year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar had such disturbing dreams that he couldn’t sleep…. [Daniel replied,] ‘While Your Majesty was sleeping, you dreamed about coming events. He who reveals secrets has shown you what is going to happen. And it is not because I am wiser than anyone else that I know the secret of your dream, but because God wants you to understand what was in your heart.” ~ Daniel 2:1, 29
Two full years later, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing on the bank of the Nile River. In his dream he saw seven fat, healthy cows come up out of the river and begin grazing in the marsh grass. Then he saw seven more cows come up behind them from the Nile, but these were scrawny and thin. These cows stood beside the fat cows on the riverbank. Then the scrawny, thin cows ate the seven healthy, fat cows! At this point in the dream, Pharaoh woke up….The next morning Pharaoh was very disturbed by the dreams. So he called for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt. When Pharaoh told them his dreams, not one of them could tell him what they meant….Pharaoh sent for Joseph at once, and he was quickly brought from the prison…..Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I had a dream last night, and no one here can tell me what it means. But I have heard that when you hear about a dream you can interpret it.’ ‘It is beyond my power to do this,’ Joseph replied. ‘But God can tell you what it means and set you at ease.‘ ~ Genesis 41:1-28 (excerpts)
These examples show just a couple ways that God speaks through dreams, both as warnings, as directives, and as prognostications.
Though there is not a lot of biblical support for the revelation of self through dreams, such a view is not antithetical to scripture. Scripture focuses primarily on methods of God-understanding, and only secondarily on self-understanding. This is one relative weakness of Christianity as compared to other systems that focus on self-knowledge, such as Buddhism and modern psychology. However, it is important to remember that these other systems are woefully inadequate, by comparison to Christianity, in their ability to reveal God to us.
The point is, when understanding self-realization as part of dream interpretation, we will be relying more on empirical understanding than Biblical. However, like the discipline of medicine, such things, while not described in scripture in detail, are still very helpful and true.
One additional clarification. While God-originated dreams seem to be more related to guidance, self-originated dreams primarily reveal our deeper self – the internal issues we need to work on. In experience, we find that most of our dreams are self-originated, not God-originated dreams intended on conveying divine messages.
Such self-originated dreams are often reflections of our own subconscious desires and fears, and the fearful and negative emotions reflect issues that we need to process properly in order to heal, mature, and progress in life. This may not be the type of information we are seeking for when interpreting dreams, but it is one of the most important.
There is little, if any Biblical support for dreams that find their origin in angels, either positive, or negative (remember, Biblically speaking, demons are fallen angels, as is Satan himself). However, there is plenty of evidence for angelic visitation within a dream. This clarification is important, in that it speaks to the limitations of angels and demons, including Satan himself – they are not ominpresent, omnipotent, or omniscient, like God.
This means that they can’t read minds, nor enter our souls to originate dreams – however, they can visit us, torment us, and for those who have surrendered themselves to evil enough to have lost their willpower and become possessed, demons may have more influence in their inner lives, including their dreams.
But the main point here is, for the average person, Satan can’t take over your dream life, though you may experience visitations of sorts, even in dreams from God.
What a demonic dream may look like
In fact, if you’ve ever had a dream in which you have faced a scary force that immobilized you, and made it even impossible to talk, you may have experienced a demonic visitation.
I once had a dream in which I was in a white room, and suddenly, an evil presence rushed into the room and picked me up off of the floor. I could not move, nor even speak. However, knowing that the name of Jesus was more powerful than any other declaration in spiritual warfare, I began to cry out from within myself “Put me down in Jesus name!” After a couple times, I could actually speak it, and the presence left the room.
Again, a second time, the presence rushed in and picked me up and began to spin me. Already knowing that physical and soulish strength were nothing, I began to call out with authority from my spirit using Jesus’ name, and sure enough, the presence left. I became elated and energized, and began to call out “come on, come back and try it again!” But it did not return.
What did I make of this dream? I believe God was teaching me about what real spiritual warfare is like. Without going into much detail, I learned:
- Soulical and physical power are of no value in spiritual battle – there is a real difference between spirit and soul, and knowing the difference is critical.
- God can allow demonic visitations for training, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done anything wrong.
- There is a real difference between real faith and just reciting words you think have magical powers. As in this example in the NT:
Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. ~ Acts 19:13-16 (NIV)
4. Other People
It should go without saying that other people can not originate dreams in your own soul. However, we may see people we know, living or dead, in our dreams. However, it is my opinion that such visits are not from those people, but just creations of our own memories. In the Bible, the dead never come back to visit the living, but instead, await judgment in either heaven or hell.
Naturally, there are biblical exceptions, like the visit of Elijah and Moses at the transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-3), but this is a rare exception, and in this case, for a very specific point – to show the Disciples that Jesus is supported by both the law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah).
The main two sources for our dreams are God, and ourselves, and the majority of our dreams originate in our selves. We ought to be careful to not attribute many of our dreams to God, but rather, use them to understand our subconscious fears and desires better, and heal whatever wounds, or pursue whatever desires are disclosed.
Dreams from God often have a special character to them – either a presence of good, or a highly symbolic nature, or repetition – but these we will discuss in Part II, Principles of Christian Dream Interpretation.