I have experienced vivid dreams such as these. One of these dreams was so real that it seemed as if it happened in waking life. I had asked God for direction concerning a possible summer missions trip. Shortly after this prayer I had the following dream: A professional man wearing a white lab coat and a clipboard asked me if I would consider being commissioned to officially wash dishes and lead worship for a month. It seemed a strange suggestion, yet during the dream I had strong sense that this man was almost like an angel giving a message of importance. As I pondered over the dream, a remarkable follow-up occurred. I learned of a ministry that worked with British soldiers and their families, which needed a youth worker who could wash dishes during the day, give testimony and encourage in music ministry. The unusually powerful dream appeared to be a message from God, which confirmed and directed a missions call that was already on my heart.
While some will judge this as a fortunate coincidence, the Judeo-Christian tradition has long valued the content of dreams and acknowledged God's use of them for divine revelation. Dreams, visions, prophetic calls, angelic visitations, prophetic narratives and indirect references to this phenomenon comprise roughly one third of the Bible. In Hebraic thinking, the supernatural guidance of God was all of the same numinous quality. In Strong's Concordance, there are 224 direct references to dreams and visions, which are merely dreams while you awake. The belief that God speaks to humankind through dreams is both biblical and experiential.
Recently, I learned some answers while attending a seminary course at Tyndale College and Seminary in Toronto. The course explored the dream experience in Christian spirituality and considered whether dreams are messages from heaven or musings of the soul. According to Paul Meier and Robert Wise in their book, Windows of the Soul, both kinds of dreams merit our attention. Whether they are objective and direct or subjective and symbolic, dreams give us important information that should not be ignored. Dreams direct from God can inspire and guide our faith and subjective dreams from us can give insightful and valuable self-knowledge.
Objective dreams are direct, powerful and memorable experiences where we are aware of being addressed by God. Charles Nienkirchen, one of the course professors, believes that these objective dreams comprise of about five percent of all dreams, although certain receptive people may experience a higher proportion. These dreams are much stronger than ordinary dreams, and have what Nienkirchen calls, numinous presence with clarity, intensity and vividness.
These objective dreams seem monumental to the dreamer. At Bethel, when Jacob awoke from his dream in which he encountered God, he exclaims "surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it" (Gen. 28:16). Through these strong and vivid impressions that stay with us even upon awakening, we become aware of a superior wisdom beyond our own capabilities. Throughout the Bible there are many other scriptural examples of objective dreams which forced the dreamer to take powerful notice. There are also many examples of Christians in Church history having such dreams, which deepened their faith, clarified their calling and gave deep assurance from the Lord. One of these was John Newton (the hymn writer of Amazing Grace). In a very powerful dream, he was given a clear understanding of the evils of the slave trade in which he was involved, and also of the Lord's wonderful forgiveness. Thus, the objective dreams are strongly directive.
Subjective dreams are unique to each person, for they essentially tell us about our own lives. In these are encapsulated our personal desires, goals, wishes and often fears. They may include memories that we have distanced ourselves from, concerns that we are dealing with in our waking lives or more symbolic representations of deeper issues.
Though these dreams are not direct from God they can serve a purpose in our Christian walk. Often the Holy Spirit works with these to help us grow closer to God. These dreams essentially mirror our own souls. Russ Parker, a Baptist pastor and writer believes that even subjective dreams are like personal parables that we often need to hear. Many of Jesus' parables were confusing to those who wanted "straight" answers without taking the time to really ponder the things of God. Likewise, more subjective and symbolic dreams may confuse us or we may leap to false conclusions concerning dream meanings. In such situations it can be helpful to discuss them with a pastor, counsellor or mature Christian mentor, who can give further insights.
Several years ago I experienced a subjective dream that troubled me: I was walking in a hallway with many doors and was searching for something. I was very strongly led to one specific door, and as I turned the door knob, I grew dizzy and ill. Upon opening the door, I saw a much younger version of myself on the other side of the mirror. When I attended a conference on dreams led by Herman Riffel I shared this dream. He advised that though dream symbols are unique to each person, he could discern that this "mirror" person most likely was another part of myself that I had denied or repressed. I considered his suggestion, prayed, and discovered that he was right. My mother later confirmed the source of this concern in my dream. Through the awareness of my hidden weakness through this dream, I was able to receive healing prayer and be given a faith challenge. Without realizing it I had buried something about myself which I was unable to accept. Thus, Riffel helped me discover the "punch-line" of what was a personal parable. What was at the core of this message was a challenge to respond in faith.
Biblically, Pharaoh's dream (of the fat and lean cows [Gen. 41:7-36]) and Nebuchadnezzar's dream (of coming madness if he would not repent of his pride [4:4-27]), were similar insights which provided opportunities to respond in faith. The "bottom line" of these dreams is: What is God trying to tell you about who He wants you to be by His grace and healing?
There are no hard and fast rules for differentiating objective from subjective dreams. Though subjective dreams are often more complex and tend to be about ourselves. While objective dreams are more directive, vivid and have a strong sense of God's voice.
The purpose of objective dreams is often to console, confirm, clarify, direct, instruct, warn or encourage. Often some of these are combined. The most powerful biblical examples are of warning, such as the dreams of Joseph, which also gave him direction, encouragement (in caring for Mary and baby Jesus' safety) and consolation. When he found that his betrothed was pregnant, he considered his options to quietly divorce her (Jewish law considered a betrothed couple married even though they did not yet live together). However, upon this decision, God intervened by having the angel of the Lord appear in a dream to convince and direct Joseph to take care of his wife and the child Jesus (Matt. 1:18-25). The theme of security continued in the directional dreams to seek refuge in Egypt (Matt. 2:13) and return when it was safe to do so (Matt. 2:19-23). Like Joseph, these dreams may come at times of crisis in which we are more open to God's direction.
An example of a consoling dream was given to Monica, the mother of the early church father Augustine, while he was yet a pre-Christian. Monica was so in distress about her son's immoral lifestyle, and involvement in Manicheism and Neo-Platonism that she continued to beg God for her son's salvation. In time, the Holy Spirit gave her a dream that granted her a glimpse of heaven, where she was worshipping the Lord. To her joy, there beside her was her son Augustine. Monica accepted this dream as a promise that in time her son would be wooed to faith.
Irish church history gives us a wonderful example of a confirming directing dream. Brendan the Navigator, a sixth century Irish missionary monk was called to leave his former life behind him and serve God, yet he had a strong desire of discovery. He was inspired concerning this goal through a scripture given during his ordination (about leaving worldly concerns behind and gaining more in Christ), and this desire was further confirmed through an angelic visitation in a dream. In this dream, he was given a commission to seek out that land of promise and upon this direction and confirmation of God-given desires, he sailed the Atlantic in 545.
Another example of a clarifying, directing and confirming dream was given to the contemporary Methodist theologian Thomas Oden. This important dream clarified his vocation as a theologian and confirmed his decision to not invent new doctrines and be faithful to orthodox theology. In his dream, he accidentally stumbled on his own tombstone in a New England cemetery. Its epitaph read: "he made no new contribution to theology." Oden woke up feeling deeply reassured, because he had been impacted to follow the mandate of the early church father Iraneus: to not invent new doctrine, despite his training to be innovative. Thus, Oden's dream gave him clarification of his role as a theologian as well as deep reassurance that he was being led in the right way.
After Jacob's Bethel dream in Genesis 28:12-19, he later was given a few dreams when he was away from his land of birth. After his uncle and father-in-law Laban had tried to cheat him of his wages, he was instructed by the angel of the Lord in a dream that he was to trust in God's strange way of ensuring his wages. He was to trust in God's sovereignty, causing the newly born sheep to be born with whatever appearance that was necessary for payment (Gen. 31:10-13). Thus, this instructive dream gave him great assurance that he would not be cheated because the Lord was with him according to His promise.
Despite the powerful biblical evidence, individual Christians have struggled for centuries on whether some dreams can be from God. This unbelief is even more common in our own postmodern age, with the exception of New Age searchers who desperately look for God in the wrong places with no discernment. Some people overlook and dismiss dreams as irrelevant. Often what we have decided beforehand and our worldviews get in the way of understanding the ancient wisdom and experience in the Bible. If one believes that God no longer speaks in dreams, than they be resistant to this experience.
But if God does speak through dreams how can we recognize His voice? In my studies and in discussion with various experts it is evident that there are some important steps, which can help us to hear the Master through our dreams: The objective dreams must be consistent within biblical guidelines, for God does not change His nature. Even the subjective dreams should be examined with the help of someone who understands dreams, since the symbolism is often unique to each person.
Generally a good guideline to follow is prayer. Ask God in prayer to confirm if this dream is from Him. He may give you a similar dream, or He may speak to you through specific scriptures that may leap right off the page.
Consider carefully how you felt when you awakened from the dream. Very often you will sense God's presence in some way. God may also speak through another Christian in such a way that your heart quickens as you recall the dream. Examine scripture for dreams and visions. In some Bibles, there is a helpful list of how to find scriptures according to the topic (which is called a concordance).
Examine also the content of the dream. Does it lead you closer to Jesus Christ and does it glorify Him? This is another positive indication. Another important caution is to share the dream with Christians you trust and are open to the Holy Spirit's guidance through scripture and in their own devotional lives. Often confirmation can come through others, because there is safety in a multitude of counsellors (Proverbs 11:14). Also, it is very possible that the dream will confirm God-given desires that were already placed on your heart, such as the above example of Brendan and of Thomas Oden.
In Joel 2:28-29, God promised to intervene by dreams and visions in the "last days," which many believe is the time period from when Christ was raised until His return. Certainly, biblical research and Christian experience confirm that God does indeed use dreams to reveal and proclaim His loving guidance. And for those who have taken the challenge to explore their own dreams with prayer and spiritual direction have found the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord in a new way.
Laurie-Ann Zachar was a 3rd year Master of Divinity Student at Tyndale
in Toronto when this article was written. She graduated in 1999 and now lives in Ottawa with her husband Tony Copple. Comments, questions or interesting dreams may be
conveniently sent to Laurie-Ann by e-mail: lcopple(at)igs.net.
Laurie-Ann does not have the gift of interpreting dreams; please do not send requests for interpretations.
An abridged version of this article is published in the December 1998
edition of Fellowship Magazine.
An abridged version of this article is published in the December 1998 edition of Fellowship Magazine.