Updated: May 16
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
Dreams are a fascinating experience that can be a mixture of weird, exciting or scary. Do they all come from our imagination or is something supernatural going on?
For many of us, sleep is the only time we finally switch off our constant train of thoughts, worries, and plans. Our conscious mind rests while the subconscious continues to process and sort our experiences and memories.
Yet, even while our body and conscious mind rests, our spirit never sleeps. It remains alive and active and continues to long for connection with God. For this reason it can be a time when we are most sensitive to spiritual experiences. This means it is possible to be more open to receiving dreams and visions from spiritual forces.
One of those sources is God himself, and that He frequently uses dreams as a way of speaking to us (see In Your Wildest Dreams). This is good! But if God is love, then that raises the question; ‘Where do bad dreams come from?’ -- in which we might point fingers at the devil.
What’s the difference and how to we learn to discern what comes from whom?
The Good: Sweet Dreams of Salvation
The truth is that God is ministering to us day and night (Psalm 121:3-4). This is quite a remarkable thing to consider. God grants us rest because He himself will guard us and care for us, but the daily need to sleep is not just so we can escape our present circumstances and lose touch with reality for a few hours. It has a purpose beyond physical recharging and mental rebooting. It is also has a significant part to play in our spiritual growth.
“What if night time is a sacred time and not just a routine end to your day? The notion that God created the moon, stars and sleep,
not as an afterthought, but as an intentional time
to inspire you when you’re still, is an ancient idea.”
– Laura Harris Smith, Author of ‘Seeing the Voice of God’
King David was aware of the Lord ministering to him while he slept. He shares how it is was in his sleep that God would reveal himself personally to him.
“As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face;when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.” - Psalm 17:15
God uses dreams to reveal Himself to us in unique ways. I love the stories of when He reveals Himself in a dream to someone who did not know Him or follow Him before. For example, on the website “More Than Dreams” you will find stories of Jesus appearing to Muslims in a dream or vision. Their experiences transformed their lives when they encountered the love of God.
If Jesus himself turns up in your dream, its a bit of a giveaway that this 'good dream' is a 'God-dream.' But even if Jesus doesn't make a cameo appearance, a true God-dream will reveal his character or 'likeness' in other ways. In his guest post 'Love Drunk Dreamers', Dion Fasi shares his experience of God supernaturally imparting to him a revelation of God's wrath and grace on the Cross through a dream. I beleive these themes are markers of God sharing something, as our human nature struggles to apply grace to our own shame, but God doesn't.
God may reveal himself as our healer, provider, comforter, guide, or king through the dreams that He gives us. King David was a hunted and haunted man with every reason to fear sleeping at night. He was exhausted from conflict and had enemies waiting nearby for any opportunity to strike him down. Yet, he said these words in a song; "I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me,” (Psalm 3:4-6). In other words, while He slept, the Lord strengthened him.
One morning, one of my daughters woke up and cheerfully announced she'd had an interesting dream. She shared it with great detail. I was gob-smacked. I had a painful experience the day before and her dream not only perfectly described the incident, but put into perspective the emotions I was feeling about it. It was also full of specific symbolism the Lord has used repeatedly in my life to encourage me personally. The dream was a huge encouragement to me and allowed me to find the strength and courage to deal with a difficult situation.
Sometimes God might provide you with clear instructions through a dream with details that only He could have understood. Instead of a hint, He gives you a holler. It might look like these:
You have a revelation of a truth that strikes home
You receive knowledge you did not, or could not possess
An emotional or physical transformation occurs (e.g. inner healing)
An explanation or a strategy that proves successful come to mind
You get answers to a question you’ve been asking
I personally know of several individuals who God showed them they were to pack up and move house through a dream. Their trust and obedience to God has led them into timely new positions that continue to be fruitful today. These type of God-dreams still need to be tested and wisdom applied, but as learn to recognise when it is Him speaking, you will have more confidence to interpret them practically.
Whatever our dreams show us, a God-dream will reveal more of His character and likeness to us in deeper ways we might not have experienced before.
The Bad: When a ‘bad’ dream is a ‘good’ dream
Is perceiving where dreams come from as simple as ‘all good dreams are from God and all bad dreams are from the devil'?
It entirely depends on what you determine to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’. I suggest it has more to do with the outcome, rather than the original dream. Unlike David’s sweet dreams, Job had quite a different experience of night visions which he blamed on God: “When I think my bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint, even then you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions.” (Job 7:13-14). Yikes!
Hang on? Does God send us nightmares? Does He actually terrorise us in the night to scare us into complying with his wishes? Not according to the close friend of Jesus, and the apostle, John.
“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” - 1 John 1:5
It is God’s desire to protect us that motivates him make us aware of what we are about to face. He provides us with information to be better prepared to make wise choices of how to live. Even Job concedes the reason for God showing someone distressing scenes in a dream, might actually be for our own good.
In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings,
to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride
to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword.
Dreams can penetrate our masks and scale our defences. Our pride can prevent us from hearing God’s correction and cause us to head-butt into trouble. If he can’t get our attention when we’re awake, even when we are on our knees in prayer, He might resort to knocking some sense into us when we’re out cold, “to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride.” (vs17). Sometimes God might have to show us the consequences on full-screen with surround-sound so we turn back from that path in time.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz offers this perspective: “Perhaps this comes to teach us that, on some level, we need the human vulnerability of ‘bad dreams’ to remain humble, sensitive, and empathetic. We must actively choose to use our dreams as a vehicle for deepening our spiritual and ethical sensitivities.”
Many of the examples of God speaking through dreams in the Old Testament was to reveal an unknown threat, warning of danger ahead, and instructions on how to escape it. Not only did it concern individuals, but often whole families and nations, ‘to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword’ (vs16-18).
Being confronted with the reality of these visions might have been frightening, but it gave an opportunity to prepare and trust God’s strategy for getting out of a tricky situation (I call it your MacGyver Moment).
For some people, a dream from God that brings warning is only terrifying because they are struck with a holy fear. Pilate’s wife complained to her husband that the dreams she had about Jesus were so disturbing she ‘suffered greatly’ (Matthew 27:19). She warned her husband not to get involved in his trial and execution.
God would often warned pagan rulers to take their hands off his people (e.g. Abimelech). The sudden appearance of the living God making himself known in contrast to their powerless idols made quite the impression. If they were wise, they agreed to obey, if not they risked the hand of God against them. Abimelech quickly rectified his mistake, Pharaoh hardened his heart, Nebuchadnezzar ate grass for a few years, and Pilate washed his hands. No one can say God didn’t warn them!
Our reaction to the images we see and the emotional response we feel towards these kind of dreams, can reveal our true perception of who we think God is like (rightly or wrongly). If we do not have a revelation of grace we can often interpret warning dreams with feelings of fear and punishment, but if you understand God’s holy love, you will be able to receive these kinds of dreams with a sense of gratitude and hope.
‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.’ - Proverbs 1:7
The Ugly: Dreams from the Devil
Having established God does not terrorise us, the bible tell us of someone who does. The devil’s intention is to ‘rob, kill and destroy’ and he likes to fight dirty. When he takes over the night shift and drops images into our mind as we sleep, the results will be ugly, even if it was a sweet technicolour temptation you envisioned.
Interference in our dream life from the enemy will cause us to question the goodness of God and undermine relationships we are meant to protect. This can divert us from our God-given purpose and shut down or misuse our gifts that should be flourishing.
Therefore discerning if a dream is from God or the enemy may not be determined simply by whether the dream is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but by what kind of message we receive through it.
Does it offer hope and redemption?
Does it provide answers and strategy to escape?
Does it offer comfort and reassurance in response to distress?
Does it respect others and honour relationships (e.g. marriage, parenting)?
Does it reveal the kindness and mercy of a loving God?
If the answer is NO to any of these, dump it. That's not how God rolls.
An unguarded heart will be more vulnerable to the influence and intimidation of demonic powers. Nightmares or night terrors can be the work of evil spirits who take advantage of our sleep-state to invade our spiritual space. They seek solely to fill us with fear and distress us.
The awesome news is Jesus came to destroy the works of the enemy and the next post in this series will take a look at how to deal with night terrors in more detail (if you can't wait until then, read the book of Romans to get you started).
For now, here is a simple guide to make sense of the good, the bad and ugly supernatural dreams.
5 WAYS TO TEST IF YOUR DREAM IS A GOD-DREAM
1. It will reveal the character and love of God: Any true revelation from God will reveal His love in some way. He invites us into a personal relationship with Him that does not exist in darkness but in the light.
2. It will tell the truth: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse.” (Galatians 1:8). Any revelation you receive from God will not contradict what He has already revealed in Scripture and his Son. God does not lie so if you know it’s untrue (unless your pride is in denial), then you can weigh the message more critically.
3. It will provide hope: God does not leave us disappointed, but with renewed perspective and promise for the future. Whatever He reveals in a dream, there will be hope for healing, renewal, breakthrough or provision.
4. It will point out a path: Even a warning dream will come with an exit ramp. He has promised never to forsake us and that means He will also lead us through the problems we face. There is always a next step we can take with Him in the direction of freedom.
5. Ask Him: When you wake and you still have a big question mark dangling over your dream, just ask the Holy Spirit to give you understanding. He will confirm His word in other ways.
Dare to Dream
Learning how to discern whether a dream is from God or not develops as you intentionally grow closer to Him when you are awake. Getting to know his character and activities through observing Jesus’ life and words will enable you to more quickly detect what is not him, and be more confident in what is.
There’s no need for it to get ugly, people. God is good.
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COMING UP NEXT
Daring to Dream: Illuminating the Night
A conversation about nightmares and how to overcome them
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