April 01, 2007 Q & A

Why Do We Dream?


God causes all things past or present and for good reason. So why do we dream? What do dreams mean? Is there something to be said for a good and holy person who has very disturbing dreams at night?


What an interesting question! Many years ago I actually wrote a seminary paper about what the Bible says about dreams. There is one thing we can quickly say about dreams. God has ceased to use dreams to communicate His will to us. Though there are instances recorded in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments, Genesis 37, 40, 41; Numbers 12:6; Judges 7:13-15; I Kings 3:5-15; Job 7:14, 33:15; Matthew 1:20, 2:12-22, 27:19) of God teaching or guiding people through dreams, it is as the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1.1, says:

Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manner, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

Read Hebrews 1:1-2 as a reference. What the Confession means is that, yes, God communicated with His children like Joseph, through dreams, but now we have "grown up" and God communicates with us by His Word. The final form of communication is found in the living Word, Jesus Christ, who speaks as the Second Person of the triune Godhead.

But we still dream. We can explain dreams physiologically, of course. Our brains operate on electric impulses that move from one brain cell to another via synapses, sort of gates or ports of entry. Even at night our brains do not "shut down" as a computer does when we turn it off. Those electrical "firings" are still going on even as we sleep. The information stored in our brains may be "randomly accessed" as the synapses fire, so things that we read, saw, heard, even smelled, which are stored in the brain may be connected together to make the kinds of crazy pictures or ideas we have in our dreams.

For instance, I had a very vivid dream as a child of rabid dogs barking outside of the window in our dining room as they tried to escape a flood. Now I had not then ever seen a rabid dog and my house was at the top of the hill in town so any flood would have had to be 25 feet above the creek bed, but my brain that night was taking something I had heard about rabid dogs, added the fact that there was a lot of rain, and used the image of the very familiar dining room window. In the dream it was as real as could be, but it was just the result of my brain's synapses firing in certain patterns. That dreams have no effect on reality is what Isaiah 29:8 suggests unless we are held captive to them. Ecclesiastes 5:7 (NASB) is very blunt: "For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God."

God is Lord of everything, we believe, even of the tiny electrical impulses in our brains, so why does God allow this, especially if the dreams are disturbing? You didn't specify what you meant by "very disturbing dreams," but some Christians are horrified to find that they have dreams of a violent or sexual nature. They have dreams about things which they wouldn't ever imagine or allow themselves to consider in their waking moments. Are the dreams showing the evil that is really inside of us? Well, I think there are several things we can say.

1. We are body and soul, i.e., immortal souls joined in this life to mortal bodies. We are living in a fallen world, and the Lord has seen fit not to remove all the effects of sin at this time from His redeemed people, either in our souls or in our bodies. We have brains that operate in the ways that brains usually operate, firing at the synapses, communicating information, making connections. Some of the information we have is a result of sin, either because we have read or seen something, or because we have imagined something. Veterans of combat often have vivid and terrifying dreams of the experiences they had, not because they enjoyed those experiences, but because the experiences were so powerfully impressed upon their memories. Obviously Christians should not want to expose themselves to images or ideas which they know are displeasing to God and are likely to lead to sinful thoughts. I don't have to go to a porn website to know that what is there is not what I should be viewing. So we avoid exposure to such things. We can instead "seed" our brains with profitable thoughts, as Philippians 4:6-9 (NASB) encourages us to do:

6Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.9The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(Note verses 7 and 8 in particular.)

2. We are not to be held captive by our dreams or by our fear of them. The one to fear is God Himself, to live in captivity to anything besides Him is idolatry, making what is created more important to us than the Creator. What Ecclesiastes 5:7 reminds us of is that following the written Word of God and learning to reverence Him is the way to peace and joy. People try to live out their "dreams," but if they are unbiblical or ungodly dreams, it is not the dreams that are moving them to behave improperly, it is their own hearts. Biblical dreams (usually more "day dreams" than "night dreams") would be things in accord with the Word of God, being a diligent student, a godly husband and father, a prudent man, etc. These things we can pursue according to the Word of God. (Again, consider Philippians 4:6-9.) But of the other kind of dreams, well, the old saying is that we can't keep the birds from flying around our heads but we can keep them from building nests in our hair. In other words, we should set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2) and then we will see the things of this world, including our dreams, in their proper perspective. We shouldn't dwell on what is not pleasing to God (i.e., we shouldn't "let the birds nest").

3. Remember the gospel, that it is not my perfection, my sinless thought life, or anything else in me that saves me. In fact, my sins make it clear that my only hope is that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and as I repent of my sins and trust Him to save me, I can rest truly and not fear that either my dreams or my failures will separate me from my heavenly Father. (See Romans 8:35, 37-39.)



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