Saturday, February 01, 2014

Dream On: The Delight and Difficulties of Dreams

Recently I wrote a piece entitled The Strength and Spirituality of Segmented Sleep, tracing the history of human sleeping patterns. Up until the Industrial Revolution (AD 1760 - 1840), human beings usually went to bed shortly after darkness settled, slept for three to four hours until midnight, awoke and participated in various physical and mental activities for two to three hours, and then went back to sleep for another three to four hours until daybreak. This practice is known as segmented or divided sleep. One of the popular mental activities of people during the "between the sleeps" awake time was remembering and analyzing the dreams experienced during the first segmented sleep.

In our modern 24/7 electrical light fast-paced culture, sleep is no longer segmented and dreams are no longer dissected. Most Americans sleep through the night and awaken with worriment about the day rather than wonderment about the night. It is without doubt that God spoke to His people through dreams throughout history, but many evangelicals today take the position that God has spoken definitively and conclusively through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-3) and that He no longer uses dreams as a means for personal communication or self introspection. To hold to a position of dream cessation, the evangelical who believes the Bible must explain away a multitude of verses, including: 
"For God does speak—now one way, now another— though no one perceives it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds." (Job 33:14-15). 
"And they said unto him, We have dreamed a dream, and [there is] no interpreter of it. And Joseph said unto them, [Do] not interpretations [belong] to God? tell me [them], I pray you." (Genesis 40:8)
 "I will bless Jehovah, who hath given me counsel; Yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons." (Psalm 16:7) 
"Then was the secret revealed unto Daniel in a night vision. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven." (Daniel 2:19)
"But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt." (Matthew 2:19-21) 
"And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us." (Acts 16:9)
Christians since the Reformation who have not discounted dreams have often seen them as a caution against--or an encouragement for--certain conduct. Puritan preacher Ralph Josselin wrote in his diary, "They say dreames declare a mans temperament, this night  I dreamd  I was wondrous passion with a man that wrongd mee and my child insomuch as I was shamed of my selfe, god in mercy keepe mee from that evill." Historian Roger Ekirch in his magnus opus At Days Close  writes that a dream prompted Virginia colonist John Rolfe to marry the Indian maiden Pocahontas. A pastor friend of mine told me that he dreamed his sister's house was on fire, a nightmare prompting him to call his sister (overseas) and awaken her to discover her house was on fire. God speaks clearly to us in His word, but just because dreams are not as clear as the written Word does not necessarily mean God is not speaking to us through them.

The Scripture tells us that we have three enemies - the world, the flesh and the devil. Whereas God may communicate with His people through dreams, a Christian must be careful from assuming it is always God speaking. "Test the spirits" the Apostle tells us, "to see if they are from God" (I John 4:1). Nightmares in the night are usually associated  with death or dying, physical ailments, violence from another's hand, and much more unpleasantness. God does not give us a spirit of fear, but of love, power and a sound mind. Methodist Benjamin Lakin dreamed of being forced to elude demons during his journey home from an evangelistic meeting, a  dream that would cause most non-Christians to fear, but  Lakin saw his dream as a caution from God to avoid a certain route coming home, which he did -- all the while trusting God to protect him (similar to the dream given to Joseph). No dream is from God that ever encourages behavior prohibited by God. Yet, could it not also be said that any dream that is consistent with the principles of God's Word may be a vivid and personal encouragement from God?

God seems to have chosen to communicate personally to His people through dreams throughout history. Modern evangelicals may not be hearing the message because of a change in our sleeping patterns. So common was segmented sleep prior to the Industrial Revolution that the "prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration" (At Days Close, p. 301).  John Locke wrote "all men sleep by intervals" and segmented sleep was such a normal way of life, even "brute creation" (the animals) participated in it.  A European psychologist wrote 200 years ago that persons "rudely awakened" from their "first sleep" had the "same feeling" as if they had been "interrupted at a very serious task" (At Days Close, p. 322). Erkirch writes:
"Clinical experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health confirm that subjects who experienced two stages of slumber were in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep just before they awakened around midnight, with REM being the stage of sleep directly connected with dreaming. What's more, (Dr.) Thomas Wehr has found, "transitions to wakefulness are most likely to occur from REM periods that are especially intense," typically accompanied by "particularly vivid dreams" distinguished by their "narrative quality," which many of the subjects in his experiment contemplated in the darkness." (A. Roger Ekrich, At Days Close, p. 323).
So, next time you are awakened three to four hours into your night's sleep, it might be advantageous to contemplate and consider what you have just dreamed. Whether it is caution against certain conduct, a prompting toward some particular productive behavior, or a revelation of some inward character flaw, just as God chosen to speak to His people throughout history in dreams, He may be choosing to speak to you as well through yours.

It's not as important that a Christian accept God's involvement in dreams as it is that a Christian not reject His involvement before knowing the biblical and historical data on the difficulties and delights of dreams. In our age of scientific skepticism, a healthy dose of spiritual sensitivity may be warranted. Yes, God speaks to us through both the Living Word (Jesus Christ) and His written word (the Bible), but could it not be possible that He also speaks to us through a very personal word (a dream)?

If so, our preeminent desire for dreams could be best summarized by Dr. Richard Kay, an evangelical Christian medical doctor from Lancashire, England, who wrote in his 18th century diary:
"I have dreamed dreams that when I have awoke out of them they have, even in the dark and silent night, brought me upon my knees and deeply humbled me."


Bob Cleveland said...

Another apt question might be this: is God incapable of organizing in your mind, and bringing into your dreams, truths already in your mind? Of course, He is not incapable of that, so there is nothing to keep Him from invading your dreams, even if only to synthesize Scriptural truths from all the Scripture you've ever been exposed to.

If He can do that, He can also reveal something new to you, as well, which will of course always be in accord with His revealed word.

I recall one time I was in a nearby town making a sales call on a prospect. I had a presentation book with lots of displays, graphics, etc, which I'd turn around upside down so my prospect could read it. Midway through this one presentation, which I had done hundreds of times and knew like the back of my hand, my mind went totally blank. I could not think of one word to say. I had to literally turn the book around go back a couple pages, read it and remember whether I'd said that, until I got to the point where I'd stopped. It was perhaps the weirdest feeling I had ever experienced.

30 minutes later, driving down the street there, a friend hailed me from his car and motioned me to pull into a parking lot. There, he told me that my father, in a hospital 1/2 mile away, had died. When I got there, I checked. It was the moment my father had passed away, that my mind had gone blank.

Don't ever think we've got God, or ourselves, all figured out ... and it'd be nice if God had told us that, I guess.

Oh. Wait. "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has it entered into the mind of man......"

Shari England said...

I so appreciate this post. So many want to discount dreams altogether, and I might have too until the night Jesus appeared in my dream in a very turbulent time of my life, and revealed to me what He was about to do in me spiritually. I've also had one of those "rude awakenings", bolting straight up out of a deep sleep, feeling compelled to pray for my brother. I learned later, he had been jumped at that very hour and beaten severely, but survived. God is doing amazing things in his life today.

It seems that "God dreams" are the ones that are unforgettable, lasting longer than the dream itself. Other times, it's just the pizza! We certainly cannot interpret every dream as a message from God. I think it is good to consider, testing the spirits, and learning to understand our own patterns of dreaming. Thank you Pastor Wade.

Christiane said...

a true story of the lost children of the Alleghenies

I think there must be something to some dreams that give 'visions' to folks. In some cases, the strength of the spiritual realm's intersection with human experience is shown to us with a pathos so startling that it brings us to deep reflection about the great wisdom of God.

There is some STRONG evidence in the true story of the lost children of the Alleghenies. Take a look:

Bob Cleveland said...

I had a dream some years ago that maybe you can interpret for me.

No joke .. I really did.

I dreamed I woke up one morning and found Peg dead. Lying on her back, looking normal, but just dead. I don't recall any emotional reaction to it; I just got up and went to the kitchen to get some breakfast.

When I got there, Peg was standing at the sink, doing dishes. I said "What are you doing here" and she said "It's a new plan .. they let people come back until the funeral."

I thought "That's nice" and went back to the bedroom, and she was still there. But her finger started to twitch, then her arm, then her whole body, and she sat up and said "Good morning".

I thought a second, and then said "Oh NOOOO.... now I've got TWO of you...."

I literally woke myself up laughing.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate a few things about this post. 1: Your ability to put things together in a clear and concise way that others might over-muddy in their attempts. 2. Addressing something that many would rather just shrug their shoulders about.

I am a pastor and am in the middle of making a very critical decision. I read this post on Sunday morning which encouraged me in respect to dreams of the past. Last night I had a dream that was unique to the decision that I face in that the overall subject matter was a part of the dream. I then awoke to study the Bible and in my reading came across Psalm 16:7.

Our God is a Faithful God.