Then God said to him in the dream . . .
Face-to-face encounters in which we meet the Lord and hear His voice clearly are delightful if relatively rare occurrences, but most of us will have known occasions when He has guided us by means of dreams, visions and other signs and pointers that set us thinking and praying along particular lines. Some of these are a direct call to action; others require further prayer (and perhaps confirmation) before we set out to act on them.
Those who have been brought up on “cerebral” forms of the faith may feel somewhat wary of essentially non-verbal ways of communicating. It is right to be cautious but not sceptical; the Bible is full of significant dreams,  and the Lord wants us to be comfortable in discerning that which comes from Him.
Dreams and visions are relevant not just for guidance but for outreach. Where preachers cannot freely go, God can reach people’s deepest spirits. Every year more and more people in Islamic countries are coming to faith as a result of receiving dreams from and about the Lord Jesus.
There is nothing new about this. Back in the fifth century, pirates sailed up the River Clyde and seized a young boy called Patrick. Seven grim years of slavery in Ireland ensued. It was during this time that the Lord drew him back to the faith of his fathers, and set him on fire with love for Himself.
One night, Patrick had a dream, in which he saw how he could cross the country and find a boat. The fact that the Lord speaks, however, does not mean that everything works out easily or immediately. It was only with extreme difficulty that Patrick persuaded the ship’s captain to take him on board.
The Lord’s purposes for Patrick in the land of his captivity did not come to an end with his escape to France. Some years later, he “heard” in his spirit the voice of the Irish calling him to return. What the Lord initiated as a rescue mission He developed through this commissioning vision: a mission that was destined to bring whole tribes to faith, to such an extent that Ireland became a leading mission-sending nation.
Each one had their own story of how they were called for love of God to forsake their homeland to share the gospel message. Columba was the first of a multitude of Irish Celtic missionaries who set out to evangelize first Scotland and then, from their island outposts of Iona and Lindisfarne, almost every part of northern and western Europe.
This vital work might never have developed had Patrick refused to return to the country which had treated him so badly saying, effectively, ‘I don’t do countries that treat me badly!’ Mercifully, like Paul, he was more concerned to obey the heavenly vision than to nurse personal grudges.
Not all our dreams have high-powered consequences that send us to the far side of the world of course! Most are more like broad strokes of the Father’s brush, in which a few salient features stand out to direct us towards some particular person, insight or project. Because our memories are fickle, we are wise if we jot down the details of dreams we believe may be of spiritual significance as soon as possible after we wake up.
The Lord uses dreams to keep us in the loop
Shortly after I became a Christian, I began to pray for an old school friend. My clumsy attempts to tell her about the Lord met with no response, and for the next twelve years, I had no contact whatsoever with her. One night, however, I saw in a dream that she had become a Christian. I shared this with Ros, and was amazed to receive a letter from her the very next day. Not only had she given her life to the Lord, she had already led a couple of others in her village to Christ. I had felt led to pray and reach out to one person, but the Lord was already thinking of all the people He will bring to Himself through her. It has been a joy to resume friendship on a completely different level!
The Lord loves to keep us “in the loop” of what He is doing, whether for really positive things like this or concerning more challenging developments that are unfolding behind the scenes. It has been a joy to resume friendship with her on a completely different level.
Dreams often require further confirmation and clarification
It is important to bear in mind that whilst some dreams are quite specific and literal, most supply a vital portion of the guidance the Lord wishes to impart. These “pointers” require further clarification before we should accept them as definitive guidance. As I came to the end of seven exciting years of ministry in Oxford, I knew the Lord was calling me to resign my post as an evangelist with one particular church and move on – but I had no idea where the Lord wanted me to move on to. When I had a dream of black and white houses, however, or some reason I felt convinced that the Lord was speaking about Chester.
I needed more details! The following night, as I was going to sleep, the names of two Anglican churches came clearly to mind. I happened to be up north a few weeks later, so I popped across to Chester (in those pre-Internet days) to pursue the matter. The churches did indeed exist, and, once the leadership of the principal church confirmed the dream and welcomed me into their fellowship, became fruitful bases for the next eight years. It does not bear thinking about all that would not have happened had I not had – and responded – to those dreams and subsequent words of knowledge!
The Lord uses dreams internally
‘All the things one has forgotten scream for help in dreams.’ (Elias Canetti)
The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind. (Sigmund Freud).
It is a shame that Freud was unacquainted with the ways and workings of the Holy Spirit. God loves to impart His perspectives to help us understand what is going on in ourselves. If the examples quoted above are examples of our Heavenly Father’s broad brush strokes, more commonly He uses finer brushes to highlight particular issues through our dreams that we might otherwise never face. We may have done our best to bury certain memories, for example, but the dreams our subconscious throw up are there to remind us of things we really do need to face.
Many of the specific details in our dreams may be of no particular significance, but we should be alert to themes and symbols that regularly recur in our dreams. Time and again the Lord uses these as His most discreet means of showing us things – especially where we are out of balance in some way. In other words, if the same theme is repeated more than once, it is likely to be significant, and quite possibly urgent. (cf Gen. 41:15-37)
As for those dreams which are more like X-rated films, the Lord may be allowing us disturbing glimpses into the strategies of hell as they plan their attacks against God’s people. Rather than accepting whatever dire scenarios these dreams are predicting, it is wiser to see them effectively as a call to pray that the very opposite of what we have seen comes about. In other words, we can use and “harness” the power of these horrible dreams as a stimulus to pray more intensely and so thwart whatever it was that the powers of darkness were seeking to bring to pass and see something good established instead. How much better is that than merely being intimidated by them?
One step down from these “Gothic” dreams lie those which are two parts psychological for one part spiritual. Suppose, for example, you are organizing a meeting, and dream of an empty auditorium. The chances are that this may be nothing more than the subconscious having a wobble. But there again, it may also be the Lord alerting us to the fact that the meeting (or whatever it was that we dreamt of) will only fulfil all the Lord has in mind if we pray a whole lot harder!
Likewise, unless the Lord confirms the warning in other ways, we should not be in too much of a hurry to change our ticket if we dream that the plane we are due to catch is going to crash. If the meeting and the journey are important to the Lord, then may the meeting be well attended and fruitful – and the journey be both safe and blessed!
For Reflection and Prayer
Father, dreams come thick and fast in the course of the night, there is nothing we can do to ward them off. Help us to discard all that is merely random, but to identify all You are seeking to highlight through them. Then may we harness what they are pointing to in such a way that we focus our prayers and release more of Your power into these situations than would otherwise have happened. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
(1) For a few examples of significant dreams and visions, consider Genesis 15:1ff; 31:24; Acts 11:5ff, 16:9, 18:9; Ezekiel 1-3; 11:1-25; Matthew 1:20-21; Rev 1:1-2, cf Acts 2:17; 2 Cor 12:1