Nine Questions to Ask When You Dream a Dream

Although not all dreams are “from God” in the sense that He authored all of them, all dreams can be taken to God, for all things ultimately belong to Him even in the present fallen state of our world and our hearts. This includes our inner world of dreams. Like a lake beneath a broad and varied sky, dreams both reflect a certain level of reality to us and present a hidden realm beneath the surface of the content requiring investigation in prayer with God. 

Over a lifetime, you may collect a large volume of dreams that seem significant.  It is impossible that each of them bear equal magnitude, lest you become as vulnerable to reactionary decisions as a leaf subject to the winds. But if rightly stewarded, your collection of dreams becomes a personal reference library of personal insight, something you may never post or broadcast, but rather something that is a gift of love from your heavenly Father. Some dreams you may call upon often as a supplemental resource, others less so, but all are available to enrich your faith, nurture your hope, and strengthen your love for God and others.  And all, if rightly stewarded, point to the one reliable compass of Christ Himself, who has become for us “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. “(I Cor 1:30)

Here are questions to equip you for that stewardship:

Questions to Ask When You Dream a Dream

  1. What is the essence of the dream?
  2. What is the scene sequence?
  3. Is there anything I need to repent of?
  1. What elements of the dream repeat?
  2. What aspects of the dream leave me curious?
  3. What is the sequence of emotions of the dream?
  1. What scriptures does the dream seem echo or point to?
  2. Am I being warned regarding myself or another?
  3. Is it a parable or is it literal?

  1. What is the essence of the dream?

Describe the dream in a single, simple sentence. To do this is to delete the digressions, sub-plots, and randomness to discover the possible basic message of the dream. It it like extracting the essential oil from a plant, the part which is at the heart of the matter. If you do not do this, then you may become unnecessarily hung up on a detail. “Why was my fifth grade teacher at the mess hall with my college hiking buddies?” “Why did I know it was my house, but it didn’t look like my real house, and yet I knew it was my house?” The answer might become clearer if you can sum up the whole dream in one, simple statement. 

Here are some examples: 

  • “I was guarding a valuable treasure from a Elijah Wood impersonator.” 
  • “I was being chased because I knew too much.” 
  • “A conflict took place between two towns because a river dried up.” 
  • “I rescued some Amish-looking people from a barn fire.” 
  • “A man wearing an American flag was mourning the loss of his family at sea.” 
  • “My friends and others were celebrating a wedding in an airplane hangar.”
  • “A winged horse caused a traffic jam until I tamed it and we flew off.” 

In each case the person is painfully leaving out interesting details but smuggling in a few details that just seem too important to cut.  By disciplining themselves to answer the question: “What is the essence?”  they have filtered out supporting elements and have retained the apparently essential ones. But even in the above examples we could go a step further. We could cut out Elijah Wood, though his name might still play an important supporting role to the meaning. We could delete the traffic jam; it sets up the scene, but its main purpose seems to have been to give you enough time to befriend Pegasus. And so on. 

  1. What is the scene sequence?

If you divide the dream into scenes and place it on a storyboard, what is the sequence? What title would you give each scene? Novelists often write a “plot treatment” of their works in which each scene or chapter is listed with a brief summary. What is the plot treatment of this dream?

Examining the structure of the dream may help you discover its instructional intent. In other words, structure may point to instruction. For example:

  • “The dream is structured as a series of three tests of some kind.”
  • “The dream is structured as one story with two digressions.”
  • “In each of the four successive scenes, one thing is built upon from the previous scene.”

This exercise can build confidence in discerning which elements of the dream are most important; or at least it may build your faith that the managing editor of the dream is the Author of Life, who is also the Author and Completer of Our Faith. We may not understand the meaning of each item in a dream or even be thankful we had the dream at all, but as we explore the way a dream is scripted, it can provide us with comfort and encouragement that He is with us in the discovery process, setting boundary lines on what takes place lest we be overwhelmed. 

  1. Is there anything I need to repent of?

Is there anything you have done in the dream that is sin?

The Ten Commandments are the template. Is there anything in the dream that causes you to realize your forgetfulness of how dependent you are on Him;  your lack of zeal; your lack of love; your willful departure from being holy, humble, or honest?

Choices not only generate from your initiative; at times the circumstance compels a reaction. For example, do disaster, disease, or threat of death force your hand on choices? Do such things come upon others and force their hand on the state of their hearts? It is not necessarily things you are intentionally doing, but rather, things that come upon you and others that reveal “real” heart conditions in the dream. 

In either case, the dream is serving as a tutorial for repentance. (“I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.” Romans 7:17) Admit your need for transformation, believe the gospel, confess your faith in His power to forgive you, and repent. 

  1. What elements of the dream repeat? 

How many times are those elements repeated?

  • Words
  • Actions
  • People
  • Places
  • Items, Things
  • The Dream Itself

Repetition may be a way the Lord is posting clues for you to investigate further through prayer, through the scriptures, and perhaps through other forms of research.  This aligns with the scriptural principle Christ and the apostles established for decision making, that “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (2 Cor 13:1)

Why the prompt to explore further? Why does God not just give you a straight data download, unmixed with your own jumbled heart? He could, but often He does not. Perhaps it is because the efficiency of straight data downloads might tempt us to a form of pride and control that causes us to fall away from humble relationship with Him. If you being you Jesus, you must remember you are not of this world; you are made in His image. You are like the protagonist Neo of The Matrix or his beloved friend named Trinity. You are called to decode, discover, and walk in your destiny — a story of courageous, authentic, enduring love. To put it another way:

The world commands
“Accept, conform, and perform.”
The Lord commands
“Ask, seek, and knock.”

The world boasts
“This is no way to escape my power.”
The Lord proclaims
“I am right on the other side of the door of this dream.”

Both voices may be at work in the same dream. It is your calling to discern and decide. It is His calling to give the humble heart grace to do so. 

  1. What aspects of the dream leave me curious? 

In other words, what unique things, both good and bad, get your attention

Intriguing Oddities

Let us take some of the examples from above. 

“Why did I rescue Amish-looking people?” 

“Why an airplane hangar for a wedding?” 

“Why a winged horse when a normal horse would do?” 

Questions like these become prayer prompts to your heavenly Father. Ask Him why. They turn you toward discovery. 

Disturbing Elements

These are negative forms of curiosity. They trouble your sense of right and wrong; they scandalize. Let us say you dream a king takes everyone’s wedding rings away to make a golden statue. “Why wedding rings?” Or a queen is collecting children’s books as fuel for her fireplace. “Why children’s books?” These are questions to pose in prayer to the One who sees in the dark and can shed light.  

  1. What is the sequence of emotions of the dream? 

Here are some examples: 

  • “Surprised, then joyful.” 
  • “Happy, then sad.” 
  • “Afraid, but later brave.” 
  • “I was full of confidence the whole dream.” 
  • “I was hesitant, then I became zealous after a certain thing happened.” 
  • “I was calm during the whole dream, watching like an observer.”

The emotional experience of the dream may be a cue calling you to search the scriptures for that emotion, converting it into a coherent vocabulary of prayer. This is one reason the Psalms were written, that we might find words for conveying our hearts to God in all honesty and hope. It may be that a dream has been given you that pairs with such scriptures, prompting you to a deeper conversation with the God who saves us from the flood of our feelings (and their causes) and immerses us in the River of Life. 

  1. What scriptures does the dream seem to echo or point to?

There are twenty-one accounts of dreams in the Protestant tradition of scripture, eight of which are accompanied by their interpretations. The Eastern Orthodox tradition of scripture includes seven more books for the Old Testament, what Catholic and Protestant traditions call the Apocrypha. Here we find additional content on dreams, including a warning from the sage Yeshua ben Sirach:

Unless the Most High sends a dream by means of a visitation, don’t pay any attention to it. Dreams have misled many, and those who have placed hope in them have fallen.

Sirach 34:6-7 

In other words: dreams can indeed be from God, but they are not a shortcut around trusting God Himself. Dreams are a conversation prompt with Him, whatever their source: holy, human, hostile — or a mix of all three.  And if the story of the patriarch Joseph is any indication (Genesis 37-50), the dream God gives may not come true until the potential for its coming true dies of any natural possibility of being fulfilled. The form of its fulfillment may parallel the resurrection pattern set by Christ Himself, who, after rising from the dead, “appeared in a different form” to the travelers on the Emmaus road (Mark 16:12; cf. Luke 24:15-16). The dream may come true in a way you do not expect.

Alongside the biblical accounts and commentaries on dreams themselves, the entirety of scripture contains a wealth of content by which you can explore the ingredients of your dream. In other words, the scriptures may provide keys to the meaning of both details and overall themes.  For example: as the scriptures often employ the imagery of a bride as the Church, a wedding scene may be communicating something about the state of the Church — or perhaps your church. On the other hand, Apostle Paul describes the church as “the heavenly Jerusalem” which is “our mother”. Therefore if your mom shows up in a dream, it could be that she symbolizes the church in some way — or maybe she represents your mom. Such possibilities point us yet again back to the fact that decoding a dream is only good insofar as it prompts personal prayer and communication with the Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

This is how one with faith in the Messiah and the Maker is different than the one employing a crystal ball or Tarot cards. The spiritual realm is not neutral stuff we can learn to fully decode and fully control; nor is it a realm where we make alliances with the invisible world for guidance and protection. No, for the one with faith in Christ there is allegiance to only One, there is a covenant with only One, and all things — including dreams — are servants of that One who loved us and gave Himself up for us, that we might no longer live in fear of fate or fear of dark powers, but in the power of self-giving love.

There is also the possibility that what you have been taking into your heart and mind during waking hours is coming back up during your sleeping hours. If, for example, you and house decide on a movie marathon of all the Star Wars movies, it should be no surprise when you encounter Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in your dreams. This is human and understandable, and why, above all else, we are commanded to keep watch over our hearts, so that the overflow of it, whether when asleep or awake, is life-giving. (Proverbs 4:23)

There is also the possibility of a contributing role of the domain of darkness, which may have one or more reasons for being there.

  1. There is sustained unrepentant sin, creating a pathway of darkness through which evil can traffic.  The torment or confusion could be a prompt to personal repentance. 
  1. It could be a prompt for compassion and prayer by becoming aware of what others go through, a kind of tutorial in what others suffer. 
  1. It could be an uncomfortable grace-gift of preparation for the suffering to come. In Brother Yun’s account in The Heavenly Man, he describes a vivid vision in which a horrifying dark monster physically attacked him, but Brother Yun resisted and overcame, crying out “Hallelujah! The blood of Jesus has overcome you.” Later, after police captured him, an officer began to physically assault Brother Yun precisely after the manner of the monster in the vision. Brother Yun recalled the vision and realized that the Lord was in control, having warned him ahead of time. He faced the pain bravely, and eventually, while the police were out of the room, he escaped in a miraculous way.
  1. There are also instances in the scriptures where Satan and his messengers are given permission to harass Paul, at times even preventing his plans. “But this happened so that we would not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor 1:9)  What we note in these accounts is that, although Paul is fully aware of the influence of the invisible evil realm, he is unimpressed with it, for He has set apart Christ as the holy Lord of his heart, and he deeply loves Him to the point of being neither infatuated by nor intimidated by any other thing, demonic forces included. 

Note this: to publicly denounce a person or a people based on your dreams is neither holy, nor loving, nor wise. It is not holy because you have taken a private perspective and made it a public suspicion. It is not loving because you have not treated another as you would want to be treated. (You have not made it a prompt to prayer or honest inquiry.) It is not wise because no one else can verify what you alone saw in your dream. 

8. Am I being warned?

Warning about One’s Self

  • An attitude of self-inflating pride; not the kind of joyful pride that comes with dignity, honor, and overcoming, but the kind that imagines a version of ourselves that is not really us. The old-fashioned word for this is conceit.
  • An unhealthy attachment to some form of comfort or craving; a fear that rules you; a care that burdens you.

Warning about Another

  • For the purpose of avoiding the danger that the other carries.
  • For the purpose of exhorting that person or people to repent of wrongdoing.
  • or the purpose of praying for such a repentance.
  1. Is it a parable or is it literal?

Parables are mini motion pictures passing through us as we sleep, often capitalizing on the storehouse of memory known as the brain. Thus far in this outline, the primary implication has been that dreams are usually parables, be they one scene or multi-scene; be they a moment in time or seemingly hours long. The eyewitness biographers of Jesus commented that “He never taught without speaking parables.” The Lord, who now is present by the Holy Spirit, continues to speak in parables. For He knows how we are designed. He knows that if we “get the picture” we will get the point. Then we shall know what we are to do.

Sometimes the parable is in the form of a pun or play on words. Let us return to the Elijah Wood example. Why “Elijah”? Why “Wood”? Is there a play on words here, a pun that prompts us to study the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven to consume the wood?

But there is another, startling implication for which there is solid biblical precedent: that a dream might be literal. We may dream we are teaching a group of youth how to worship God and remember the points we teach so clearly that we write them down in our journal. We forget about the dream. Three years later, we are teaching a group of youth about worship, and suddenly, in the middle of our talk, we realize with wonder, “Ah! This is that which I dreamed of three years ago!”  (This happened to Britt Tucker, lead pastor of Antioch Central Houston.) Or we may lose the family cutting knife, go to sleep, and dream that it is stuck in a watermelon in a cornfield. We awaken, go to the cornfield, and behold it is there. (This happened to George Washington Carver.) Or we may drowse to sleep for a moment before the fireplace and in a dream discover the molecular structure of benzene. (This happened in ca. 1862 to chemist Friedrick Kekulé after already discovering atomic Structural Theory in a dream in ca. 1853.) Such astonishing possibilities press upon how vital it is that we cultivate a life of prayer and that we walk in healthy relationships with those who know us well: those who can encourage us to persevere in what we have faith to do and can help us sort out the literal from the parable. 

For the goal of both is the same, an awe that leads to joy, and joy is why Christ came. “I have come that you might have life and that abundantly.” (John 10:10) And dreams — be they a winnowing fork revealing what must be purged, or be they a window revealing His promises — are servants to that joy if we do not lose heart, and if we put our trust in Him, the One to whom we cry, “Dream your dreams through us!”

© Kurt Mähler

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