What should we make of dreams?

Yesterday, David Robertson wrote a post about whether dreams can legitimately be from the Lord or not. You can read his article here. It was prompted by a Q&A from the Ligonier Conference. If you go to 23 minutes in the video below, you will hear the comments in question.

I wanted to pick this up because I have recently had several conversations along these lines.

Our church has many Iranian people in membership. It is not at all unusual for them to give a testimony that includes a dream that they had. Similarly, our area of Glodwick is replete with Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. Again, it is not at all unusual for them to look for Allah to speak to them in dreams and many who become believers will often cite a dream as part of their conversion story (Nabeel Qureshi offers one such story in Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus). If there is no denying those offering these stories have genuinely become believers, what are we supposed to do with such stories?

A British couple is currently applying for membership. Again, as part of one of their conversion stories, they cited a dream. The testimony of the guy giving the explanation was clear and credible, there is no reason for us to doubt either his profession of faith nor his experience as he describes it. The guy is obviously saved and a dream – whilst not necessarily the decisive factor – played a significant role in his coming to faith. What are we supposed to think?

I was also in discussion with another pastor recently. Quite why the issue of dreams came up, I can’t remember. But all these same questions came up. What are we to make of dreams? The Ligonier answer was to simply dismiss all dreams as false. For all the reasons David Robertson outlines here, I cannot see how that is a Biblical (and, therefore, a right) answer.

In all my discussions with people, my answer has largely been the same. I begin with the view that God is sovereign. That means he is sovereign over all events in the world, including my circumstances, thoughts, volition and even dreams. If we recognise that God is sovereign over all things, including our dreams, it follows logically that even our dreams may be given to us from the Lord. We only have dreams (or, in my case, don’t have dreams) because God sovereignly determines it. To deny this is to suggest that there is something in the world over which God is not sovereign. That is a problem.

Second, recognising that God is sovereign over all things including dreams, it becomes relatively easy to see that – if he so wishes – the Lord can speak to us through dreams if he so wishes. This means that we must recognise whenever we have a dream of any sort, it is because God has sovereign ordained it just as he sovereignly ordains all the experiences of our life. Sometimes, when God sovereignly ordains a dream, he intends us to be affected by it in some way.

Third, despite the claim in the Ligonier video, the first two points above suggest that dreams do not fall into the category of special revelation. If we do not believe that God sovereignly ordaining certain thoughts in our mind to be special revelation (and we shouldn’t), we equally shouldn’t consider dreams to fall under the category of special revelation either. This means that dreams – just like thoughts and inclinations, circumstances and anything else – must all be brought under the interpretive light of scripture. We don’t simply follow dreams because we had one and we feel it is from the Lord. We weigh what believe they are saying, we compare it to what scripture says and we listen to the counsel of those in our church on whatever the issue happens to be. As my pastor friend said to me, ‘if dreams are a part of general revelation, I’m going to treat them in exactly the same way as when the treasurer comes to me and presents the accounts’.

Fourth, I have often made the case that the Lord guides us through three principal things: Scripture, circumstance and volition. Of the three, the Bible is obviously primary and is the measure by which everything else must be measured. But the Lord also guides through our circumstances – closing certain doors and opening others – and through volition and the things which seem good to us when we have weighed them up. Dreams must fall under the category of circumstance. Regardless on our view of them, we must surely all accept that dreams are part of our circumstances. The least we can say is that it has happened to us. We also know that the Lord, in his sovereignty, knows the kind of things that will lead each of us to particular courses of action. He knows whether we would respond to dreams and he knows what dreams, if any, would cause us to act.

It, therefore, seems entirely possible that the Lord might use dreams to move certain people to certain courses of action and belief. In scripture, it is often forgotten that Daniel, for example, was schooled in the interpretation of dreams by the Babylonians. They were both looking for dreams and had an entire system of interpretation. That in no way undercuts the special insight God gave Daniel into particular dreams that he withheld from others, but it also is clear that the Lord gave Nebuchadnezzar his dreams for wider purposes (even though the Babylonian king was not a believer at the time!) By contrast, the Lord has never given me a dream (certainly not any I identify as from him). But I have been steeped in Western Enlightenment thinking and am prone to dismiss my dreams as a result of too much cheese. I rarely dream vividly, typically forget what vivid dreams I do have and am rarely inclined to take them seriously when I do. Given that, it is little wonder the Lord has never used a dream to move me.

Given there is nothing in scripture denying that the Lord might speak through dreams – and, indeed, there are obvious examples of the Lord doing this – and the fact that God remains sovereign over all things, including even the dreams that we have, why should we dismiss dreams as a means by which God might speak and guide? Of course, we all want to be careful that we don’t start placing dreams on a level with scripture, as though it is special revelation from God. Likewise, we want to avoid people binding the conscience of everyone else based on something only they experienced, as though God has certainly spoken directly to them and making the similarly problematic presumption that, if he has spoken, they have interpreted him correctly on their own. But recognising that God is sovereign, he guides through circumstance and volition and acknowledging that some are moved to act and believe based on dreams they have, shouldn’t we acknowledge that the Lord might use dreams, even as he uses anything else?