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Why Our Dreams May Tell Stories As We Sleep

I’ve always been fascinated by the tales we see behind our own eyes.
on Mar 10, 2021 · 7 comments

For my whole life I’ve been a careful student of my nighttime dreams. Some people don’t remember their dreams, and many don’t care. But I’ve always been fascinated by these little stories that play when the lights are off and our eyes are shut.

Of all the ways our brains could function while we’re unconscious, why present us with narratives? Why do even the strangest of these stories seem real to us? Some people say that our dreams simply continue our daytime thoughts. But experts acknowledge these theories don’t account for the adventure stories we often enter.

Does God have a purpose for our dreams? I’m a big believer that fiction itself was his idea. So what can we learn from these vignettes of nighttime fiction?

Let me take you on a journey of three peculiar dreams that changed my life.

From night visions to daily decisions

“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

—Dominick Cobb, from Inception

Three years before I was born again, when my spiritual interests pointed me away from Christ, I started having dreams about being crucified.

Sometimes I was alone on a cross. At other times I was with someone else. In one dream, I was crucified on the sidewalk of my street. A few people I knew stopped by to express their disappointment. It made me cling tightly to the cross.

Of course, this imagery also haunted my waking hours.

Later when I heard the gospel, I felt gripped by the details of Christ’s suffering. My horrible visions of this were nothing compared to the real thing. Jesus chose out of love to die this way, and that fact cut me to the heart.

That night I became a Christian and never looked back.

During college another night, I dreamed of a person who knocked on my door, holding a Bible. The person quoted from Ecclesiastes 4:9: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.” Then this person closed the Bible and asked me, “How can they have a good return for their work unless they have the same work?”

I woke up understanding the message. At the time, I was sensing a call from the Lord to enter vocational ministry, perhaps overseas. But I also wanted to get married. This dream convinced me to wait to marry someone who shared the same calling. Eventually, I did.

A few years into our marriage, I shared with Naomi another disturbing dream. This was one of those super-long dreams after which you feel you’ve been out for years, and you’re not quite sure you’ve returned to reality (like what happens to Inception’s Cobb and Mal when they fall into Limbo). During this dream, I became addicted to the drug ecstasy. The story played out as a slow process, involving repeated trips to a nightclub. Then my life unraveled. I tried to quit the drug, went through withdrawal, and eventually found a recovery program. As I started to piece my life back together, I looked back with regret at those first experiments with drugs.

I woke up. This tale really troubled me, because it felt like a warning. I’ve never done drugs nor felt tempted to abuse them. But this dream made me fear this destructive trap.

A few years later, I broke two ribs. Standard painkillers weren’t an option for me, so the doctor prescribed a powerful opioid. My pharmacist, however, told me this drug was only one step less addictive than cocaine. He told me to research “[drug name] ruined my life.” I read stories of normal people who had descended into madness. Still, I was suffering a lot of pain, and couldn’t decide what to do.

Finally, Naomi threw away the prescription opioid. Looking back, I believe this moment was a fulfillment of all three dreams.

God works with his people’s dreams in the Bible

Now, were any of these dreams truly prophetic? I don’t know. But I do see God’s grace surely at work through them.

It’s incredible to think how the Bible records the Lord directly working through people’s dreams. Scripture records twenty-one dreams and many other visions. Here are my favorites:

  • In the Old Testament, dreams warned Joseph to prepare for both personal and national disaster—both his dreams and others’ dreams.
  • Solomon spoke directly with God in a dream, and asked for wisdom.
  • In the New Testament, dreams persuaded Joseph not to divorce Mary, to flee to Egypt as a new father, then later to return to Israel.
  • A dream persuaded Peter to preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Gentile centurion who feared God.
  • God’s dream persuaded Ananias to help Paul, sworn enemy of the Church.

God expected all these people to make major life decisions based on information they received through dreams or visions. My responses to my own dreams also changed my life’s direction. If I hadn’t had those dreams, or responded differently, it’s scary how differently events could have played out. (For example, some or all of my children wouldn’t even exist.)

Whatever the source for those hyper-real moments, I know God works all things together for my good (Romans 8:28). And I need not wait for dreams to show the right path. His word already lights that way. Dreams are just one way he can get my attention.

Can we decide to sin in our dreams?

“They say we only use a fraction of our brain’s true potential. Now, that’s when we’re awake. When we’re asleep, we can do almost anything.”

—Dominick Cobb, from Inception

What about choices we make within dreams? Are we morally accountable for these?

We know from the Sermon on the Mount that God holds us responsible for our thoughts. Jesus told us that hatred is like mental murder, and sexual fantasizing is a form of adultery. Our imaginations are powerful and sometimes deadly. So what if we play out sinful actions in the landscape of our dreams?

This gets tricky. By definition, we are not conscious while asleep. Dreams might resemble a scripted program, like a video game cutscene. But that’s not always right. If you’ve ever had a lucid dream, you know you can take control of the script—and you might even make conscious decisions. Solomon’s own dream, in which he consciously interacted with the Lord, might be one example of this.

Have you ever woken up feeling guilty? Ashamed? Fearful of getting caught, until you realize it was all an illusion? If so, what do these lingering feelings tell us?

All I know is that I’ve seen an ugly side of myself in dreams in which I made choices I never would in real life—at least I hope not. Sometimes God must show us harsh truths about how badly we need him. Maybe he uses dreams to do this.

In dreams we can pray to connect with our Creator

Dreams are much like the fiction that we read or watch. They’re all the mind’s flight simulator, or like our moral and spiritual testing laboratory. We are testing our decisions to see whether they will lead to a better life.

Clearly we may also experience divine intrusion into the human subconscious. We don’t know how often God may do this in our daily lives. But back in college, thanks to a suggestion from two dorm friends, I adopted a practice. I ask God to enter my dreams. Or at least to work through them for my good. We’re asleep for a third of our lives, so why not invite God to meet us there in the stories our brains tell us?

What’s a dream that you’ve never forgotten, that had a significant impact on you? How do you see God at work through your dreams?

Chief engineer Zackary Russell is a Fightin’ Texas Aggie and proud member of Generation X-Wing. After conquering the Oregon Trail, he traveled to Hyrule and the Island of Myst. His heart for the nations led him into a ministry for international students, where he works as a videographer. He writes science fiction, and is the producer and co-host of the Fantastical Truth podcast. He lives in Texas with his wife and four children. His digital home base is zackaryrussell.com.
  1. Elisabeth says:

    You shared some incredible testimonies here! I love how God wooed you in your dreams before you even came to faith. I’m still not sure what my own dreams of infiltrating a barbarian tribe to rescue my coworkers or fighting orcs with Uhtred of Bebbanburg mean, but dreams are definitely fascinating.

  2. Marian Jacobs says:

    These are really powerful stories. Lately I’ve noticed a lot of my best story and article ideas pop into my head right before I’m conscious. I also LOVE the idea of praying for God to enter my dreams. I think this is something I can also pray for my kids before bed.

  3. Great story, thank you! If you haven’t read the book An Experiment with Time, I would recommend it. Sounds like it would be a book you would greatly enjoy.

  4. I had a dream that the world was ending (this was years ago). I was driving with my family in the car. And I was panicking, desperately trying to find a safe place. Meteors were falling from the sky, ones the size of the car itself. It felt hopeless. Right before our car was crushed, I prayed, “God, take us home!” The meteor fell on us. I felt a rush of warm air followed by peace.
    I can’t recall what was happening in real life around that time, but I’ve never forgotten that dream. I’ve had plenty of nightmares, but though this started out like one, it didn’t feel like it by the end.

    • That sounds intense! But it’s always interesting when we think to pray in our dreams, and it’s especially cool how that changed the ending of the dream for you.

    • I had a dream similar to this once – my sister and I were on a motorcycle, she was driving and I was behind her and we were racing away from a city and then I saw a nuclear bomb hit the city and knew we weren’t far enough away to survive. I turned my face away, hugging my sister and mentally threw myself into Jesus’s arms. There was no fear, just surrender, and then I felt the blast wave and light and woke up. It’s the only time I ever “died” in a dream (usually I wake up as I float/fall into the sky or hover just out of reach of the bad guys) but I’ve never forgotten that moment of surrender and peace.

What say you?