Dreams are strange to me. I know there must be psychological and circumstantial reasons why I dream what I do. If I fall asleep thinking about a person or incident, often my dream(s) involve those elements. But not always. And sometimes my dreams have nothing to do with anything logical or any past experiences. Dream interpreters have been around for millennia—those who find intended meaning in dreams: dream journals, dream decoders, dream catchers. God has spoken through dreams in the past… even for eternally significant purposes. Even today there are stories of conversions in the deep parts of the world because God appeared to a man/woman in a dream and told them or showed them something. Those of us who aren’t Pentecostal are hesitant to affirm such ‘testimonies,’ but why? Do we not believe that God is sovereign and capable of preparing a dream for you and me? Yes, there are psychological reasons, and circumstantial reasons for our dreams, but nothing escapes the guiding hand of Yahweh.
Recently I had something of a nightmare.
But instead of dreading it upon waking up, I was curious and satisfied.
Here are two reasons you can try to appreciate your next ‘bad dream.’
ONE: The “Oh, so that’s how it works” Effect
When we are awake, we could talk days on the hypotheticals:
- What if… zombies started to overrun the world? Would you pack up and run? Would you grab a gun and kill? Would you buckle and hide? Would you accept your fate?
- What if… somebody broke into your house… what would you do?
- What if there really was a giant spider who found its way into your room?
- What if you got in a car crash with your loved ones?
Some of the more incredible ones (like zombies) are fun to discuss because if we’re honest, most of wouldn’t make it past the opening sequence in a movie, let alone be the last man (or woman) standing. But in our talking we are working with hubris and pride and incredulity.
Transpose the same event from dialogue into dreamland, and you get a different story. In your dream, where you assume that everything is reality, you respond to a situation as if you were in that situation. You aren’t telling your friends, “Oh—I would grab a sword and fight until my dying breath.” Instead… you are actually grabbing a sword or offering surrender as the case may be. It's the "Oh, so that's what I'd actually do" or the "Oh, so that's how that would work." Sure pride infests our dreams to some extent, and I may not actually be as skilled in par core as I like to dream, but the ultimate payoff of nightmares isn’t in “jump through the window, tuck and roll, et cetera, et cetera.”
It’s much more foundational than that. It reveals your character when hard pressed.
In the tough situations, do I care for loved ones or my own survival? Am I bold and haughty or am I sly and sneaky? Am I resourceful and creative? Am I quick or disbelieving? The "Oh, so that's how it works" is subservient to the greater knowledge: "Oh, so that's who I am." And that is very valuable. That shows us where we need to experience the grace of Christ in effecting righteousness.
Of course the very circumstances of your dream may reveal something about you too: how do you perceive life and the world? Is it kind of like a war? Like a dangerous (mis)adventure? Like a struggle to maintain family and friends? Like a monotonous drone with unexpected surprises? And how can your worldview shift to encompass everything God has told us about the world?
TWO: The Numinous
There’s a term in philosophy: numinous. People have used it in nuanced ways, but I’ll give you an acceptable generalization. The numinous is the confrontation of an overwhelming sense of spiritual dread: it is a fearful overcoming. It is a sense of inescapable ill fate.
I’m not sure who first said that horror genre can be party to the numinous in beneficial ways for the Christian, but I agree. In my Christian context, the Fear of the Lord, the trembling at his might and righteous judgment is sorely lacking. I know and her often that God is compassionate and loving and savior. And I need to hear it more than I already do. But I also need to know that God is a mighty tempest threatening to sink me below the deeps; that he is an uproarious earthquake who can swallow families whole; a King who will make war with the sword from his mouth. God will bend back the heavens and climb into the world to decimate wickedness. But I don’t hear that very often.
Horror stories try to revive this sense. I just read I Am Legend and a series of short stories by Richard Matheson. They fit into this horror genre, and they were absolutely excellent. And one thing they provided was a sense of numinous. The last man alive in the world is nightly threatened by the inescapable precipice of death. The spirit-doll is relentless in accomplishing his dreadful mission—nothing can stop it and the blade he wields. The sinister husband is wicked. The little girl cannot suppress the evil dominion of the dress.
And nightmares can do the same. They present you with a reality of dread, a sense of inescapable, insurmountable fear. Raw power whispers with serpentine lips, “You will fear.”
Nightmares can instill within us the forgotten knowledge of a mighty God of raw power. It can show us again that as enemies of God, we were children of wrath and fear, but in his adoptive care we are utterly loved. It can give us a fear of disobedience lest we come under the crushing arm of the God who speaks galaxies into existence, who limits tsunamis, and relaxes tornadoes.
Thanks be to Christ Jesus who is God the Son, for his love casts out our fear of judgment and replaces it with a solace of his love. His righteousness replaces our ineptitude and gives us hope.