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Dreams: Deeper Meaning, or…Not?

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What do you do when you wake from a troubling, or simply outlandish, dream? Is your first response to analyze everything about it, refusing to rest until you find out what purpose it held—what deeper meaning may be hiding within it? Sure, some dreams may be from God—may be His way of telling us something that’s going to happen, or something we need to do; this is, after all, not a foreign concept to Scripture.

This isn’t always the case, however, and I think we, as “spiritual people”, put on our hyper-spiritual thinking caps far too often for our own good—and the good of others, when analyzing our dreams. Just because I had a dream about a specific person being in danger, or even dying, does not at all mean that I should rush to meet that person for coffee and tell them they’d better be careful, or else. And just because I dreamed about a specific place—like Ireland, for instance—does not inherently mean God is calling me to move there; though, at the same time, I’m not saying that couldn’t happen….

I’ve had a lot of trouble with this throughout the years. Often after a strange and vivid dream, I would dissect it as long as possible (before going crazy), to see what God was trying to communicate with me. What I found was that, more often than not, this only caused confusion, and made me act, well, weird. The more I learned about this in a practical, and even scientific way, the more I was able to put the confusion behind me quicker, which, in turn, resulted in a greater level of peace and solidity in my relationship with God.

So what are dreams made of? A recent study by psychologists and brain scientists that aired on PBS called “What Are Dreams?” sheds some light on the subject. Without delving into too much detail, the program basically shows that dreaming is for the purpose of processing emotions, images, information, relationships, thoughts, challenges and so forth that we face in everyday life. It’s like our mind’s way of trying to organize and troubleshoot life’s occurrences in a much more relaxed state—a completely different way of processing information than when we are awake. (This is my summary; please follow this link to view the entire program: What Are Dreams?)

Several years ago, prior to the PBS program, I had heard something along the same lines—that dreaming is basically just our brains downloading, processing and organizing information from our daily lives. I heard this at a time when I was still struggling with my dreams, trying to understand them, trying to hear God through them. Well, upon learning this, I decided to put it to the test. Here’s what I did: every time I would have a vivid dream, no matter how strange or frightening, I would think about it for a few moments after waking, but instead of desperately trying to interpret what the dream meant in terms of spirituality, I would take a mental trek through the previous days (and weeks if necessary) trying to find the most dominant elements—people, places, things—in the occurrences therein.

Bingo! About 99% of the time, there they were. If I had a dream about a specific person that I hadn’t seen in a long time and thought, “Man, that’s weird; I haven’t seen them in a while, maybe God is telling me to talk to them about something,” I would stop and replay the previous day in my head. And sure enough, I had checked Facebook right before bed the night previous, and in scrolling through the News Feed, had briefly seen a picture, or post by them. It had stuck in my mind just long enough to pop back up in my dreams, as my brain was processing the information from the day.

I tried this with just about everything that stood out in my dreams. It was all there: something I had thought about, someone I had seen or talked to, a place I had seen in a movie, a phrase from a song that played in the background on my car stereo—it was all there.

So am I saying dreams have no deeper meaning or purpose than the automatic processing of random information? Not always, and sometimes, I believe, God definitely speaks to us through dreams. As a matter of fact, there have been times I have woken up thinking about someone I hadn’t seen in a while, and without a doubt, felt God nudging me to connect with that person—but in a much more subtle way than telling them I was seriously worried about their well-being.

From a more practically beneficial standpoint, as the study on the PBS program shows, dreaming is a vital part of processing and troubleshooting what happens to us from day to day. Again, I do not at all deny the power of a dream or vision from God—as stated before, it is something theologically sound—but how often do we, as Christians, immediately associate every peculiar dream with some deeper meaning, when it might merely be the result of a news article we read, a conversation we had, or a late night web surfing tangent.

My challenge is simply this: the next time you wake from a curious dream, try retracing your steps through the previous day(s) in your mind for a moment, looking to see if the main elements from your dreams are there, listing them off one by one—like a checklist. This may help to put your mind at ease and move forward more freely with your day. And it just might save that old friend of yours from some undue angst caused by an overly zealous, ominous doomsayer message.