Thursday, January 13, 2011

HT PsyBlog: the over interpretation of dreams--a short rumination on spiritualizing what may be mundane

the general commentary is that when people have dreams they ascribe greater significance to it than they would if they had thoughts or perceptions in any other setting. Someone has a daydream about a different job and they don't take it as seriously as they would a dream about having another job. Christians can look to any number of passages about dreams as evidence that dreams are a means of hearing from the Lord.

The most famous example of a person who had dreams in the Bible is Joseph. Joseph had dreams that he would one day rule over his relatives and he shared these dreams with his family. He was already the object of favoritism from Jacob and even his siblings Issachar and Zebullan (from the same mother) loathe him. Joseph is sold into slavery and eventually lands in an Egyptian prison for a crime he didn't commit. There he displays the ability to interpret dreams which Joseph ascribes to God. It is this last part that even many Christians often fail to consider. If you have a dream it does not necessarily mean anything and if it does mean something that meaning may be hidden from you. If it does mean something it does not make it from the Lord (all of Jeremiah 23, Deuteronomy 13).

I know of a few cases in which Christians have stated that God warned them of this or that in a dream. I do have some experience with dreams that seem to have spiritual significance but I am cautious about them because the heart is deceitful above all things. But I am also cautious because Christians can be overzealous to ascribe meaning to a dream that may, really, have a very natural explanation.

For instance I used to have dreams on a semi-regular basis that I was being attacked by demons that were out to kill me. This happened often enough that I became aware of the pattern in the dreams. I was also vividly aware that I was dreaming (more on this soon). So in my dreams where I was being attacked by demons I would rebuke the demons in the name of Jesus and one of two things happened: 1) I would wake up 2) I would find myself having a different kind of dream. About five years ago I finally got a primary care physician who put a few things together about my blood tests and my habit of dreaming in color and being able to tell I was dreaming--they all strongly suggested I had a sleeping disorder. The sleep specialist confirmed that I had not one but two sleeping disorders and I have been getting the usual treatment for those since.

All of this is to say that while I "could" have interpreted my recurring dreams of being attacked by demons trying to kill me as some sign that I was called by God to contend with principalities and powers that's never been what I wanted to do with my life in any way that would be any different from the usual experience of usual Christians who hear from God mostly through personal study of the scriptures. Instead of interpreting these recurring dreams as signs of some spiritual greatness I just treated them as unpleasant dreams that might or might not say anything more than that I was capable of lucid dreaming and it might be nice to not have that stuff. Since I got my two sleeping disorders treated dreams of being attacked by demons have vanished. Now I won't say there couldn't POSSIBLY be any spiritual component to such dreams but I don't presume a spiritual dimension to a dream simply because the dream involves a demon trying to kill me.

Now a "secular" thinker might propose that my dreams of demonic attacks didn't indicate that any demons existed that were trying to kill me in my sleep but that my body and brain functions detected that my life was in actual peril due to complications from a then-undiagnosed sleeping disorder. Because scripture does not prescribe any unusual or even inherent significance to dreams on the whole I don't see any conflict that ostensibly naturalistic explanation and the intra-dream pattern I noticed that any time I rebuked demons in the name of Jesus in my dream I either woke up or the demonic attack dream stopped. Fortunately after thirty years of just having horrible sleep I finally got my condition some treatment.

When we attempt to spiritualize physical conditions, and dreaming is a function of the brain, we can do irreparable damage to ourselves or others. One of the things I don't miss about having connections to the charismatic/Pentecostal movement is being in a culture that conflates the physical and the spiritual but errs on the side of the spiritual. Does someone have wild mood swings? Probably demons! Does someone feel depressed? Probably spiritual oppression and generational curses need to be renounced. Does someone have a strong sense of physical discomfort? It could be they are dealing with the palpable presence of principalities and powers.

... or it could be blood sugar issues. It could be the onset of a congestive heart failure episode. It could be a sign of clinical mood disorder. It could be the result of a massive accumulation of stress that causes dreams that reflect that stress back in a way that is informative but not (necessarily) a direct spiritual beacon from the Lord of hosts that something is about to go wrong in your church. These are not abstractions to me. One of my long-time friends was once a charismatic Christian and is now an atheist. He attributes most of his mountain-top spiritual experiences from his charismatic days as an indication of his long-ago diagnosed bipolarity (one of his relatives has it). I was the one who delicately but firmly suggested that given his family history that it was at least possible he had some neurological issues that could require medical attention.

There are many, many ways to use the Lord's name in vain and if we take the warnings in Jeremiah 23 and Deuteronomy seriously one of the most popular ways Christians could be tempted to take the Lord's name in vain is to say "I had a dream" and then presume that there is some deep spiritual content behind it. There may come a time when you have a dream that may really be from the Lord but it won't be a pleasant thing. You won't feel better about having had it and the contents of the dream will not make you feel better. Even if we suppose that the dream described in Daniel was a literary device employed for rhetorical effect it still wouldn't count as the kind of dream you pleasantly consider waking up from. Your wanting a dream to have spiritual significance might even be a reason you probably shouldn't consider it to have spiritual significance.

In some ways the unhelpful way to put things is that you don't really know something is a word from the Lord until it comes to pass. Before that time what you would ascribe to the Lord might be your own ambitions or anxieties or very literal physical symptoms of illness that you ascribe to the Lord because you want to imagine that you are bigger and more important than you really are. You are important enough that Christ died on the cross for your sins ... but not so important as to suppose that God will speak to you in dreams about what decisions you should make. IF you go by the precedent of dreams described in scripture then if the Lord gives you a dream it is likely to be a nightmare that warns you of a disaster that's coming that you cannot avert but that you can in some way prepare for ... if someone else is gifted by the Lord to explain your dream to you. Or you have just been told to take your family and leave the country so your child isn't killed. You get the idea.

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