On Spiritual Dreams

Today I met up with my dear friend, Reza*, a believer from an unengaged people group who came to faith as a refugee in the US. He shared with me a part of his story that I had never heard before.

“I was recently reading in the Old Testament,” he told me as we sat at a sunny table in a local Louisville coffeeshop. The Black Lives Matter and rainbow pride flag stickers were visible on the glass door just over his shoulder.

“And I read the part about the lion and the lamb and the leopard and the goat lying down together.”

“And a little child shall lead them…” I added. “That’s Isaiah.”

“That’s right, yes, it was Isaiah. I hadn’t read this part of the Bible before, but it helped me make sense of the dream I had right around when I believed.”

“How so?”

“Well, a part of my dream had to do with all these kinds of animals being at peace with one another, like leopards and goats, just like Isaiah describes. In my dream I was telling people about how good this was, but until recently I didn’t know this was an image from the Bible.”

I smiled as Reza described this discovery to me, then told him what I was smiling about.

“I’ve had a good number of friends tell me just what you are telling me now. That imagery or language in a dream they had from around the time they believed later proved to be from the Bible. None of them had read that part of the Bible before they had the dream.”

“Really?”

“My friend Adam* dreamed about Jesus giving him a white stone with something written on it. He hadn’t read Revelation 2 yet, where Jesus says that to the one who conquers he’ll give a white stone, with a new name written on it.

“Then there’s Henry*,” I continued, who had Jesus speak to him in his mother tongue and call him, ‘My son,’ before telling him, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal things.’ This is a sentence from Proverbs 25, which Henry had never read. It blew his mind when we showed him the verse, word for word what he had heard in his dream.

“Or my friend Hama*, who leaned over to me the first time we took communion and told me that he’d done this before. I told him that no, this was definitely his first time. ‘No,’ he pushed back, ‘I did this with Jesus, in a dream, the night you told me you thought I was already a believer in Jesus. He gave me some bread to eat and something red to drink.'”

Including Reza, these four close friends of mine, all believers still persevering in their faith, had independently experienced a very similar thing. As new or almost-believers they’d had dreams in which they saw or heard specific language and imagery – only to later have the hair on the back of their neck stand up as they realized it was a clear quote or allusion to a passage of scripture as yet unknown to them. The effect, of course, was a sober excitement that God really was at work in their lives – and a deepened amazement at God’s word.

“You know, it’s a little weird to talk about this stuff with believers here,” Reza admitted. “It freaks some people out.”

I nodded, “Yeah, a lot of our Western churches either say things like this don’t really happen, or they make it the center of everything and get obsessed with it.”

“And then people feel pressure to fake it,” said Reza, shaking his head.

One of the baristas with bright blue hair and piercings cleaned the glass door behind Reza as we squinted in the bright afternoon sunshine. An American guy was sitting at a table close behind me. I hoped he was listening in on our conversation, since he would easily be able to hear Reza’s confident, accented voice. Reza always manages to leave secular Westerners a little confused and tongue-tied as he winsomely and boldly shares his faith in Christ. Iranian refugees who choose to follow Jesus and become faithful Baptists don’t exactly fit the cultural narrative.

After a short pause, I continued,

“One of the things I appreciate about Middle Eastern and Central Asian churches is that things like dreams are neither ignored nor obsessed over. They are common enough in the testimonies of solid believers to be held in a more balanced way. It’s interesting, actually. Western Christians, even evangelicals, used to have spiritual dreams and write about them. A little-known fact is that the history of the Southern Baptist Convention is itself connected to a dream about Jesus. A pastor named Shubal Stearns moved from the north to South Carolina to plant churches, specifically because he had a dream where he claimed Jesus told him to. His work led to the formation of the Sandy Creek Association, which is kind of where it all began for the history of the SBC.”

Reza and I continued to talk for a good while longer, ranging over topics that the progressive coffee-sipping patrons around us likely found bizarre, and hopefully interesting. It’s hard for me in some ways, being back in the states for this season. But I love spending time face-to-face again with this brother.

Reza is a member of a SBC church, though one of the minority of churches in that denomination which happen to be continuationist in theology. Yet even then he finds it hard to be open with American Christians about some of his experiences. Most SBC churches would be cessationist, and leaders such as Al Mohler (SBC) and John Macarthur (Nondenominational Baptist) have publicly said they don’t believe God uses dreams in a supernatural or revelatory way. Personally, I would very much like to get these men in the room with the many (often Reformed) Baptist missionaries working with Muslims overseas who come across credible accounts of spiritual dreams on a regular basis. It is one thing to dismiss third or fourth-hand accounts. It is quite another to see your close friend who has been an enemy of Christ shaking in front of you because you are showing him a Bible verse for the first time, one which Jesus quoted to him in a dream. Or to grapple with the accounts of your very own church’s missionary, whom you have affirmed and sent out and you implicitly trust. Better yet, let’s get leaders like these to take a missions sabbatical, where they can be six months on the ground in places like Central Asia and hearing and seeing things first-hand.

Experience does not dictate theology. But experience can reveal blindspots in our theology, places where our categories have been off, or places where we have been unknowingly operating out of tradition, cultural assumptions, or our own experience or lack thereof. Consider a Christian who dismisses the reality of depression as an unbiblical category and the kind of change in his theological lenses that takes place when his own wife descends into a long and dark postpartum depression. Or how simplistic theologies of suffering undergo trial by fire when we ourselves face the deepest kinds of pain. Young singles’ theologies of marriage and parenting often begin with great gusto, only to be torn down and rebuilt as the years pass and their families grow. Many a missionary has quietly dismissed the demonic and spiritual warfare only to find their theologies in these areas in need of some renovation when they move overseas.

I think this is what is going on with Western conservative evangelicals trying to make sense out of Muslims or former Muslims having dreams about Jesus or about God’s word. Because of our own psychologized environment and very modern non-dreaming experience in the West (for comparison, read about Patrick or Caedmon), we begin as skeptics and struggle to have a category for spiritual dreams – unless we are forced to work through the issue because our own Muslim neighbors are coming to faith and having spiritual dreams and literally risking their necks to follow Jesus. At this point we find ourselves in a comparable position to the man born blind in John 9, putting the theological pieces together as we try to make sense of something very surprising and supernatural which we have just experienced, but which the leaders in our community say isn’t really happening or isn’t really something from God.

This blog post is not the place to spell out a robust theology of dreams, even if I were able to do so this evening (which I am not, though if anyone needs a PhD thesis, I think a serious Reformed attempt at making sense of dreams in church history and the global church is needed). But in summary, the canon of Scripture is closed. God does not reveal to nor inspire believers in this age as he did for the apostles and prophets of old (Heb 1:1-2, Rev 22:18). Instead, we have the inerrant and sufficient apex of God’s revelation in the Bible itself (2 Pet 1:19). The Holy Spirit illuminates God’s written revelation for us to understand it and grants us wisdom to faithfully apply it to the questions and experiences of our age (John 16:13-14, Eph 1:17). Yet he also actively leads and encourages us in ways that always uphold the unique place of God’s inspired word – and bring it to bear on our unique life situations (Rom 8:14, Gal 5:25). It is in the Holy Spirit’s ministry of the personal piercing of our hearts with God’s word and wisdom that I would place contemporary spiritual dreams (John 16:7-10).

Believers do not feel that the sufficiency of God’s word is threatened when they are in their waking minds and biblical language or imagery arrests them and stirs their affections anew, providing specific encouragement or guidance. Why would we be so afraid or surprised that this might occasionally happen in our sleeping minds, or in the sleeping minds of those the Spirit is in the process of calling to salvation? Why have we roped off the dreaming neurons and synapses of the brain as qualitatively different (i.e. miraculous and revelatory in an inspired sense) in the way that we have when we at the same time claim that the waking brain is a natural and providential process? It seems our categories might need some tweaking, if only for the sake of consistency. Is the Spirit not indwelling and working in the mind asleep as he is in the mind awake?

All throughout scripture we see that God uses dreams in the lives of his people (Gen 31:11, 1 Kings 3:5, Matt 2:19). Dreams of encouragement and guidance are one category of spiritual dream that are clearly happening in the life of Paul, for example (Acts 16:9, Acts 18:9). Peter tells us that these are the last days, when it is promised that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved – and that some men will dream dreams (Acts 2:17). Dreams, however, are not to be relied upon, but tested (Jude 8, 1 John 4:1, 1 Thes 5:21). If in line with the truth, they are to be accepted as spiritual and good, as just another part of the Spirit’s active ministry in the lives God’s people. We need a nuanced approach to this topic that threads the needle right, recognizing that dreams can be abused and that they can also be spiritual and helpful.

While I am a qualified continuationist*, I’m not altogether sure that Muslims having dreams about Jesus or about biblical language or imagery need be a Shibboleth between cessationists and continuationists. In fact, on the mission field the acceptance of legitimate spiritual dreams by missionaries in both camps already exists, not unlike the agreement in both camps that God still supernaturally heals sometimes when we pray for the sick. It is in what we could call the supernaturalist overlap between cessationists and continuationists that I would place the reality of these dreams. Further, I would argue that both camps already hold to a greater ongoing revelatory miracle happening daily – the new birth (2 Cor 4:6). The new birth is a greater revelatory miracle which in no way threatens a closed canon. If then the Spirit works in this greater supernatural way on a daily basis, why not in the lesser way of giving occasional spiritual dreams?

I always appreciate the chance to wrestle with areas where the historical or global church help us to see our particular blindspots and cultural/generational assumptions, places where we find ourselves strangely out of step with those who have gone before us or with our evangelical brothers and sisters around the world. Spiritual dreams are one of these places. I for one believe we need some more conversation regarding these dreams in order to account for the disparity that is currently there between the regular spiritual experience of those from a Muslim background and their brothers and sisters in the West.

At the very least, we need to listen to our fellow believers, like Reza, and try not to get freaked out by their testimonies if they include a dream about Jesus.

*By qualified continuationist, I mean that I am a continuationist by conviction, but that I find in the scriptures, in church history, and in my own experience that seasons of the more miraculous gifts and miracles ebb and flow inconsistently according to God’s sovereign and mysterious plan. There are periods like those of Moses and Elijah/Elisha and the generation of the apostles when they seem to come in downpours, then long periods, not unlike a cloudless Middle Eastern summer, where the showers stop and the ordinary means of grace are all that is provided by the Spirit. Because he is the sovereign Spirit and free to give or not give at his good pleasure, I don’t resonate with the pressure some continuationists put on themselves for these things to function weekly in every era, nor the critique by some cessationists that the gifts among contemporary reformed continuationists seem too quiet, small, and ordinary to be legitimate. I’m not sure exactly what to call this position, but perhaps something like punctuated continuationism would be getting close to the mark.

*names changed for security

Photo from Wikimedia Commons