Why Do We Dream? Thinking Theologically About Our Unconscious Hours

I have often wondered about dreams. Why do we dream? What do our dreams mean, if anything? And specifically, how might Christians understand dreams in a way different from the world? So today I want to share some thoughts as I’ve pondered these questions. I can’t chapter and verse my thoughts or claim absolute truth on them. I’m just thinking theologically and personally here.

I have strange dreams. It’s always been the case, for whatever reason. I dream pretty regularly, and remember a good chunk of them when I wake up. I’ll spare you the details of my Alice-in-Wonderland-like experiences, but suffice it to say, as I’ve given it a lot of consideration, I would boil down and connect my dreams to two primary theological realities.

And before we begin, let me add how I am defining “revelation.” I believe that dreams are revelatory in the sense that they can reveal, or teach us, realities about life in God’s World. However, I do NOT believe that dreams are revelatory in the sense that God is “telling” us what to do in our lives or what decisions to make through our dreams. After all, you don’t want to choose a college, a job, a marriage partner, or make any other major life decision, based on a dream that could have easily been induced by a late-night snack or whatever you were watching on Netflix before you fell asleep, and somehow attribute that to the voice of the Sovereign of the Universe.

So what are the two realities that dreams can possibly make more clear and put on display? In my experience, dreams magnify the reality of my sin, and the reality of sehnsucht.

First, I think dreams are redemptive in that they can further reveal our sinful nature. Sometimes I have dreams where I say sinful things, or do sinful deeds. Things I would (hopefully) never do in real life. I’ve woken up shocked that I could dream that. And oftentimes, I can connect it to something I have watched, or a stressful experience I’m having in real life. But the points that stick out are these: 1.) I can sin even when I’m unconscious and my body is out of commission. If anyone wants practical evidence of the soul being a distinct entity from the body, there you go. There is a functioning “inner man” always at work, even when my physical body, or “outer man,” lies dormant. The body may lie dormant in sleep, but the soul does not. It is always alive and always active. In fact, it will never die, for even when our physical bodies cease to work, our souls will immediately be either with the LORD or away from the LORD, until the day when our physical bodies and souls are reunited forever. And because of the fact that “sin never sleeps,” it means that 2.) I am in need of a Savior even when I sleep, for I can still sin when my body sleeps. Sometimes we joke around that at least we know we’re not sinning if we’re sleeping. But due to dreams, that’s actually not true. There is still that corrupt part of me that can’t be controlled when I’m unconscious, and it comes out in my dreams. I need a Savior, even when I sleep. And I believe it’s appropriate to confess to God the ungodly things that we dream, for as much as we’d like to think we’re not responsible for it, it reveals the inner corruption that remains. And perhaps dreams can remind us that we do need to be careful what our eyes and ears behold in movies and TV if they find sinful expression through our dreams. So I’m thankful for dreams, because they remind me and show with greater clarity how much I am a sinner, and how much I need the righteousness of Jesus, whether I am awake or sleeping.

Second, I think dreams reveal an entirely different aspect of life than our sinful nature. And this will be hard to write about, because the topic itself somewhat defies description, and words are poor communicators. But I would summarize it by the German word sehnsucht, which doesn’t quite have an exact English translation, but carries the idea of “yearning; wistful longing.” And again, here I tread on the borders of something so hauntingly beautiful and humanly impossible to capture that I almost hesitate to speak at all, for words are insufficient.

Every once in a while, I will have a dream that is unique. I wake up and immediately want to go back to the dream, for in it, I felt something that I do not feel in normal life. It’s often a combination of unparalled beauty, along with feeling perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, and fully alive. The dreams are hard to describe. In fact, they’re more easily described by the feelings they evoke than the actual content of the dream. Yet, I’ll try. One of the dreams is standing on the beach at night next to the ocean. In my dream, I’m supposed to be in Ventura, CA, but when I wake up, I know that Ventura does not look like that, and I’ve never felt like that there. Almost as though my real experiences in Ventura were a pale shadow of the full beauty of Dream Ventura, which brought black-and-white to brilliant color. And I stood on the shore feeling perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, childlike, and fully alive. Another dream is just a brief snippet of remembrance…something about walking around in what is supposed to be Santa Barbara in my dream, yet when I wake up, I know it wasn’t Santa Barbara. For Santa Barbara doesn’t look like that in real life, and I’ve never felt in real life the way I felt in that dream. Perfectly at home, at peace, safe, whole, protected, happy, childlike, and fully alive.

And as I try to trace that experience, that dream, back to God, I come to the concept of sehnsucht. For my dream reveals that there is a deeper beauty and homier home than anything I’ve ever experienced in this world. And when I wake up, I want to go back to where I was. There is a yearning, a wistful longing, to feel the way I felt in that dream. And that, I believe, is a glimpse of what the new heavens and new earth will be like. For a moment in my sleep, the corruption of the world and my own heart slide away, and I feel and experience something entirely other-worldly. Like going home to a home I never knew I was estranged from. Like finally feeling the way we were originally created to feel, yet lost in the Fall. Like becoming fully myself, when I didn’t realize how fragmented and partial I was. When I wake up and try to grasp for it, it eludes me like a wisp of smoke vanishing into air. My fist grabs for it and it evaporates. I’m left with fuzzy and vague shadows of what it was. It’s the itch you can never quite scratch. But even though you can’t reach it, you know it’s real, and that someday you will experience it again. And as overwhelming as it seems, you will experience it forever if you are redeemed by Christ. I say it’s overwhelming because I honestly can’t imagine what it will be like to feel that completely safe and happy and awed and whole and real and alive all the time. It would be a system overload. My current body and mind couldn’t handle it. And perhaps that’s why we’ll need glorified bodies…not only ones that are free from sin ourselves, but ones that have the capacity to experience God’s glory and overwhelming beauty and unmitigated ecstasy without melting or exploding on the spot.

So in the end, everything goes back to God, even our dreams. And in the end, dreams (at least for me), highlight the two biggest realities of life in God’s world. First, the deep and pervasive horrors of sin (the Fall), and second, the hauntingly beautiful yet currently elusive unspeakable beauties of full holiness, God’s presence, absolutely restored humanity and earth (Redemption). And I, for one, can’t wait to go to my true and real home, become my true and real self, and be with my true and real God.

P.S. If God has encouraged and challenged you through this blog, would you consider spreading the word? Share your favorite posts on Facebook, tell a friend or two about Carried Along. I don’t advertise or promote the blog, so it only spreads when readers share! Thank you!

One comment

  1. Wow! Yes. That sehnsucht is what I believe is what Jesus wanted us to get in touch with because it leads us to the best news anyone has ever heard: we have a father in heaven. As I focus more and more on my sonship and his fathership my experience of sehnsucht is more frequent and consistent (in waking hours mostly)I have realized that much of what I was taught the gospel is was at best a distraction and at worst a diabolical deception to steal my heritage. Glad I read your piece.

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