Part 2 of a Series About Bad Dreams and Nightmares
For Part 1 click here
Grantley, I had a discussion yesterday with Rick, a church elder. The subject of unwelcome dreams came up – dreaming of doing something sinful that you would certainly say no to in real life.
Rick said he made this suggestion to a group of men:
If you have an unwanted dream, or a nightmare, re-live the dream in your mind – but change the outcome.
For instance if you dream you are being chased by a vicious monster, when you are awake, visualize yourself turning the tables on the monster and overpowering him. This message will go down into your subconscious.
If in your dreams you are seduced by a beautiful woman; when you are awake and go over the dream in your mind, visualize yourself as not only resisting her advances; but presenting her with the gospel. This message will go down into your subconscious.
Rick’s idea is not new. Many psychologists recommend it because they have found it very effective. I presume the idea has been around for much longer than modern science. More than just a good idea, however, I think it is a God idea. What affirms this to me is the experience of a close friend, Christine, who is frequently harassed by upsetting dreams. No human had mentioned to her the above strategy for responding to unwanted dreams. I respect her ability to hear from God and she is convinced that God personally taught her this approach.
Although I agree with Rick’s principle, however, I question the wisdom of daydreaming about spending long witnessing to a seductive person. The danger is that it keeps one thinking of having close interaction with her. Even spending long praying for her salvation has unexpected hazards. Superficially, intercession seems both commendable and safe, but I know of nothing more powerful in eliciting feelings of love towards someone than praying for her.
Nurturing feelings that are the opposite of attraction – a degree of disgust towards what you find desirable about her – might prove helpful. For example, if you felt physically attracted to her in the dream, visualize in a dreamlike way her appearing without skin. Your motivation in doing this would not be to dishonor the person but to counter lust, since lust is truly dishonoring to both her and to God, and to anyone you or she should be faithful to.
If you are married, another counter measure is to daydream about immediately turning your back on the person and in your fantasy – even if it is not practical to do it immediately in reality – locating your marriage partner and finding him/her exceedingly desirable.
I suggested that Helen e-mail Christine for her response to Rick’s idea. Christine replied:
When dreams freak me out I have learned to tell myself a story, based on elements of the dream, but turning it into something positive. Sometimes I look to God and actually go back to sleep and re-dream what I had just dreamt but this time with a comforting or uplifting outcome. Other times I remain awake but craft an appropriate daydream. I let myself feel the fear or pain and then I win over it. Sometimes I need Jesus’ help (he is an awesome storyteller, by the way) in creating the best storyline for my imagination to follow.
Sometimes in my counter-dream God rescues me. Sometimes I switch the whole dream around so that I am no longer chased but I’m helping someone else who is being chased. I become the hero instead of the victim.
I learned this approach from God. It is part of taking back what the enemy tried to take or has stolen from me.
Thank you for explaining this, Christine. What frustrates me most is when I wake up able only to recall one element of the dream. I am aware of my emotional reaction to the dream, but I have no idea of the theme of the dream. I can’t “process” the dream because I haven’t got enough information.
Here’s a recent example. A beautiful woman, wearing an evening gown was sitting down, facing away from me. That’s all I remember. But I was left with a feeling of deep sadness. The word “rejection” comes to mind. Even as I write this, tears are welling up. The woman does not remind me of anyone I know.
Helen could imagine the woman turning around and greeting Helen warmly, praising her, embracing her, proudly introducing her to other people, and so on.
However, re-scripting does not lower the immense value of dream interpretation. A Christian friend of Helen, gave her this interpretation:
That beautiful woman in the evening gown is you!
You are seeing the back of yourself (the past behind you) as you once were in your younger years – those days gone by. There is definitely a sorrow (and a sense of grieving or grief at times) associated with moving into our Golden Years, making many necessary changes, adjustments, health concerns and limitations, and so on, as we go from what used to be, to accepting what is today.
You certainly are still that very beautiful woman in the evening gown in spirit, even today. If the word “rejection” comes to mind, then perhaps you are rejecting some facet of aging when awake. Remember that with each passing year, we gain more wisdom in life. We sure didn’t have much wisdom when we were wearing evening gowns in our youth!
With this interpretation, re-scripting is still worthwhile because Helen needs to embrace both the past and the present. But what if we can recall nothing of the dream, but only the emotion? Certainly we should pray about it and ask for revelation but Christine explained to Helen how we can still apply re-scripting:
You can use the feeling as the basis for reversing any negative effect a dream may have. Fear is my big one. I wake up with it screaming at me. So I tell myself a story involving a scary situation. I’m trapped with other hostages. How do I fight? Do I use a gun and kill the enemy? I run different schemes through my mind.
Then I pray. Doing so makes me superior to the enemy. Through prayer I have hidden power. Jesus and I conspire. He whispers to me, “Not the gun. Use your faith.” Miraculously, there is a plane. Could I fly it and get the hostages out? No. Yes. No. The drama goes wild. I find myself on the edge, excited to know how this will unfold.
Then I connect with the Holy Spirit. Ah Ha! The Holy Spirit is the Master Source of knowledge. He and I team up. While the enemy isn’t looking, we slip out. He gives me calm assurance and helps me fly the plane.
My real life challenges are not as daunting as this situation that Jesus and I just won over. Hey, every situation or feeling is smaller than God and as long as it is smaller than God, I win.
Sometimes I release the feelings that haunt me. As a child I was frequently beaten without reason. The accumulated emotional damage was so great that I am still healing from it. Once, I re-lived the feelings of being beaten but in my fantasy I was beaten for something that I chose to be whipped for, such as not denying God or not revealing my best friend’s secret. I cried as I re-lived the pain, but this time I had chosen it. Instead of being overwhelmed by bewildered shame, there was purpose in the pain. In fact, it was heroic. This empowered me to own the feelings and thus empowered I could hand them to God. Maybe this is just a mind game, but it has been a huge help to me.
I suggest that as soon as you become conscious of your dream, invite God into it. Ask him what it means, ask him to guide its outcome or guide the re-dreaming. Timing this as early as you can might possibly help train yourself to eventually invite God into your dream while you are still dreaming. This might allow you to experience divine intervention in your dream before it turns nasty. (I recall hearing of one scientific study of dreams in which it was demonstrated that unpleasant dreams usually begin mild and become increasingly disturbing.)
I cannot say with certainty, but I suspect that the closer we are to being in a dream state when having the counter-dream, the more effectively it might speak to our subconscious, the deepest, least accessible part of us. Christine mentioned that she actually sometimes goes back to sleep soon after her dream, asking God to help her re-dream it positively, and he does. Even if it is the next night or even later, if you think it likely that a dream will recur, I suggest you rehearse a good outcome to the dream just before you drift off to sleep. Try to imagine it vividly and especially focus on the feelings of triumph and empowerment that the good ending generates. That should increase the likelihood that the good ending will be incorporated into the dream when you sleep.
If you have a different dream, however, in which God gives you a revelation, it is important to force yourself awake and record the dream. Most people find that if they do not do this, the revelation is lost, despite them at the time feeling convinced that the dream is so memorable that they could never forget it.
My infamous common sense – otherwise known as lazy presumptions not based on biblical revelation – tells me that if a dream is from God he would not let us forget it. But I’m wrong again. It is a divine principle taught in so many Scriptures that the person to whom much is given, much is required. This also applies to the person to whom revelation is given. God expects us to treasure and nurture every speck of revelation that he gives us and the more faithfully we do this, the more he will entrust further revelation to us.
Proverbs 6:9-11 How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
This divine principle applies not to just to material poverty but to spiritual poverty, and it applies literally to sleep if we are lazy about recording (by voice or writing) the contents of a dream from God. It has been suggested that recording dreams in the present tense aids recall. Remaining still after waking is also thought to help recall. Perhaps as soon as possible recall the details of the dream while not moving and try to impress it upon your mind, then immediately roll over to grab your means of recording the dream. Use of a radio alarm is not recommended as the distraction of the voice or song would tend to push away the memory of the dream.
When pondering the symbolism of dreams, few of us stop to consider that what terrifies us in a dream might represent something good. It is tragically common for people to live miserable, impoverished or shallow lives because they fear change or fear failure or even fear success. We can fear witnessing, fear a doctrine that is actually liberating, or reject a call of God on our lives because of fear of public speaking. Some people fear dentists or medical examinations when caving into that fear could greatly increase their suffering. Fear of exams can give students bad grades. Lovers can miss lifelong happiness because of fear of commitment or fear of rejection. A fear of job interviews can damn someone to wasting his life in a low-paid, unfulfilling job. I could go on but hopefully this is enough to prove that in some area of our lives most of us are probably running in fear from something that if embraced would be a great blessing.
So if something terrorizes us in a dream, let’s not be too hasty to send it fleeing. Certainly, turn on it and take control. Command it to freeze. But lest you be turning away a blessing, ask God to reveal its identity before deciding whether to chase it off or embrace it.
If it is an enemy, we must affirm our full authority. Think twice, however, before getting brutal. Most of us are far too conditioned by worldly rage. Consider whether it would be better for your long-term serenity, self-control and Christlikeness to choose a non-violent means of banishing your foe.
A friend of mine has mastered what I used to think was impossible: the ability to abort unwanted sexual dreams by rebuking spiritual attack while still asleep. He reached this point only through much time and effort and by refusing to give up despite many failures. For him, the key elements were prayer, purity and practicing the presence of God. He persisted in daily specific prayer against unwanted dreams. He kept resisting lust during his waking hours. He did his utmost to maintain uninterrupted fellowship with God throughout the day and kept impressing upon his mind the intensity of God’s love for him and the power that the Christ resident within him has over any evil he might encounter. For relevant Scriptures, see Our Power Over Demons.
Prayer was obviously significant, but my friend’s disciplined efforts while awake were also critical, because our habitual thought life ends up influencing both our dreams and our immediate, unthinking reaction to crises. For a little more detail about his experience, see How I Learnt to Resist Sin and Evil in My Dreams.
Lucid dreaming is simply dreaming while you are aware that it is merely a dream. In occult practice this can be exploited to take the dream into ungodly realms but as Christians we can use it to rebuke evil and “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) even while we sleep.
Speaking, walking, toilet training, and so very many other abilities that as adults we take for granted, originally took us enormous effort to master. The same is true for spiritual things such as faith, self-control and practicing God’s presence. As my friend discovered, gaining control of one’s dreams while asleep is no exception. We want everything to be as easy as a lazy prayer but reality is such that almost everything in the Christian life takes much effort and persistence despite many failures before we get good at it. This is our opportunity to express our love for God. Yes, occasionally God gives us an instant, miraculous breakthrough, but that will always be the exception. If it wasn’t easy for Jesus in Gethsemane sweating over doing God’s will, it won’t be easy for us who must take up our cross and follow him.
We have noted that recording dreams as soon as possible after waking (even in the middle of the night) is of immense value to anyone taking seriously the Bible fact that God can sometimes speak to us through dreams that could easily be dismissed as being natural. Fortuitously, keeping a dream journal is also considered by many advocates of lucid dreaming to be a significant first step towards exerting conscious control over one’s dreams.
They also suggest that as one is drifting off to sleep to focus on a determined resolve to recognize when one is dreaming.
“Pinch me to see if I’m awake,” is a common saying. Occasionally, pinching oneself when asleep can feel normal, but there are forms of reality testing that can help people recognize that they are actually in a dream. For one’s own safety, it is not recommended that one use something potentially dangerous to test reality, such as stepping in font of a speeding car! For reality testing to become habitual during sleep, it is believed best to get into the habit of doing it regularly when awake. A common method is to regularly check your watch to see if time is progressing normally. Some people read a line or so from a book, look away and then re-examine the book to see if the text has changed. What works best will differ from person to person, and praying about it is sure to help.
If you discover you can defy gravity, move through solid objects, or breathe through your nose when you’ve pinched it closed with your fingers, it’s pretty safe to assume you are dreaming. Likewise, if a movie star starts flirting to you.
A possibility to be alert to is thinking that you have awakened when you have merely dreamt that you have woken up. This could lead, for example, to someone supposing they are in seeing a demon in real life when they are merely dreaming they are seeing one. On the other hand, one might have awoken and unable to move and think this is the influence of a demon when it is just a natural phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. When dreaming, a part of the brain prevents the body from responding to signals from the brain. This is necessary to prevent actual bodily moments corresponding to what you are doing in your dream. Sometimes this mechanism can be triggered when a person is awake – especially if one has just woken – thus causing bodily paralysis as if the person were dreaming. Since sleep paralysis most affects the major muscles, it is suggested helpful in breaking the paralysis to start by moving minor muscles such as swallowing or wriggling one’s toes.
In the hands of the indescribably good Lord who always leads us in triumph, could bad dreams turn out to be a precious blessing for which we will be forever grateful?
Disgusting dreams are no exception to the astounding fact that God is so good and powerful that he works all things – even the most vicious satanic plots against him and us – together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). A careful reading of Scripture reveals that trials achieve so much in us and for us that we should not merely rejoice in spite of trials but rejoice because of trials (Scriptures). The fearsomely powerful Lord is so able to outwit evil that, when handled God’s way, even such ugly spiritual attacks as severe temptation end up proving surprisingly beneficial to us (for more, see The Unique Value of Trials and Temptation).
A friend of mine who, while asleep, has suffered a vast number of demonic attacks– and has also had victories over them – says that he always claims protection over himself through the blood of Christ before he sleeps. He adds, however, that he thinks God sometimes allows us to experience demonic attacks so that we can know how important our service to him is to the spirit world.
Christians have always had the Bible and always had a supernatural God who reveals himself and his secrets, and yet the great tragedy is that most Christians follow the non-Christian world so closely that we tend to fall into whatever blindness and prejudices afflict the rest of society. Valuable knowledge has at times been attained and then lost again to most of humanity. For example, the ancient Greeks knew that the world was round and even calculated earth’s circumference but this knowledge was largely lost for centuries. Something similar applies to understanding dreams. Not only the Bible’s faith heroes, but even their pagan contemporaries, such as idol-worshipping foreign kings, recognized dreams as a most valuable source of wisdom. Many centuries later the value of dreams became underrated when secular society foolishly began to limit itself almost exclusively to what could be examined by the physical sciences. Gradually, the number of non-Christians discovering the value of dreams is again increasing, but it at first seems unbelievable that praying, Bible-reading Christians should have ever missed it.
Further thought reveals the obvious reason. Consider the massive chunk of our lives devoted to secular education and secular entertainment, and the much smaller portion devoted to time with God and his Word. Even the Christian teaching we receive (including my teaching) is from people who have likewise been profoundly influenced by worldly views.
An upsetting dream is like an open wound that makes us tender and vulnerable. How we treat it will inflame it or soothe it; infect it or speed its healing. To focus too much on merely eliminating unpleasant dreams, however, is to be like someone who would rather pop pain pills than do anything to check if his appendix is about to burst.
An alarming dream is literally an alarm. Alarms are designed to be annoyingly unpleasant simply to get our attention and impress upon us that things are not as okay as we suppose and that if we do not attend to something or seek help, things will get seriously worse.
Alarms are never pleasant or convenient but if you heed them they could spare you enormous problems, perhaps even save your life. So when you have a disturbing dream, courageously seek God, not just so that you get a pleasant sleep but so that the cause can be fully dealt with and your entire life can be taken to a new level.
We began this series of webpages by noting that almost all dreams recorded in Scripture had an unpleasant side to them. So rather than pray that we never have unpleasant dreams, it would seem wiser to pray that Christ rule in our sleep as well as when we are awake, and that he cause us to receive maximum revelation and benefit from our dreams. By regularly praying this way we are refusing to leave to chance or evil spirits what enters into our dreams. We are using spiritual weapons to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
If you have any experience or insight of possible relevance to people suffering unpleasant dreams, I’d love to hear from you. Nothing will be published without careful consultation with you to ensure you are happy with the degree of anonymity provided. My e-mail address is email@example.com
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