Most people I talk to don’t know how to interpret the dreams they have during the night. With a smile or laugh they tell me their crazy dream, not thinking it has any significance. I’ll laugh with them at the funny surface meaning, but then I’ll often reply, “Would you like help to understand your dream?”
In the Bible people knew that their dreams may be from God and so they listened carefully to their dreams as a source of guidance. When they didn’t understand the spiritual meaning of a dream then they’d seek the help of a discerning prophet of the Lord. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Gideon, Joseph the adoptive father of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and other Bible characters received guidance from God by listening to their dreams.
Most dreams are not prophetic, but still may be from God as an opportunity for greater self-awareness and discernment of God’s wisdom for your life. With normal nighttime dreams there are psychological and spiritual angles to understanding them. As John Calvin taught in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, knowledge of God and self are connected. Listening to your dreams is helpful for all of us and is especially important as part of psychotherapy or spiritual direction.
The Deeper Meaning of a Dream
Typically there’s stuff in your dreams that seems random. Your unconscious mind is pulling events from your day or your past to tell a story. The images and scenes are like a kaleidoscope that may be interesting or funny, but is probably confusing. This is why we tend to laugh off a dream or shrug our shoulders and move on. But underneath that surface level there are emotional meanings in these dreams and perhaps spiritual significance as well.
For instance, I dreamed that I had a penny in my hand and someone was trying to take it from me. So I ran away holding tightly to my penny! When I woke up my hand was in a fist and I was sweating! I literally looked in my hand to see if a penny was there! That was almost thirty years ago. It seemed silly until I reflected on all the financial pressure I was under, paying over $30,000 a year for Kristi and I to go through graduate schools in psychology (in the late 1980’s). Sharing my fearful emotions with Kristi and the Lord helped me.
Praying About Our Dreams
“The Spirit of truth” is at work deep inside our body and soul, praying earnestly to help us become more aware of reality, certainly of God’s presence and action, but also of our own inner self and experience (John 14:17, 16:13; Rom. 8:26). One way that God helps us to be more aware of reality is by using our dreams to help us pay attention to what he’s saying or what we’re experiencing.
This is a very important teaching about prayer and it relates to our dreams. The Spirit of Jesus is praying for us continually, but a lot of the time we don’t notice because we’re busy thinking about and doing other things with our conscious, rational mind. But to go to sleep we need to shut down our thinking and relax. This gives the Holy Spirit has more room to bring feelings, images, and ideas into our conscious awareness.
So Kristi and I ask the Lord to speak to us in our dreams and to help us interpret them.
T-TAQ: A Simple Method of Dream Interpretation
Many people who interpret dreams have elaborate systems for attributing mystical meaning to various symbols. I’m cautious about this approach. But dream interpretation isn’t just for prophets and psychologists. Anyone can learn how to better understand their dreams. The key is understanding the underlying emotions of your dream and relating these to your life and how God may be guiding you.
David Benner, a Christian psychologist and spiritual director, suggests a simple method of dream interpretation in his book Sacred Companions. The basic idea is to treat your dream as a story or narrative, like a movie to enter into. You’re seeking to understand the unconscious meaning, psychologically and spiritually. This is the T-TAQ Method of Dream Interpretation, using T-TAQ as an acronym.
You can do this verbally with a soul friend or by journaling. In either case, look to God to help you understand what he wants you to know about yourself. Going through these TTAQ steps is messy, even chaotic. You need to tell and re-tell your dream to remember it all, go deeper into the emotions, organize the story, and attend to it’s question. Then like creating art something beautiful and divine may emerge!
A story needs a title. If your dream was a Hollywood movie or a play at a theater, what would you call it? To start keep this top line blank. Speaking and/or writing out the other steps will help you come back and title it.
What is main point or storyline in your dream? Describe this in a phrase.
What are the affects or emotions that are going on for you in this dream? What are you feeling and experiencing in the different parts of the dream? Enter into the story and describe your experience in each part. You may feel anxious, scared, sad, angry, or ashamed. Whatever you feel, put words to it. You’re moving from the surface level of the dream to it’s deeper meaning.
What question is left unanswered in this dream? There’s going to be a point of tension in a dream, something that’s not resolved, something that doesn’t make sense. There might be more than one question, but write down one or two key questions about the dream. These are your discernment points. Hold these before the Lord and ask him to speak to you. Share your dream and question with a compassionate and discerning friend.
The Psychodrama Method of Dream Interpretation
Psychodrama is a group therapy technique that we used in the Minirth-Meir and New Life psychiatric hospital program I directed a number of years ago. The therapist helps a client who needs to help with a painful memory to bring each person from that memory into the room, using other clients in the group as actors and actresses. You can apply this with your dream to help you move deeper into the emotions (the “A” in T-TAQ) of your dream and re-work them. It’s often surprising how much insight you gain from this approach to dream interpretation!
Usually in a dream you are in the dream observing things or observing yourself. But in this method you’re treating every person in the dream as a part of you. The wisdom of this approach is that contrary to what you may think, usually your dreams are about you, not the people in your dream. So you’re going to enter into the dream’s narrative like you’ve been given a role to play in a movie. You become each person in the dream and describe your feelings. You can even do this with the objects in a dream. If there’s a car or a wall in your dream personify and put words to the experience.
From the storyline of your dream ask yourself, “What’s going on in my life where I feel what this person or object felt in my dream?” Then unpack your emotions in your actual life situations.
Emotions and Hearing God’s Voice
Most Christians don’t realize that understanding your emotions helps you to hear God’s voice. Of course, what God is saying and what you are feeling may not be the same thing! Feelings make wonderful servants, but horrible masters! God is God and your emotions are not. However, feelings are associated with thoughts and together they form the normal channel for how we hear the still, small voice of God.
If you’re blocking or repressing your emotions it’ll be much harder for you to connect intimately with God or hear his voice. For all of life, not just understanding our dreams, it’s imperative to have at least one soul friend, and ideally a few, that you can process your emotions with. Unpack your life experiences, using feeling words and asking for the listening and compassion that you need. As I often say, “Empathy is Oxygen For Your Soul.”
If You Don’t Remember Your Dreams
Some people tell me that they don’t remember their dreams. Often I don’t remember my dreams either, but if you never or rarely remember them you’re missing out. You’re more likely to remember your dreams if you’re getting enough sleep and if you want to remember them.
If you want to remember your dreams then pray before you sleep that God will help you remember your dreams. Then get a journal and put it close to your bed so you can write down your dream as soon as you awake. Rehearsing your dream in your mind right away in the morning and then telling it to someone will help you to remember it.
It’s especially valuable to pay attention to your dreams if you’re going through a difficult time or need to make an important decision. When you need special discernment and divine assistance you may feel that it’s worth interrupting your sleep to write down a dream or pray about it in the middle of the night.
I trust that the Spirit of Truth will help me to remember the dreams that are important for me to listen to and pray about.
Resolving the Conflicts in Significant Dreams
Just the fact that you remember a dream probably means that it’s more significant. But what really shows you that it’s significant is when it’s a reoccurring dream. Some people have the same dream for years. Another sign that a dream is is especially important to pay attention to is when you have vivid emotions in the dream.
For instance, throughout my twenties and into my early thirties I used to have flying dreams. Some people fly in their dreams and it’s a wonderful, happy experience, but my experience was miserable! I’d be flapping my arms furiously to fly away from some danger. I was very anxious, scared, and pressuring myself to flap harder to keep from falling! I woke up stressed out and exhausted.
I hated those dreams and just wanted them to go away! Instead, I listened to my dreams, sharing them with Kristi and praying about them. In psychotherapy I worked on my issues with anxiety, ambition, and presenting an ideal self. When I resolved the underlying conflicts in that dream I stopped having it.
David says, “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.” (Psalm 16:7) A practical way to cooperate with the wisdom of the Lord in our hearts is to memorize passages of Scripture and then meditate on them as you lay in bed before going to sleep or when waking during the night. It’s a way of building “Quiet Time” into your daily life. I do this every night.
Since I began an intensive program of memorizing paragraphs and chapters from the Bible and meditating on them at night I’ve found that sometimes the Spirit of Truth brings verses or related prayers into my dreams. Occasionally he even helps me to interrupt a dream and pray accordingly while I’m dreaming it!
Try An Experiment
The way we learn and grow spiritually is venture on God. We try something new, depending upon the gracious presence and action of the Lord to assist us, and then we notice what God does.
Here’s an experiment you can try tonight. Before you go to sleep pray, “Dear God, please speak to me in my dreams and help me to remember them. What do you want to say to me? What am I feeling that I’m not paying attention to? What are you trying to teach me about myself or my life?”
The little boy Samuel did this as he went to sleep. His prayer puts it nicely: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam. 3:9-10)