Updated: Oct 7, 2019
In our household we have regular discussions about dreams. At the breakfast table the girls will often share the dreams that they had in the past night: funny dreams about their classmates’ clothing, strange dreams involving teeth, and scary dreams featuring snakes. We laugh together, try to give a plausible interpretation of what it all means, and then we carry on with our day. We try not take the dreams too seriously, or invest too much importance in them.
But the fact is, dreams can also be impure. Maybe you’ve had it where you wake up and you feel like you’ve actually done something wrong, even while you slept. In your dream you attacked someone, or you touched someone inappropriately, or you did some other evil thing that you’d (probably) never do normally. A dream like that can be disconcerting, like our mind has betrayed us.
It also raises the question of responsibility. Are we really culpable for the dark places that our mind travels to and what it imagines while we’re unconscious? We didn’t craft that dream ourselves, did we? Our dreams aren’t like a Spotify playlist that we select at the beginning of a night’s sleep before closing our eyes—dreams just happen, right?
There is so much that we don’t understand about how our minds work. The intersections between our emotions and executive functions, instincts and motor control, memory and motivation, appear to be tightly wound knots that are impossible to untangle. Yet Scripture teaches a simple truth that is enduringly relevant, still now in the 21st century: our mind works with what we put into it. As Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” The things that we choose to be busy with each day set the tone of our thoughts and desires.
Because we’re sinful people it is often corrupted material that we’re inputting and processing in our minds. During the day we’re fostering anger or jealousy, or cherishing bitterness because of what someone once did. We’re letting our thoughts wander into sexual fantasy, or letting them obsess over our money and possessions.
And what about the things we regularly consume with our eyes and ears and minds? The movies we watch, the music we listen to, the conversations we have, the books we read, the websites we visit—these become the raw material for our dreams. If you let rubbish fill your mind, rubbish is what will come out. The painful reality is that dreams can be a telling window into the hidden life of our mind. Now, we shouldn’t over-interpret our dreams, or become neurotic about where this or that particular detail sprang from—sometimes it really does appear random and disconnected from the ordinary current of our thoughts. But we must reckon with the truth that our unconscious minds are largely busy with those things that we’ve inputted.
One of the prayers in the back of my church’s songbook is called “An Evening Prayer.” Listen to what we pray to God: “Control our sleep and rule our hearts, in order that we may not be defiled in any way but may glorify you even in our nightly rest.” That is a humbly realistic prayer, for we realise how weak we are, that even in sleep we can be defiled by sin and subject to the devil’s assaults—and that even in the first moments of the day we may need to ask for Christ’s cleansing.
So as we go to bed at night, why not pray for protection from the evil one? Pray for the blessing of a good night’s sleep, untroubled by nightmares or vile dreams. We confess that our sleep is in the hands of our faithful Father; like David prays in Psalm 4:8, “I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” While sleeping and waking, we pray that the thoughts and meditations of our heart would be acceptable to God.
And while waking, let’s fill our minds with what is pure and good and holy. Like Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It’s when we’re busy every day with the Word of the Lord that our life is shaped, our thoughts are moulded, and our desires renewed.