Sarah’s heart raced as she awoke from a vivid nightmare. In her dream, she committed a murderous act against someone she’d never met. She soon grew disturbed that her mind could entertain such a thing, and she didn’t know what to do next. Had she sinned? Should she ask God for forgiveness?
Vivid dreams of vile deeds can interrupt the sleep of the most faithful saints. Some dreams recur, while others visit only once. These imaginary acts of adultery, immorality, vengeance, deceit, lies, thievery, and murder can leave us crippled with shame and guilt.
If you or someone you’re ministering to has a sinful dream, what should you do?
Should you seek an interpretation?
Should you feel guilty?
Should you confess to the person you harmed in your dream?
Should you repent of your murder, adultery, or whatever else you did — even though you didn’t actually do it?
If we search the Scriptures, we find sufficient wisdom to develop several principles to help us answer these questions.
1. Dreams are not reality.
Dreams are, in the first place, dreams. If you didn’t commit adultery in real life, but dreamt about committing adultery, you didn’t actually commit adultery. There is a clear and significant difference between what you dream and what you actually do.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of a hungry man who dreams about feasting yet awakes with a growl in his belly (Isaiah 29:8). The reason he is still hungry is that his dream eating was not real eating; it was a dream.
This comforts us with the certainty that though our resting minds may execute wicked deeds, we aren’t actually doing them. Our will is not engaged. We are not intentionally offering our bodies to sin (Romans 6:13). We are not guilty of sin if we only dreamt about it.
Our lack of guilt for specific sin, however, should not lead us to shrug off our dreams too quickly. A faithful theology of sin alerts us that our dreams may be disclosing dark desires that abide unseen in our hearts.
2. Dreams can disclose our depravity.
Dreams are often oriented around your fears or fantasies. I’ve had recurring dreams of showing up to speak somewhere only to find that I was naked, ten minutes late, and had forgotten to prepare! No prophet has confirmed the interpretation, but I’m guessing those dreams are disclosing the fear of man that plagues my heart. Though I haven’t actually sinned in my dreams, I have seen my sinfulness through my dreams.
Jesus taught that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). Regardless of whether anger is exposed when someone cuts you off in traffic or while you are dreaming, its source is the same. It comes from you, from your sinful desires (James 1:14). And we should not ignore any instance in which sin is exposed, whether in our waking or sleeping hours.
Certainly, some dreams can be ignored. But dreams in which you wake up remembering sin and feeling guilt should not. Are your dreams associated with something you desire or dread? Are they marked by your wants or fears?
Ask God to show you what abiding sin might be exposed in your dreams (Genesis 40:8; Daniel 2:28; James 1:5). Do this not to confess a sin you’ve committed, but to confess that you are a sinner who needs grace. Treat what is being exposed in your sin-filled dreams as you would any other intrusive sinful thought. Ask God to help you hate what he hates and love what he loves.
3. Don’t feed sinful dreams.
The apostle Paul reminds us, “The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Galatians 6:8). This is true in every area of life, including your dreams. If you foster bitterness or unforgiveness in your heart, you shouldn’t be surprised if your dreams are marked by malice. On the other hand, if we discipline ourselves to pursue godliness, we may find that even our sleep is marked by peace (Romans 12:2; 1 Timothy 4:8).
King Solomon warned his sons to “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Are you keeping your heart with thoughtful vigilance? Are your evenings marked by flesh-pacifying entertainment? Are you scrolling through ego-stroking or ego-deflating notifications on social media? Do you eat unnecessary food or drink alcohol before bed? While none of those activities may be inherently sinful, they can be selfish appetizers for your sinful flesh that provoke ungodly dreams.
4. Don’t follow sinful dreams.
Although you cannot control what you dream, the Holy Spirit can help you control how you respond to your dreams (Galatians 5:16–17, 22–23). Or as Martin Luther once quipped, “I cannot . . . keep a bird from flying over my head. But I can certainly keep it from nesting in my hair or from biting my nose off” (Luther’s Works, 21:88–89). If you have a sin-filled dream, you have the responsibility to not make it a reality. In fact, one way to think about “sinful dreams” is as a warning from God, ahead of time, to prepare us not to sin in real life in the way we did in the dream.
If you wake from a lustful dream, you are vulnerable and need to resist the temptation to fantasize about your dream or follow urges to act upon it. If you’ve had a vengeful dream, you may be irritable or quick to anger. You need to resist the urge to be sharp with others or distrust them simply because your dream tempts you to do so.
Once you wake, take every thought obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) and make no provision for your flesh’s desires (Romans 13:14).
5. Delight in God before you dream.
If sinful dreams do anything, they show us our need for a Savior. We need an ever-living, ever-interceding Savior to rescue us from our ever-straying sinfulness. We need Jesus to purge us of sinful thoughts, purify us of sinful desires, and protect us from our sin-stained dreams. We need grace while we are awake and while we sleep. The good news is that we have a God who never sleeps nor slumbers (Psalm 121:4).
Though Jesus slept while he lived among us (Mark 4:38), Jesus never had dreams that led to sin, because he never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). His heart was holy and never meditated upon evil in the night. Rather, he was filled with love for the Father and for what pleased him (John 4:34). Now, our Great High Priest is always ready to give us the grace and mercy we need.
Before you sleep, set your mind upon God through his word and prayer. Fill your heart with truth (Philippians 4:8). Cast every anxious care on him (1 Peter 5:7). Pray to him and plead with him to give you the sleep he has promised (Psalm 127:2).
Richard Baxter wisely counseled us with these words concerning our dreams:
If you sweeten your last thoughts with the love of Christ, and the remembrance of your former mercies, or the foresight of eternal joys, or can confidently cast them and yourselves upon some promise, it will tend to the quietness of your sleep, and to the savouriness of your dreams: and if you should die before morning, will it not be most desirable, that your last thoughts be holy? (Practical Works of Richard Baxter, 2:469–72)
Before you rest, rest in Jesus. Look to him and trust that “he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2).