Does God Speak to People through Dreams? An African (and Personal) Christian Perspective
Over the many years I have been teaching Christian theology in four universities (including one secular university where I taught undergraduate courses as a doctoral student but some of the undergraduate courses were of a Christian theological nature) I have encountered many examples of Christians who believed that God somehow or other “spoke” to them through a dream. Most of these people were from what we now call the Global South (Africa especially), but many were also from other countries including the United States. In fact, in my experience, it seems that this belief and experience is generally accepted as valid (although discernment is also important) among Christians except in the so-called “Western” countries (Europe, North America, Australia, etc.—those with strong roots in European traditions and especially impacted by the Enlightenment and secularity).
Recently I was privileged to hear and meet one of the most influential African Christian leaders, pastor of a large African church and leader of an alliance of thousands of churches throughout the world. During a time of Q & A a student from Africa asked him whether he believes God speaks to people through dreams. The student explained to others present (such as myself) that, in Africa, millions of Christians claim that God has spoken to them in dreams. Apparently, from what I am told, this phenomenon is almost universally believed as real and even normal by Christians in Africa. The influential African Christian leader, the leader of thousands of churches even outside of Africa, throughout the world, strongly affirmed his belief in the reality of this form of continuing personal revelation—while emphasizing that it can be a source of confusion and needs pastoral care and discernment.
My uncles and aunts who served for many years as missionaries in Africa told, when I was a child and youth, that this phenomenon is real among Christians in Africa and both a blessing and a curse. The Pentecostal Christians I grew among in the U.S. also believed in it and sometimes talked about it, but it was not considered a common or “every day” kind of experience. And it was taught as something limited to personal guidance and not a source of “new revelation of truth” for all Christians.
Of course, anyone familiar with the Bible knows that it includes several stories of God speaking to prophets and apostles (and sometimes others) in and through dreams. There’s no need to go over those stories here; as I said…anyone familiar with the Bible knows the stories in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
So now I will add an example from my own life. God spoke to me through a dream—at least once—and around the same time through a method of Bible reading most scholars and many pastors would criticize as improper.
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At a certain point in my life I was wrestling with whether to reveal something I knew about a very influential pastor. So far as I knew, I was the only person who knew the secret. He had successfully kept it from his family, his church, his friends, and his denomination. He was living a double life, including a secret life, that was extremely dangerous—not only to him but also to his family and his church. I knew that if I revealed what I knew he would probably not only be de-frocked (his ministerial credentials and status revoked) and fired from his ministry, but he very well might go to prison. And his family would be very seriously damaged. I actually had a piece of proof of his secret immoral and criminal life that I knew, if I showed it to anyone with authority, would substantiate everything else I knew which was very much. I alone knew all this for sure, with certainty.
Of course I was very unsure what to do with my knowledge and evidence. I sought out sound Christian counseling about how to move forward and, under the advice and guidance of a well-known Christian counselor, began a sole intervention process with the pastor. It did not work; he told me “If you tell others what you know about me it will ruin many lives and that will be your fault and not mine.” I knew what he said about my information ruining lives was true. So I continued wrestling with what to do next. My main option was to tell what I knew, and back it up with the proof I had, to the pastor’s denominational leadership. I knew that if I did not, he would continue his dangerous, secret, immoral and even criminal activities.
One Sunday morning, sitting in church, struggling inwardly with what to do, I took the “pew Bible” from the rack in front of me and simply let it fall open. I looked down and my eyes fell on this verse: 1 Timothy 5:22 “Do not participate in another man’s sins.” I knew inwardly, subjectively, that this was no coincidence. The Bible fell open to that passage without any help from me—even subconsciously. This is a method of Bible-reading we biblical and theological scholars strongly discourage!Around that time I had one of the most vivid dreams I have ever experienced. In the dream, the details of which I still remember to this day, I was in a barn, looking down at a set of young dog puppies in a stall and in the hay there. They were drinking their mother’s milk. It was a cute scene; everything was fine. Then I heard a growl and I looked up and saw a wolf stalking the path between the stalls of the barn toward me and the pups. At my feet lay a large wooden club. I knew that I could either run or pick up the club and beat off the wolf—possibly suffering injury in the process. I felt a strong impulse to run but also an impulse to protect the pups. The wolf clearly intended to attack and eat them.
The dream ended there. But when I woke, immediately there—at the end of that dream—I knew with assurance, inner certainty, what it was. God was calling me to fight the “wolf” and protect the innocents—even if it meant very serious, even permanent injury to me.
Several other things happened around this same time that I could only interpret as God giving me information (that others who tried later could not obtain) to use—to support not only what I knew but also what I suspected about the pastor and to shore up my claims about the pastor should I take it to his denomination’s leaders.
I’m going to stop with my personal story there and, for now at least, not finish it. I only say that, as I suspected, the outcome was extremely messy for everyone and the pastor ended up in prison.
Now, here is my problem with even telling this story publicly. I know many American Christians, including evangelical ones, who will think to themselves if not say to others “Roger is crazy or delusional. These things just don’t happen—at least not here, in America, to normal people.” Thank God for tenure (said mostly tongue-in-cheek!).
Does God speak to people through dreams? I know he does. Every dream? No. At least I seriously doubt it. Have you had a dream you believe was a means of divine communication to you? Take it to your spiritual director(s)—whoever he, she or they are. Consult a Christian counselor; talk it over with someone with strong faith in the Bible as God’s revelation to us and who is spiritually stable and balanced. Seek other evidence to support whatever it is that you believe God was saying to you through the dream. Don’t act on the basis of the dream alone. In my case, I had everything I needed to confront the pastor and intervene in his life; the dream and the strange Bible reading experience only served to prompt me to act—in spite of my certainty that doing so would cost me a great deal of emotional pain, misery and loss.
Do not believe in a dream that leads you away from the truth of what God has already revealed in his written, inspired word. Do not act on a dream insofar as that would cause you to do something immoral or unethical. Begin by suspecting that your dream might just be the result of something spoiled that you ate. Then ask yourself (and your spiritual mentors and leaders) whether the dream makes sense—from within a fundamentally Christian worldview that is Christ-centered.
There is a great irony in this factual phenomenon among American Christians (and others in European churches in other countries where Enlightenment secularity has taken a strong grip on culture). We tend to admire the passion and fervor of our brothers and sisters in the “Global South” where Christianity is spreading like wildfire. We listen with rapt attention and even belief when our American brothers and sisters come back from mission trips there with amazing stories of the supernatural things God is doing there—in those other countries and cultures. But we do not want those things to happen here—among us. They’re scary, unpredictable, de-stabilizing, and would bring reproach on us from our culture generally if we talked openly about them happening here, among us. We would lose our respectability that we have worked so hard to gain and keep. We would be marginalized and considered religious nuts and fanatics—even by some other Christians.
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