Is it biblical to have a “dream?”
Oooh. That’s a good one. We all have dreams, and we all love dreams. Especially in America. Disney sells dreams to kids. Insurance companies sell them to grown-ups. Professional sports sell them to everyone. As a frequent speaker on college campuses and at ministry conferences, I bump into a lot of people who are nursing dreams. Movie-making dreams. Ministry dreams. Family dreams.
The young folks nurse their dreams with wide-eyed enthusiasm and gee-whiz optimism. “Only a matter of time!” they say. “If you dream it, you can do it!” they say. Some of the older folks nurse their dreams more like aging minor league baseball players, yearning for the glory years that never quite came to pass, hoping for one more chance at the big leagues.
In a church or ministry setting, quite of few of them preface the formal presentation of their dreams with a line that always gets my attention: “God gave me this.” God gave me this dream. It is from God. For me.
Obviously, if God has given you a dream, it will come to pass. We see this in the Bible repeatedly … Joseph, Nebuchadnezzer, Daniel, Peter. They all had dreams and they’re dreams came true. Joseph’s dream was so big and exciting it became a Broadway musical and inspired us all to follow our own dreams and wear our own multi-colored coats.
But are our dreams really from God? Is God in the dream business? At least in the modern, American sense of the word?
There are, in fact, dreams in the Bible, and they do come from God. So is YOUR dream from God? In the biblical sense? To find out, ask yourself these four questions:
1. Did you receive your dream while asleep and/or in a trance?
In the Bible, this is when people have dreams. Daniel was asleep. Joseph was asleep. Peter was in a trance. If you were awake and were suddenly struck with a really good idea, that’s not a biblical dream.
2. Do you talk about your dream in the present tense?
As in, “I have a dream to win a gold medal in figure skating.” No one says “I have a dream” in the Bible. They say, “I had a dream.” As in, “I had a dream last night. While I was sleeping. Let me tell you what it was.” Any statement that starts with “I have a dream” isn’t a referring to a dream in the biblical sense. It’s a dream in the Martin Luther King Jr. sense.
3. Is your dream literal?
For example, “God has given me a dream to build a chain of quick service restaurants all across the eastern United States.” That is highly literal. Dreams in the Bible are not highly literal. Joseph’s dream involved corn stalks bowing to each other. Peter’s dream was about animals in a sheet. John’s visions in the book of Revelation were about – heck – I don’t even know what they were about. Unless the quick service restaurants are symbols that represent churches or saints or the twelve disciples, that dream isn’t a biblical dream.
4. Are you excited about your dream?
This is a big one. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone tell me about their dream without excitement in their voice. This is a problem. In the Bible, NO ONE is excited about the dream God has given them. When God gives someone a dream in the Bible, they are either A) confused, or B) terrified. Peter wasn’t running around saying, “Yay! A sheet came down from heaven filled with unclean animals and a voice said ‘kill and eat!’ What fun!” No, Peter was saying, “WHAT THE ____ WAS THAT???” John wasn’t excited about his apocolyptic visions either. He was terrified. AND confused. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be excited about your dream. But if you ARE excited, it most likely isn’t a dream in the biblical sense of the word. It’s something else.
So if you haven’t run off to watch Frozen one more time to restore your faith in dreams, you’re probably concluding that I don’t believe many of the things we call “dreams” are from God, at least in the biblical sense. Why do I believe that? Because the way we use “dream” today is completely different than the historical, biblical usage. A “dream” in the Bible is a revelation. An image or sequence of images revealed by God, during sleep or while in a trance. That is a biblical dream. A “dream” in our culture today isn’t a revelation at all – it’s a desire. It’s something we want very badly to see come to pass. That desire can be for something good. World peace. Clean water for African villages. An end to poverty. But at the end of the day it is still a desire, and human desires are inherently fallible. Even the good ones.
My desire to bring clean water to African villages could cause me to abandon my family or to defraud donors and investors. Speaking very personally, my own desire to build the “Christian Disney” and be the “Christian Walt” almost killed me. Just because I want it doesn’t mean it’s good for me. Anyone who has visited the candy aisle at a grocery store understands this profound truth all too well.
So what’s the solution?
Simple. Change your language. The word “dream” in our culture, I believe, has been elevated to the point of being idolatrous. We, quite literally, worship our dreams. We sacrifice our lives for them. We sacrifice our children to them, just as the Israelites did at their very worst. And when we discuss our dreams, we’re almost never using the word as it’s used in the Bible. We’re using the word as it’s used in our culture.
So ditch it. If you have a burning desire to win the gold medal in figure skating, call it what it is. A burning desire. If you have an exciting idea to build a chain of quick serve restaurants or dig wells in Africa, call it what it is. An exciting idea.
I have lots of ideas. But once I pick one and call it my dream, I’m holding on to it too tightly. If God actually gives me a dream, I’ll let you know. (Though I don’t expect to be at all excited about it.) In the meantime, God has given me the ability to generate a whole lot of ideas. Some good, some terrible. I put them on the wall – I pray about them. If an idea starts to “bubble” – generate energy in me and in others – I’ll pick it up and run with it. But I’m always ready to put it down if it becomes clear it isn’t the right idea or the right time. And I’ll never, ever call an idea my “dream.” Heaven is my dream. Everything else is just a fun idea.
How do you describe your own desires and goals? Is there something you’re hanging onto a little too tightly? Pastor Tim Keller says “An idol is a good thing that has become an ultimate thing.” Anything that competes with God for your affection is an idol. Even a very, very good thing. Can you let it go?
There’s a part 2 to this story, involving me and a tiny, tiny car. Read it here.