How Do I Respond to Sexual Dreams?
Seven years ago, this week, we launched this podcast. Fourteen hundred episodes later, here we are, finally addressing the topic of sexualized dreams. Yes, sexualized dreams — easily one of the most asked about topics in the inbox, and certainly the most asked about topic we’ve brushed off to date. No longer. Here’s the email from an anonymous man.
“Hello Pastor John and thank you for the podcast. I am 31, a believer, married for 12 years to a wonderful Christian woman. I’m familiar with the commands of God about sexual sin and its eternal dangers. I have for almost a year now successfully battled sin with pornography thanks to prayer, God’s word, help from my wife, my pastor, and an outside organization that tracks internet activity for accountability purposes. I know and agree that sex outside of marriage is sinful and wrong. Even the desire is sinful, as Jesus said. My question though is as follows: Why do I have lucid sexual dreams with people other than my wife, even people I have never met before? These dreams bother me intensely even after I wake up because I can’t help but feel that I have sinned, and even worse, I feel as if I had no control over it as with most of my dreams. I have a pretty unhealthy sleep pattern partly because I would rather not dream at all. I am quite troubled by it, and any help would be appreciated.” Pastor John, what would you say to him?
The first thing I would say is that I don’t know why this is happening. I don’t want to pose as having a psychological or a spiritual or a physical-hormonal surefire answer to what’s going on. I think it’s good to be bothered by it like he is and like others are, but not good to be undone by it.
“Christians for two thousand years did not feed their minds on movies every night.”
Let me make that distinction. Let me give four passages of Scripture that might shed light on the way dreams work, what they mean, what they’re about, and then end with five very brief practical suggestions. What I’m praying is that these texts just might be used by the Holy Spirit for some fresh power of deliverance from dreams that we can’t control, but God can.
1. Dreams can deliver false messages.
So, here’s the first text: Zechariah 10:2,
The household gods utter nonsense,
and the diviners see lies;
they tell false dreams
and give empty consolation.
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd.
Now, this simple point follows: There is such a thing as false dreams. That doesn’t mean claiming to dream when you don’t dream. It’s not like these folks who were saying they had a dream and they didn’t have a dream. That’s not what it means. It means they’re claiming that their dreams had a particular meaning, which they didn’t. There are false meanings. Dreams come, and they deliver false messages to us.
So, my first exhortation is, say to the Lord and to the dream and to the devil, “That was a false dream. It does not mean I am unfaithful. I mean to be faithful to my wife. I am not unfaithful to her. Those dreams are a lie.” So, say that on the basis of the reality of the Bible that there is such a thing as a false dream.
2. Dreams can test us.
Here’s number two: Deuteronomy 13:1–3,
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
“God really does use dreams to terrify us with warnings in order to humble our pride and keep us back from sin.”
Wow, God uses false prophets and lying dreams, even accompanied by supernatural signs and wonders, to test his people. So, it’s not wrong while these dreams are tormenting you to say, “Dreams, Satan, brain, hormones, whatever you are, I won’t be sucked in by this. I see how my faith is being tested here. Do I love my wife? Do I love purity? Do I love holiness? Do I love Christ, who died to make me pure? Yes, I do. I will not be undone by this test. I will pass it by faith in the blood of Jesus to cover all my sins, to empower me to walk in the truth.”
So, I think it’s not wrong to say, “I don’t know why, but I’m being tested by these dreams, and I’m going to pass this test.”
3. Dreams can reveal our desires.
Here’s number three: Isaiah 29:7–8. This comes as close as anything as far as I can see in the Bible to a Freudian view of dreams, namely, that they signal deep needs or desires, even sexual ones.
The nations that fight against Ariel . . .
shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating,
and awakes with his hunger not satisfied,
or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking,
and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched,
so shall the multitude of all the nations be
that fight against Mount Zion.
So, the point of this text most immediately is the nations, who think they’re going to win against Israel, will no more win than the dreamer got his thirst quenched in dreaming. That’s the point.
Here’s my reason for pointing out this text: It was common knowledge that thirst might make a person dream of drinking, only to be frustrated. Hunger might make a person dream about eating, only to wake up hungry. I would say that in the same way, sexual hormones, desires, impulses, born of nature, might make a person dream he’s having sex, and he wakes up and he didn’t have sex.
“Pray earnestly for deliverance from the dreams, and gather some brothers around you to join in earnest prayer.”
Now, that does not explain why you would dream about women who are not your wife. That may be traced to old patterns of fantasies that go back thirty years, twenty years, fifteen years, and need to be broken. But the point here is there is nothing remarkable when a physical craving like hunger or thirst or sexuality cause a dream that the craving is being satisfied when it isn’t. And the question is: What will you do with it in the waking life? That’s the question — not just that it’s happening.
4. Dreams can warn us.
Here’s the last one: Job 33:14–18,
God speaks in one way,
and in two, though man does not perceive it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night,
when deep sleep falls on men,
while they slumber on their beds,
then [God] opens the ears of men
and terrifies them with warnings,
that he may turn man aside from his deed
and conceal pride from a man;
he keeps back his soul from the pit,
his life from perishing by the sword.
That’s amazing. That text teaches that God really does use dreams to terrify us with warnings in order to humble our pride and keep us back from sin. But if that’s true, one way to look at sexually illicit dreams — dreams when you’re doing illicit things in the dream — is that God is terrifying us in our dreams of the horror of this prospect in real life, so that we won’t do it.
We’re back at the idea of being tested like it said earlier: Will the dream have its God-appointed effect of humbling us, frightening us about our own bent to sinning? And will we lay hold on him for purity in waking life?
Five Ways to Dispatch Sexualized Dreams
So, here are my five quick bullet suggestions flowing from those few biblical observations:
1. Pray earnestly for deliverance from the dreams, and gather some brothers around you to join in earnest prayer.
2. Read the Scriptures for five or ten minutes just before you go to sleep — some portion about God’s work and his value like Philippians 3:8 or Colossians 1:15–18 or Hebrews 1:1–3. Soak your mind in the word just before you go to sleep.
3. Purge your movie and TV habits of all sexually stimulating content — not just porn, but worldly sexuality. Now that’s just about all TV shows and all movies. Sorry about that. You don’t need it. Christians for two thousand years did not feed their minds on movies every night. It won’t help you to be stirred up by so-called PG-13 movies that have sexually titillating scenes in them.
4. Perhaps get a sleep study done. I’ve had these, my wife has had this, to see whether or not there are any physical irregularities.
5. When all is said and done, trust the promises of Psalm 25:15 and say with confidence,
My eyes are ever toward the Lord,
for he will pluck my feet out of the net.