By now you’ve probably sung the words of that ancient Christmas carol “Silent Night” in church or at a Carols event under the stars. The story goes that a pastor was walking home on Christmas eve and felt inspired to write them as he walked through his village set with yellow lights and snow-lined rooftops. The words of “Silent Night” were sung in a little Austrian church the next day, then spread throughout the German speaking world in the early 1800s and came to the US fifty years later to become one of the great classics we sing every December.
Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright. It’s a beautiful line but it doesn’t fully capture the story. Chapter 12 of the book of Revelation gives us a slightly different version of the events. Unlike the scene depicted by the lilting carol, we see what was really going on in the spiritual realm. Instead of the peaceful glow surrounding the holy family pictured on our greeting cards, we see an enemy symbolised as a red seven-headed dragon. Instead of a baby sleeping peacefully in a manger, we see a vicious attack on a pregnant woman as she cries out in her pain. There’s a violent outbreak of war in the heavenlies and a cosmic uprising as the powers of evil seek to destroy God’s plan (Revelation 12:1-9).
You wake up drowsy eyed, wander into the kitchen and sit down with a cup of coffee. Slowly the images return, flashing through your mind in fleeting sequence. It’s like you were there. You can still feel the emotion, stirring and lingering like the taste of last evening’s meal. Strangely coherent, they seem to shed light on your thoughts from the day before.
But was it God?
We know that everybody dreams – usually for 1-2 hours every night. Psychologists tell us we dream to process the events of the day – it’s our brain’s natural healing mechanisms doing some ‘house-cleaning’ – in the same way that sleep allows for restoration of our physical body.
But we also know that God speaks in dreams and that he’s been doing so throughout history. The Scriptures tell us that dreams are one of the most common ways he speaks (Numbers 12:6), that they are made accessible to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:16-17) and that many of the great biblical events began while someone was sleeping (eg. Gen.15:8-21, Gen. 28:10-22, Gen. 37:5-11, Matt. 2:7-23, Acts 10:9-17, etc.)
So how do we know if a dream is from God?
It’s important first of all to understand that not every dream comes from God – in the same way that not every waking thought is from him! Most of the dreams we have are natural dreams – they are the activity of our unconscious minds while we are asleep. They may be interesting to take note of, and occasionally helpful in understanding ourselves, but they are not the voice of the Holy Spirit.
I have just put my salty swimming costume in the laundry when Mum calls us into her room. She is sitting on the edge of the bed – the one we used to jump in as kids; all five of us, loud and raucous under the blue and gold brocade quilt. Dad is standing near the doorway shuffling awkwardly. ‘Your father has something to tell you,’ Mum says, tilting her head towards Dad, but looking down at the carpet.
Us kids stand in an odd little circle around the room gawking at each other, anxious to finish our holiday unpacking and get to our favourite TV shows.
Dad clears his throat. He calls in Ruth, a woman who’d been our guest on our beach trip. Then he says; “I don’t love your mother anymore. I’m going to marry Ruth.”
There’s an awkward silence. My heart freezes like a still from a movie other people are watching. I look up at my big sister – Is this a joke?
I run into the garage choking and gasping.
In the end my Dad didn’t marry Ruth. He went on to marry another woman. Then another. And another. He was on his fourth marriage when he died suddenly of a heart attack four years ago.
Recently I read a book for my doctoral studies which confirmed my suspicions about the influence of personality on our spiritual experiences. The book is titled When God Talks back and is written by an anthropologist called Tanya Luhrmann. In her studies, she immersed herself in the life of a Vineyard church in the US for a year, observing and studying their prayer and worship practises. One of the things that came out of her research was a correlation between certain psychological attributes and the way spiritual phenomena is experienced. In other words, those who struggled to hear God’s voice had a different psychological make-up compared to those who didn’t. Mark Virker wrote about this too in his book Dialogue with God. It seems that when it comes to hearing God’s voice, certain personality types have an advantage.
If I was to participate in her experiment, I’m pretty sure which category I would find myself in. I’ve always found sensing the spiritual realm a bit of a challenge. Compared to a number of my friends, I’m the slow one to pick up on spiritual atmospheres. I’m the one who’s more analysing than sensing; more thinking than intuiting (For those of you who are familiar with the Myer’s Briggs personality tests, I’m a high ’T’ and ’S’!) Luhrmann’s research seems to show there’s a good reason for my struggle and it’s connected to the way I was created. Perhaps you can relate! From my travels around different churches across the country and overseas, I know I’m not the only one. A lot of people who struggle to hear God’s voice seem to be wired that way. Some might even say that men more than women fit into this category.