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.
A couple of years ago, God spoke to me about a second branch of ministry that he was calling me to alongside God Conversations. I have to admit I was a bit more reluctant about this one. It involved an area of my life that in many ways was even more personal than equipping people to recognize and respond God’s voice – it was a ministry that involved the deepest part of who I am.
While God Conversations is aimed at all sections of the population – men and women; young and old – my secondary call is targeted only to women. It’s a call to pass on the lessons and anointing that have been experienced in my own life through following God’s call as a woman.
As you might know, my life today looks nothing like what I planned. I grew up in a conservative church where women weren’t even permitted to carry the offering bag in the Sunday services, let alone preach. So when God first spoke to me about my future, I was decidedly confused (you can listen to more of my journey here). It wasn’t just about what I was called to do; it was about who I was called to be. Is a woman permitted to lead a church? What role does she play in the family? What does it mean for a woman to be strong? This branch of my ministry will seek to answer those questions as well as look at some of the challenges 21st C Christian women face that are unique to their gender (just as men have theirs, but we’ll leave that to the men!)
Last year, the leader of Boko Haram, the terrorist organization responsible for kidnapping 300 teenagers in Nigeria, made the claim that God told him to do it. The use of those words; “God told me” causes us to recoil in disgust. We know that the voice heard by Abubakar Shekau is not the same one as the God we worship.
It’s situations such as these that leads many church leaders to say you shouldn’t ever use the words; ‘God told me’ and you can’t really blame them. Throughout history, that phrase has been used to justify mass murder, the proliferation of a wide range of damaging beliefs, and abuses of power so heinous it’s not surprising that people throw their hands up in the air and reject any claim to a personal communique with God.
Yet the characters of the Bible seemed to have no problem saying; ‘God told me’. Our most famous stories begin with; “And the word of the Lord came to…” or “God spoke unto…” or in the New Testament, you’re more likely to read; “The Holy Spirit said…” We see that God did nothing without first speaking it (Amos 3:7).
Under the New Covenant we were promised this too. Jesus said we would recognise his voice and be able to follow it (John 10:27). He would send his Spirit who would guide us into truth and show us things to come (John 16:7-15). We would hear his voice through prophecy and dreams and visions (Acts 2:17) and it would be an even ‘more glorious’ than before since his words would be written on our hearts and not delivered solely through the mouths of prophets (2 Corinthians 3:7-11, Jeremiah 31:33-34). So it’s not a case of suggesting God can’t speak to us; it’s a case of learning to discern his voice when he does.