How to Discern Prophetic Dreams

God wants to speak to you through prophetic dreams, but how do you know if the dreams you’re having are from Him? And even then, how do you interpret the meaning of your prophetic dream so that you can act on what God is saying?

Prophetic dreams are important. If you remove prophetic dreams from the Bible:

  • the city of Bethel is never founded,
  • Joseph never goes to Egypt or rises to power to spare his family in a time of famine,
  • Daniel never gains influence in Babylon, and
  • the Apostle Paul never preaches in Macedonia — of course, that last one doesn’t really matter because
  • Jesus would have died as an infant when His family didn’t flee to Egypt.

(And those are the results of just some of the most popular prophetic dreams in the Bible.)

Prophetic dreams are one of the ways God regularly communicates with me, but you’ll rarely hear me talk about it. I often journal my dreams and wait until I have clear insight about them before I act on anything I see.

  • Sometimes my dreams turn out to be nothing.
  • Sometimes God shows me the interpretation up to six months after I write down the details.
  • Sometimes I know within an hour of waking up.
  • And sometimes I wake up knowing exactly what God is saying and what I’m supposed to do.

God speaks through dreams. But not all dreams are prophetic. Since dreams come from a number of sources, how do we know when a dream is truly from God?

Sources of Dreams

While much of dreaming is largely a mystery, my experience is that dreams tend to come from a few places:

First, of course, God can give us prophetic dreams.

We’ll talk more about that in a moment, but note that prophetic dreams are scattered throughout Scripture as a normal occurrence.

Second, dreams can come from our spiritual enemy.

These are typically experienced as nightmares, but God has been known in Scripture to give troubling dreams as well. (See Judges 7:13-14 and Matthew 27:19.) Just because a dream is scary or fear-inducing doesn’t mean it came from an evil spirit, but the enemy probably isn’t going to give you dreams about rainbows and daisies. The good news is that when we choose not to open spiritual doors to the enemy’s influence in our lives and instead trust God to protect us in our sleep, we don’t have to worry about such dreams ever happening. (See Psalm 4:8.)

Third, dreams can come from thinking about something a lot.

In fact, scientists have found that things we’re studying and practicing can make their way into our dreams to enhance learning. Studies have even found that our sleeping brain tends to rehearse the last thing we concentrated on prior to falling asleep, improving certain skills literally overnight. (This is great for skill acquisition, but how much more valuable is it for our spiritual lives if used well! This is why it’s a good practice to read Scripture and pray before bed.)

Not only does science support that we dream what we think intently about, but Scripture taught this thousands of years ago. Notice what Solomon said:

Ecclesiastes 5:3a — A dream comes when there are many cares… (NIV)

The more emotionally-charged the subject matter of our thoughts, the more likely we are to dream about it. This is why sometimes inner fears and insecurities can show up in our dreams — usually depicting us in relational settings like work, school, or home. I know people who think their frequent dreams about certain fears are being sent by the enemy, but I also know that when awake these people have a lot of regular anxiety about the topics in those dreams. It’s probably not a spiritual attack as much as it is a manifestation of their brains processing their frequent worries and emotions from the day.

I know a fellow minister who went from regularly teaching great stuff online to regularly sharing his latest dream he had about politics. His commentary on his dreams indicate that he thinks a lot about these topics, and that causes me to be a little suspicious of his “prophetic” dreams. While it’s entirely possible that he’s hearing from God as he supposes, I would suggest a more likely explanation is that the thing occupying his thoughts throughout the day has worked its way into his dreams.

Television, movies, video games, books, and many other such things have a way of popping into our dreams. If I have a weird dream that I think might be prophetic, one of the things I analyze is whether or not details of that dream can be traced to a recent entertainment choice. If they can, I’m much more inclined to dismiss the dream. So for my friend in ministry, I’d suggest that if you’re always having dreams about our president or our country, first try backing off your news consumption, spend more time sharing the Gospel and making disciples (which is every believer’s responsibility), and see if your dreams change.

One common element among prophetic dreams in the Bible is a certain sense of surprise. The dreams come unprompted and usually lead the dreamer to become aware of things not previously considered. When people who love conspiracies tell me they dreamed about a conspiracy, I’m less inclined to think it’s prophetic. When those who love doom-and-gloom messages about God’s future wrath tell me they had a dream about an earthquake or famine, I’m not impressed. Anytime our dreams are extensions of what we already believe to be true, I question them. More often than not, they are products of our own minds.

Scripture offers a stern warning for such people:

Jeremiah 23:32 — “Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” declares the Lord. “They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,” declares the Lord.

If that’s not a reason to analyze the source of your dream before you speak it out, I don’t know what is.

Colossians 3 tells us to fix our minds on things above, not on earthly things. I know people who say they can’t pray at night because they always fall asleep, to which I say, “What better way is there to fall asleep!?” Again, what if we read the Bible before bed and pray ourselves to sleep? What will our mind be rehearsing as we rest?

Perhaps this is how it’s possible to follow the Biblical directive to meditate on Scripture “day and night.” (See Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2.)

Lastly, we have what many ministers like to call “pizza dreams.”

These are the sort of wacky, unexplainable dreams you might have if you ate some bad pizza the night before.

The more I mature in communing with the Lord, the more I have discovered that my “pizza dreams” are usually connected to one of the other three sources above and aren’t as unexplainable as I once thought. But every once in a while, I dream something that really leaves me scratching my head.

How to Discern and Interpret Prophetic Dreams

If something about a dream sticks in my mind when I wake up, the first thing I do is ask God, “Are You trying to speak something to me through this dream?” Typically, I’ll have an immediate sense of a yes or no from the Holy Spirit. If it feels like a yes or if I feel like I’m not sure, I immediately write down all the details of the dream that I can remember.

If I sense a “no,” I like to talk to God about where the dream came from. This is one of the ways Jesus disciples me, and He can do the same for you. Simply ask Him what prompted your dream. He may bring to your mind a recent entertainment choice, a relational situation, or a fear or insecurity in your heart. Whatever He shows you, ask if there’s anything He wants you to do about that (like stop watching a certain show, reconcile a relationship, repent of fear, etc.).

When I do feel a dream is from God and have written it down, I ask the Lord, “What do You want to say to me through this?”

If nothing comes to me, I get more specific with my questions:

  • “Is this message for me or for someone else?” If someone else, “Who?”
  • “Are the details literal or figurative?”
  • “Are all the details relevant or only some?” If only some, “Which ones?”

Sometimes it’s easier when starting out to discern binary answers from the Lord — yes or no, this one or that one, etc. — as shown in the examples above. But with time and practice, you can become more fluent in how God speaks to you, and the conversation can go far deeper.

When I’m done, if my role isn’t clear already, I ask, “What do You want me to do with what You’ve shown me?”

I write down everything I feel God says to me throughout this process, including my questions that prompted the answers. That way my mind can’t play tricks on me later, and the enemy doesn’t have room to play his old trick of, “Did God really say…?”

As long as my dream doesn’t demand immediate obedience, I’ll often wait a day or two, come back to it, and see if the conclusions I wrote down still feel right in my spirit. If not, I start asking new questions until there’s a lasting peace about it all.

If you will ask God for prophetic dreams, He will give them to you. And if you steward them well as I described above, He’ll entrust more to you.

May God bless your sleep and speak to you in prophetic dreams! And may you experience the joy of communing with the Holy Spirit as Jesus teaches you to discern and interpret with precision.

Be blessed,
–Art

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