(Originally published 5/29/15)
“My waking dreams are best concealed, Much folly, little good they yield. But now and then I gain when sleeping A friendly hint that’s worth the keeping.” John Newton
The puritan writer of the classic hymn, Amazing Grace, John Newton, wrote several poems and short stories about dreams he had which afforded him moments of spiritual clarity. He understood the powerful medium of dreams to block out the noisy flesh and allow the soul, which never sleeps, to have its voice. One example of his dreams is the poem, The Kite, which offers a wonderful image of our ideal relationship with God. John gave much more weight to the message of sleeping dreams than to the waking ones, which he considered to be mostly folly. But, are all waking dreams useless? Can they be agents of truth in a similar way as sleeping dreams? What can we learn about ourselves by paying attention to our daydreams?
We humans are dreamers. From the moments of our first consciousness, we dream with the ease and reflexivity of breathing. Childhood dreams are full of fancy – dreams of fighting giants, of sprouting wings, of walking on water, of being noticed by a handsome prince. My youngest daughter, who is often plagued by nightmares, used to share with me every night what she planned to dream about so she could bring her pleasant waking dream into her sleeping one. In her daydreams, she was the hero who saved the day, the adored ballerina, or the hailed rock star.
As we mature, our dreams become less fanciful and more calculated. We dream less about being fairies, and more about being independent and free. We dream less about fighting dragons and more about rising to the top of the peer pile. We dream less about being noticed by a handsome prince, and more about having the perfect husband and family. We dream about the things we believe will bring us happiness, security, respect, power.
Adult dreams are no less reflexive than childhood ones. They dwell just below the surface of our daily duties, and can pop up unbidden many times in a day. They shape our decisions, inform our frustrations, taunt our insecurities, inhabit our sorrows, and taint our joys. I have heard it said that you can discover your core values when you pay attention to your top five dreams, and your top five fears (or nightmares). What do you most hope for, and what do you most dread? No matter what you say you value, these things reveal the truth.
Let’s take wealth, for example. You may dream of being financially successful to gain the esteem of your fellow humans, autonomy from your fellow humans, or power over your fellow humans. Your dreams eventually become plans, and if those plans don’t pan out, you are dissatisfied. And if they do pan out, you are happy for a time, but empty in the end. What did your dreams of financial success reveal about your values?
Or how about the white picket fence dream? Your dreams may include having a loving, supportive spouse, and a beautiful happy family. You don’t believe you can be truly happy without these things. Even if you do get married, you are constantly frustrated with your spouse for not loving you the way you want/need/expect. If you have children, they will eventually disappoint you and will not reciprocate the love you pour out on them. What do you really value when you dream of this happy ideal family?
God wants our dreams. He will ruthlessly pursue any desire in our hearts that overshadows or replaces our affection for Him.
There are many, many examples in the Bible of God asking humans to hand over their dreams to Him. Hannah dreamed of having a son, cried out bitterly to God day after day in her barrenness. But when God finally answered her prayers, He asked her to sacrifice her dream and give her son back to Him. Hosea, Jeremiah, Mary & Joseph, Noah and many others were asked to give up their dreams of human respect. They endured years of ridicule and abuse by their fellow humans because God wanted his approval to trump all others. Paul was asked to give up his self-righteousness, his status, his career. Many converts to Christianity were asked to forsake mother and father, essentially giving up their dreams of security and love. The rich young ruler was asked to give up the wealth and prestige he had dreamed of and labored for, in order to follow Jesus, but the cost was too great. Esther, Moses, and others were asked to lay down their own bodily safety, risking death to obey God’s call.
What do you dream about? When I am alone with my dreams, I have to admit they gravitate towards travel destinations with the family, or home improvements, or educational opportunities for the kids. My worries (the flip side of my dreams) revolve around not being able to put our kids through college, not being able to send them to this or that summer camp which might give them a leg up on their futures. These dreams and fears reveal that I believe vacations, a beautified home, and well educated children will bring me happiness, validation, respect. They also reveal a lack of trust that God will give me exactly what I need.
Why does God want my dreams? They don’t seem so terrible, do they? What’s wrong with desiring financial security, a family, a nice home, good health? And what does handing over your dreams even look like? Is God asking all of us to quit our jobs, give away our money, self-flagellate? To the first question, God wants me to submit my dreams to him for a few reasons. Number one, he knows what will make me truly happy, and anything that ties me to this earth is not it. My real treasure, the one I am supposed to be depositing my energy and time into, is the one that awaits me on the other side, “where neither moth or rust can corrupt, and where thieves cannot break through and steal.” Number two, the things that I cling to that I believe will bring me joy, are often the things God knows will destroy me. The money I think will make me happy may very well turn me into an arrogant abuser. The family I crave may very well cause me the pain of abuse because I pour all of myself into people who will let me down. The career I want may very well turn me into a power hungry control freak. When God asks for our dreams, He is not spoiling our fun. He is removing the cancer in our souls.
To the second question of the practicalities of sacrificing our dreams, I will offer a personal example. When my husband and I started our church 11 years ago, we had dreams for it. Big ones. We fooled ourselves into thinking that desiring a large church was a good thing – why wouldn’t God want more people to hear about his love? – but we weren’t fooling God. He knew that our desires stemmed more from a need for human approval and respect than from a noble, humble desire to spread the news of Jesus with as many as possible. For the first few years, we worked as hard as we could to try to make our dreams a reality. But our efforts seemed thwarted at every turn, and we only grew by painfully small increments. We wrestled with God, asking him to either grow our church or take away our desire for more people. We hurt people in the process of pursuing our dreams, making them feel more used than loved. Our dissatisfaction bled into every interaction, every decision, every frustration, even every joy. I’ve shared in previous posts what God used to change our hearts, so I won’t go into that, but suffice it to say that God surgically removed our old dream, causing us to give up the notion that we had any control over the size of our church, giving us a new value system that grounds our identities in Him, and granting us deep satisfaction with the church he has given us. I know with utmost certainty that had our desires been granted for a large church right out of the gate, it would have destroyed us. Thank you God, for not giving us what we dreamed about!
So, what does it look like to sacrifice your dreams? In some cases, it is actively, day by day, asking God to give you satisfaction in Him alone, holding your dreams with loose fingers, willing to let them go. In other cases, it is responding without bitterness when God chooses to remove by force the dream that is invading your heart.
And when we wake into eternity, we will realize that it is reality, and our life on earth was the dream.
"Since I have known the Savior’s name And what for me he bore; No more I toil for empty fame, I thirst for gold no more. Placed by his hand in this retreat, I make his love my theme; And see that all the world calls great, Is but a waking dream." John Newton