Summer 1984, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 123-134.

Philip St. Romain:
      Dreams and Christian Growth

Through the symbols produced in our dreams by the unconscious dimension of our persons, the Spirit of God can reveal ways of living that impede or foster Christian discipleship.

Mr. St. Romain is currently engaged in Personal Growth Services in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His background includes teaching at high school and university levels, lay campus ministry, and consulting service for the Louisiana Department of Education. He is married and has two children.

WE awaken to a new day. We lie in bed, making the transition to consciousness, beginning to consider the tasks that lie before us. But we have a peculiar sort of feeling and, giving it attention, we discover it to be connected with a dream we had just before waking. We think about the dream now, finding ourselves caught up in an intriguing story with characters that are both familiar and somewhat mythical. Does this story have a meaning? If so, what is the meaning?

During the past century, physiologists and psychologists have done considerable research into the phenomenon we call dreaming. People concerned about Christian spiritual life, moreover, have found dreams and their interpretation a means of discerning God's will and thus of more intimate communion with God. The purpose of this article is to sketch the basis for this view of dreams and their interpretation as significant for Christian discipleship. The hope is that readers will be encouraged to investigate further and acquire some skill in the art of interpreting their dreams as a means of spiritual growth.

Scientific research has revealed that dreams occur during a state of sleep called Rapid Eye Movement (REM), which is very different from other levels of nondreaming sleep. Considerable evidence indicates that one of the primary reasons why we need to sleep is precisely that we may dream. People under experimental investigations who were deprived of REM sleep became more irritable than when they were awakened during other sleep. Our interest, however, is in the meaning of dreaming and of dreams. For this we turn to the Bible and to psychology.


John A. Sanford's Dreams, God's Forgotten Language and Morton T. Kelsey's God, Dreams, and Revelation present exhaustive coverage of the place of dreams in the Bible. Kelsey further examines the attitudes toward dreams held by the fathers of the church.

Concordances and commentaries, such as John L. McKenzie's Dictionary of the Bible, agree with Sanford and Kelsey that God has indeed spoken to his people through dreams at different times in the past. We recall the dream of Jacob's ladder (Gen. 28:10-15) and the Magi's dream (Matt. 2:12) as two of the better known instances of revelation through dreams. But other biblical personages -- notably Abraham, Joseph, Gideon, Samuel, Saul, Joseph (Mary's husband), Pilate's wife, and Paul -- also experienced significant dreams.

Kelsey points out that biblical accounts of dreams, "visions in the night," prophecies, talking with God face to face, and experiences with angels all express a mode of communication from God that is not subject to ego control. In many of his lectures, tapes, and writings, Kelsey emphasizes the existence of a spiritual universe that underlies our space-time world, the two coming into contact in many places, but especially perceived by us in our unconscious. Dreams, visions, prophecies, and other communications from God are all, according to Kelsey, different ways in which messages from the spiritual realm break into consciousness where they can be comprehended and acted upon. The dream, he concludes, is the most common of these phenomena.

Unfortunately, the Bible is relatively silent when it comes to the art of dream interpretation. "Are not interpretations God's business?" Joseph explained to the Pharaoh's officials (Gen. 40:8). "Unless sent by emissaries from the Most High, do not give them [dreams] a thought," wrote Jesus ben Sirach (Sir. 34:6), reiterating Joseph's position, but leaving the matter quite vague. This problem is further compounded when there appear on the scene certain false prophets with their lying visions and dreams causing such a mistrust of dream content that Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah denounced the dream as a credible mode of communication from the divine (see especially Jer. 23:16-32).

Excessive fear about dream interpretation is uncalled for, however. The most harsh injunctions concerning dreams are found in Old Testament works only. We live in the Pentecostal Age, about which the prophet Joel stated: "I [Yahweh] will pour out my Spirit on all humanity; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men see visions" (3:1). It is almost as though Joel wrote out of frustration over the difficulty in discerning God's voice and looked forward to the day when people would be more intimately aware of the Spirit of God and, consequently, of the Spirit's voice in dreams and visions.

Although the New Testament includes none of the pessimism of the Books of Ecclesiastes or of Jeremiah concerning dreams, it, too, is very silent about the "how-to" of dream interpretation. There seems to be an almost naive trust in the Spirit's workings through dreams and visions, so much so that the history of the church took several significant turns because dreams, visions, and prophetic utterances were taken seriously (see Acts 10:10-16; 11:1-8). Could it be that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit longed for by Joel affected the dream lives of the people of God?

This brief survey of the place of dreams in the Bible provides evidence that God was believed to have spoken to his people through dreams on some occasions. For an understanding of how dreams might be a vehicle for divine communication and of how they might be interpreted, we will find Jungian psychology most helpful.


The anatomist and physiologist find it useful to recognize the existence of various parts of the human body as tissues and organs, each of which performs certain tasks that others do not. Very little objection seems to be raised concerning this dissection, however subjective it may appear to be at times. In a similar way psychologists in the Jungian tradition have identified certain faculties of the human psyche which function cooperatively to help us to perceive our worlds and discover their meanings.

Jung spoke of two basic levels of psychic activity. Consciousness is that level of the psyche where awareness is possible. The coordinating center of consciousness is the ego-self, which directs voluntary activities. The unconscious is that vast, mysterious level of the psyche where involuntary activities are coordinated. Repressed memories and feelings barred from consciousness by defense mechanisms as well as healthy memories and impressions belong to what Jung called the personal unconscious. The collective unconscious is a deeper level -- the primitive, instinctual psyche over which consciousness was developed.

The language of the unconscious is not like that which we are accustomed to speaking during the course of everyday communication. Dreams, which are spontaneous productions of the unconscious, strikingly demonstrate to us that this "dark speech of the spirit' may be as incomprehensible to the ego at times as is a foreign language. This incomprehensibility is due to the fact that the language of dreams is symbolic, and we have increasingly lost the ability to value and to understand symbolic language in modern scientific and technological culture.

The symbol is the primary means by which the energies of the unconscious are presented to consciousness. Behind symbols lie specific kinds of energies and instincts that have taken from the great storehouse of forms in the unconscious certain representations to present their case to consciousness. If it were not for these symbols, we could not comprehend the nature of the energies of the unconscious as clearly as we do. For example, the desire for food is experienced as a certain kind of sensation in the stomach, but also by the emergence into consciousness of images about these foods which, presumably, the body is trying to tell us we need to eat. The energies that are tied up in symbols pertain to our ever-changing needs and are expressed symbolically in as many subtle shades of specificity as there are specific shades of human needs.

To Jung, it was obvious that the symbols produced by the unconscious related to the context of the life of an individual. Dream symbols cannot, therefore, be standardized, as the supermarket pocket manuals attempt to do. One's personal associations with the symbols produced by dreams are of primary importance.

But there are basic human needs shared by all people; and there are, correspondingly, movements of psychic energy that are similar in all people. If not, we could not communicate with one another. These similarities in basic human needs and psychic movements make it possible for us to recognize broad categories of dream symbols. They are described as follows: (1) sensation: attentiveness to the outside world of reality; (2) intuition: attentiveness to the inner world of possibilities inherent in a particular perception; (3) thinking: interest in the "whatness" of things; and (4) feeling: the emotional impression that tells us what things are worth or how they are valued.

Sensing and intuiting, thinking and feeling, represent, in Jungian psychology, paired opposites, or extreme poles, of two basic activities of the psyche: perceiving and understanding respectively. They are called the Four Functions in his terminology, and in personality studies it has been demonstrated that we all favor one function over its opposite. One might, for example, prefer sensing and feeling over intuiting and thinking. This does not mean, however, that the opposite functions are not utilized and integrated into the personality. We all sense, intuit, think, and feel; and these psychic capacities are often symbolized in dreams as personifications of people we know who exemplify one or more of these functions. Our association with the people in our dreams and attention to their activities can help us to learn how to integrate better perception and understanding in our own personalities.

Another broad category into which dream symbols may fall is persona, the face we show to the world. In Jung's understanding, this superficial level of awareness becomes destructive when we excessively identify ourselves with the roles demanded of us by society's customs, manners, or standards of success. Our persona-selves show up in dreams as clothing (or lack thereof), masks, or colored skin.

Still another category is shadow, the side of ourselves we hide from the world. Much of our shadow energies come from repressed anger, maliciousness, and other destructive tendencies. These energies invariably appear in dreams as ugly and terrifying symbols, usually in personifications of the same sex as the dreamer. Because our shadow-selves include so much energy, learning how to transform our shadows is one key to vitality, and dreams can help us to unlock this process. Because the shadow also includes our repressed greatness and fear of success, its recognition and acceptance can lead to tremendous growth.

Libido, or psychic energy, is still another broad category of dream symbols. We have spoken of psychic energy already, so it is appropriate here to recognize that even this is often symbolized in dreams by horses or other animals and by transportive machines that connote motion and power.


A very significant set of broad categories is anima and animus, the hidden femininity in a man and the hidden masculinity in a woman respectively. These energies follow from the fact that we inherit two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. In a man, the anima, or feminine side of his personality, represents the caring, nurturing, and emotional aspect of his nature; in a woman, the animus represents those aspects of her personality dealing with opinions, convictions, and self-assertiveness. Learning to integrate these sexual complements is one of the main tasks of the individual and is essential for growth.

Men and women do well to pay careful attention to the characters in their dreams who are of the opposite sex from themselves. These characters are often represented by people we know but are sometimes symbolized by creatures of a mythological type. Aphrodite, Eros, Athena, Mercury, and all their relatives still influence our lives, often breaking into our dreams when the instinctual energies they represent cry out for attention. Relationship with the anima or animus influences, and is influenced by, our relationships with people of the opposite sex, usually moving from seductive eroticism in early life through amiable companionship in the middle years to culminate in spiritual wisdom. Anima and animus stand at the gates of the collective unconscious and are the most valuable interlocutors between the ego and the deeper self.

The category known as archetypes contains symbols from the collective unconscious that communicate the instincts. They often assume mythological forms and motifs that prevent personal associations from being clues to their meaning. Serpents, dragons, centaurs, devils, and other characters seemingly straight from a book of fairy tales frequently convey these energies. The contention of Jungians is that the myths of all races represent archetypal dreams shared and discussed among people having the same types of dream experiences. This explains the similarities between cultural myths and indicates why some knowledge of mythology is helpful for understanding dreams.

The final category to be noted here is complexes, semi-spontaneous centers of psychic activity caused by repression or lack of mental discipline. Compulsions related to eating, drinking, smoking, talking -- anything that is not under the control of the ego-self -- can become a complex. Repressed feelings and memories that form little substations of psychic activity can break into consciousness, producing moods and seemingly engulfing the ego momentarily. Symbols representing complexes usually appear in dreams as forms that personal association can readily identify. The cigarette may represent a smoker's complex, or the compulsion to diet may be symbolized by fat or skinny people. Pathological complexes which operate like alter egos will likewise show up in dreams, although they may require professional assistance to be integrated into the whole personality.

While the above represent the most basic categories of symbols that are likely to appear in dreams, it should be noted that there are many other aspects of life -- for example, occupation, sense of humor, physical health -- that can be and often are symbolized in dreams. It should be further noted that dream symbols seldom appear representing only one of the above categories. Complexes may, for instance, include shadow and even persona symbols; archetypes often include many subtleties; the shadow might even represent repressed thinking or feeling functions; the anima and animus reveal hundreds of shades of unintegrated sexuality, sometimes combining symbols relating to any of the Four Functions or even the shadow and persona. A common occurrence in dreams is the metamorphosis, or changing, of a symbolic character as the dream develops.

The unconscious may produce symbols from events of the past day, from present relationships, from television and movie characters -- from all that multitude of perceptions which slip into the personal unconscious or are produced as archetypes by the collective unconscious. Obviously these symbols speak to us about our lives. Seldom can they be interpreted objectively, that is, as pertaining to the person or persons dreamed about. Objective interpretations are usually limited to married couples or to those who enjoy such a degree of intimacy that they share a relationship with one another at the unconscious level of existence.

The symbols of our dreams, we conclude, tell us much about the psychic forces at work within us, of which we are not consciously aware. In telling us about the working of these forces, our dreams are also telling us how we are relating to other persons, to society, to nature. In other words, our lives are embedded in a world of which we have conscious knowledge and feelings and to which we consciously respond and react, but of which we also have unconscious knowledge, feeling, responses, and reactions. These latter enter into consciousness through symbols, as in ancient myths, or in fairy tales, or, as we are considering now, in our dreams.

In the spiritual life we are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to relate the whole of our lives -- their conscious as well as their unconscious aspects -- to God. Of course, we seek to discern God's will for us in the external circumstances of our lives, for example, a sick child to be cared for, massive world hunger to be relieved, ignorance of God's saving work in Christ to be replaced with knowledge of the gospel. We also seek to discern God's will in our conscious behavior; for instance, we have the ability to put people at ease or to lead children to learn -- a sign that suggests how God is calling us to serve people. But we can seek to discern God's will for us also through the dreams we have. Through their symbols we discover, for example, faulty relationships to ourselves (perhaps failure to integrate masculine or feminine traits into our sexual identity); we see deficient relationships to others (as relating to them only through our persona, or social mask, and not our real self). Our lack of Christian love and the proliferation of sin which follows and makes life miserable (complexes) can be discerned through dreams. Positively, our dreams may reveal to us psychologically healthy tendencies which deserve to be fostered consciously, so that we may love ourselves, neighbors, and God more adequately as Christians. A case can be made, therefore, for attending to our dreams as a means of growing in Christian discipleship.


There are, however, some problems to be dealt with in using dreams as a means of spiritual direction. Many people claim that they do not remember their dreams. Because it is a fact that we all dream several times during each sleeping period, the problem has to do more with our remembering than with our dreaming. I have found that a person's capacity to recall dreams increases as one begins to take dreams seriously. Those first few dreams recorded are especially important, almost as though the unconscious is saying: "Well now, you're finally going to listen, eh? Well, here's the way things are now!" I have found, too, that prayer for meaningful dreams before sleep helps me to recall dreams in the morning, sometimes even supplying that extra impetus necessary to move me to record them.

Those who suffer from insomnia and fear the consequences of midnight activity have a surmountable problem. I have discovered that for myself (a slight insomniac) difficulty in returning to sleep ensues only when I have attempted to interpret a dream after recording it. Interpretation involves the conscious, rational mind, which is the restless "daemon" we put to rest during sleep. A mere recording of a dream seldom bothers me more than does, say, getting a glass of water during the night, if I can leave the interpretation until later. If the insomniac can write down or tape-record the dream and leave it at that, returning to sleep should not be a problem. If the problem remains, then it will be necessary to restrict dream data to those recalled when waking up for the day.

I insert here a word of caution about examining the messages of dreams. Dreams represent a natural expression of the unconscious and attempt to harmonize and integrate instincts, memories, and feelings. If one has a history of neuroses and depressions, it is better to take up the study of dreams in communication with a counselor who has developed some skills in the art of dream interpretation (such counselors are few, but they exist). Dreams can be brutally frank, threatening whatever fragile self-image the neurotic holds fast to. If at all possible, depressives and neurotics should seek professional support when studying dreams.

On the other hand, dreams can sometimes compensate for a poor self-image by flattering and highly elevating the dreamer in his or her dreams. Then there are those who, regardless of dream content, suppose that a little understanding about dreams bequeaths upon them a supernatural knowledge that "mere laypeople" lack. While it is true that dreams would, in the above examples, eventually compensate for puffed up egos, calling them back to proper proportions, the obnoxiousness of the dreamer in the intermittent periods might overstrain relationships that had taken years, of shared activities to build. It follows, then, that "healthy" people (a minority, to be sure) would also do well to pursue dream interpretation by dialoguing about dreams with spouses, friends, counselors -- anyone who can help to confirm the kinds of insights about self that one believes the dreams are yielding. At any rate, we should not assume that dreams open the door to a radically different value system than that by which we now live. Dreams are unconscious productions, and therefore are pre-rational and pre-moral. Their feedback might have moral ramifications, but the working out of a response to dream data is the task of consciousness, which is always the responsible center of the psyche.


But why go through all the trouble of recording and interpreting dreams? True, God has spoken through dreams. But he has spoken through other means, too. Are there not easier, more trustworthy ways to hear his voice? Those are good questions, indeed, most likely to come up at 2:30 A.M. when one wakes up with a dream fresh in mind but does not feel like making the effort to record it.

It is true that there are many other ways to discern the voice of God in our lives, but why exclude the dream if it is one way? If there is the most remote possibility that we might learn something new about ourselves -- something that only dreams can reveal -- does it not make sense to try to listen? Are we not passionately interested in our own lives and their development? If we are, then considering the parables about our lives which dreams spin nightly should present exciting possibilities for us. If we do not care about our lives, then maybe dreams can reveal why the light of passion has become "hidden under a bushel basket." Looking at the problem from another direction, does it make sense to withhold openness to a possible communication from God? Such pearls are of immeasurable worth to Christians and should be sought out at least as persistently as the friend in the gospel story sought bread in the night (Luke 11:5-8).

The least possible value to be realized from reflecting upon dream material will be a more nearly full communication with our unconscious and a growing comprehension of the world of the symbolic -- two very significant values. Whether or not we understand all the stories and characters that come to us in dreams, there is something healthy about being in more complete dialogue with the unconscious. Until we experience the depth of awareness that comes from listening to, and struggling to comprehend, dream data, we will not know what we are missing. It is free; it is fulfilling; and it is fun!


It has been my purpose to suggest a basis for taking dream material seriously. Space does not permit a review of approaches to dream interpretation, for such would involve numerous examples and commentaries. The following books have been helpful in clarifying approaches to dream interpretation and I heartily recommend them to the novice as well as the professional.

Joseph Campbell. The Portable Jung. New York: Viking Press, 1971. A faithful translation of a representative cross section of the more unique and significant works of Jung. Somewhat technical in nature, but accessible to the persistent.

Carl G. Jung. Man and His Symbols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Beautifully illustrated and written in language for laypeople, this book touches on the major themes in Jungian psychology. It is of limited value to those interested in a comprehensive study of dreams.

Carl G. Jung. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage edition, 1961. Jung's autobiography as recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffé. It is extremely interesting for its historical overview of the development of Jung's thought and of American psychology. It includes numerous discussions of the role of dreams in Jung's own life.

Morton T. Kelsey. Dreams: The Dark Speech of the Spirit. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. A scholarly but highly readable work exploring the basis for taking dreams seriously. It includes discussions of Greek, Hebrew, New Testament, later church, and scientific understandings of the significance of dreams.

Morton T. Kelsey. The Other Side of Silence. Paramus, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1976. This work is mainly concerned with establishing an understanding of Christian meditation, but chapter 13, "Exploring the Nature of the Spiritual World," includes a discussion of the unconscious, dreams, and spiritual growth.

Morton T. Kelsey. The Christian and the Supernatural. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976. A discussion of the manner in which dreams, meditation, hypnosis, drugs, and ESP experiences affect our lives and our growth.

Maria F. Mahoney. The Meaning in Dreams and Dreaming. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1966. Simply a must for anyone interested in becoming better acquainted with a Jungian approach to dream interpretation. It includes a comprehensive discussion of dream symbols and their manifestations in dreams; it provides examples from actual dream experiences of how these symbols can be interpreted. Highly readable and accessible to beginners.

John A. Sanford. Dreams: God's Forgotten Language. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1968. A great pastoral guide for those interested in making use of dream interpretation in a counseling context. It also includes discussions of the biblical view of dreams and what Jungian psychology has to contribute to our understanding of dreams.