Dreams and Unintentional Sin
Experts tell us that we dream at least two hours every night. Most of us don’t recall the mental escapades the next day. But when we do, we usually dismiss them quickly. But how should we think about a dream in which we sin? The content of these dreams can startle, even shock us. Would God want us to view these actions as real sin?
It is a good question. Are we answerable to God for what we dream? At first sight the answer seems to be a resounding no. How can we be held accountable for something we don’t have any control over? Our dreams don’t come with an on/off button. When we are out, we’re out.
And yet we know that the stuff that makes up our dreams are often a strange mixture of the things we did, saw, discussed, or felt during our waking hours. Let’s say you watch a very suspenseful movie or spend the day worrying extensively about your job. Don’t be surprised if it surfaces in your dreams. “For a dream comes with much business” (Eccl. 5:3). So when evil intrudes our subconscious during the night, it may very well be the effect of sin-stained “business” during the day.
It is true that we don’t have direct control over what we dream. But we do bear an indirect responsibility for its content by what we’re putting into our minds. In what direction do our desires or fears tend to go when we’re awake? What do we occupy our minds with before we hit the bed? Are the things we’re watching on TV or the Internet good and wholesome or base and offensive to God? It can make a big difference. Protected hearts (Prov. 4:23) will produce wholesome imagination.
But how do you deal with those times when evil does intrude your dream? What should you do when you wake up angry at your boss, fists clenched and heart rate up? Or after dreaming about an illicit lustful act? Or when in your dream, you’re aloof and prideful towards others in church? Is there anything in Scripture that can help us?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught that we can break a command without committing the actual act. A lingering, lustful thought already violates the command not to commit adultery (Mat. 5:27-29). Just because we haven’t acted out an evil deed doesn’t mean we’re guiltless.
Also, the Law of Moses made a distinction between intentional and unintentional sins (Lev. 4:1-35; Num. 15:22-29. For a New Testament example see Luke 12:47-48). Discovering how God viewed unintentional sin may be helpful to know how to deal with sin in our dreams.
Intentional sinful deeds were violations of God’s law done willfully, consciously, with “a high hand” (Num. 15:30: Ps. 19:12-13). It was deliberate. Not so with unintentional sin. Here the person didn’t realize he did wrong until later, until it was brought to his attention (Lev. 14:23). Unintentional sin also included coincidental sin, as in the case of an accidental killing (compare Ex. 21:14 with Josh. 20:1-9). There is an immediate realization of wrong. The transgressor doesn't hide behind excuses. On the contrary, he is heartbroken, because he never intended to commit the sin.
While unintentional sin was less “weighty” in the eyes of the Lord, He still considered it to be sin. Leviticus 4 and Numbers 15 prescribes the sin offering that had to be made to “make atonement for the (unintentional) sin which he has committed” (Lev. 4:35). After the sacrifice was made, the sinner was absolved from guilt.
Perhaps we should see a sinful act in our dream as such an unintentional sin. It is not premeditated. It is not deliberate. At that moment, you are not consciously aware that you are dwelling on something wrong. But when the realization sets in (i.e. you remember the sinfulness of your “actions” in your dream), you should make it right with God. Similar to Moses’ teaching on unintentional sin, the dream is less severe than the actual act. But your mind, heart, and conscience still need cleansing. Not by animal sacrifices, but by the precious blood of the Lamb (1 Joh. 1:9).
Over the years, I have had a few troubling dreams with which I had to go the Lord about. It has led me to ask myself some hard questions about my thoughts, desires, and fears during the day. But the confession of sin in my dreams, even when the sin was unintentional, even when it wasn’t conscious, has been liberating. God’s Gospel mercy reaches deeply, in every crevice of our soul.
“Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). Day and night.