Does God Have Dreams for His People?

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His NameTalk of God’s having dreams seems to be growing in popularity—not the fall-asleep-and-see-strange-things kind, but the wishful, hopeful, I-really-want-this-to-happen kind. You won’t find this kind of language in (any?) English translations of the Bible. And you won’t find it in the writings of previous centuries’ theologians (e.g., Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Hodge, Spurgeon, and Warfield). But it’s all throughout the popular Christian literature of the last several decades.

I was reminded of this while rereading Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name with my wife and daughter during our family Bible time. There’s much to like about the book, but I’m not sold on the talk about God’s having dreams for His people—even in a book for children.

Here are three examples:

But God saved the best for last. From the beginning, God had a shining dream in his heart. He would make people to share his Forever Happiness. They would be his children, and the world would be their perfect home. (25)

God loves his children too much to let the story end there. Even though he knew he would suffer, God had a plan—a magnificent dream. One day, he would get his children back. One day, he would make the world their perfect home again. And one day, he would wipe away every tear from their eyes. (36)

That’s the end of that dreamer! they thought. But they were wrong. God had a magnificent dream for Joseph’s life and even when it looked like everything had gone wrong, God would use it all to help make the dream come true. God would use everything that was happening to Joseph to do something good. (78)

It’s obvious that she’s using dream synonymously with plan, but I’m uncomfortable with some of the connotations and implications dream carries with it.

Here are some other examples from popular Christian literature in the last couple of decades:

Spending too much time on the details rather than the dreams. This is a natural corollary to the mistake of staying busy. When life gets busy and I get invested in all the dirty details flowing my way, I lose site of the dreams that God has for me. Here’s the reality: those dreams usually come when the pace of my life slows enough to do stuff like read, pray, rest, experience new places, and meet new people. Dealing with the dailiness of life doesn’t allow for that. It needs to be planned and prioritized. We need to create space to experience God and all that he has for us.1

God’s discipline—painful though it may be—lasts for a moment. God is never content to allow destruction and misery to have the last word. He promises to bring beauty in place of the ashes. Life had crashed down around the weeping prophet’s ears, but that didn’t mean God was through. God had a dream, and He meant to turn it into reality.2

The secret message of Jesus isn’t primarily about “heaven after you die.” It doesn’t give us an exit ramp or escape hatch from this world; rather, it thrusts us back into the here and now so we can be part of God’s dreams for planet Earth coming true. ((Brian D. McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2006), 183.))

You were given life because God had a dream for you. Individually, specifically, by name. You were no accident. God willed you into existence, and He not only gave you life, but He also invested you with promise and potential. Within you is the opportunity to join with God in fulfilling the great adventure birthed in His mind for you from eternity.3

No, it is not too late, even for you and me, to throw ourselves on Jesus Christ, really to take, really to use that strange power that he offers and so really grow into his blessed likeness, not too late for God’s dream of us to come really true.4

Man was created in the image of God. God’s dream for man was a dream of greatness. Man was designed for fellowship with God. He was created that he might be nothing less than kin to God. As Cicero, the Roman thinker, saw it, “the only difference between man and God is in point of time.” Man was essentially man born to be king.5

The prophets, perhaps scarcely knowing what they were saying, had their hints and forecasts of a time when all men of all nations would know God. That time is not yet; but it is the dream of God that some day the knowledge of him will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, and it is the glory of man that he can help make God’s dream come true.6

Hope cannot be for private salvation alone but for the cosmic peace. And because things will never reach the harmony that is God’s dream for the human community but will always be under the eschatological proviso, Christians, far from trading opium, cannot settle for any human utopia but must be ever restless for the bringing about of the elusive kingdom.7

“God has a way to make people right with him” (Rom. 3:21, italics mine). How vital that we embrace this truth. God’s highest dream is not to make us rich, not to make us successful or popular or famous. God’s dream is to make us right with him. ((Max Lucado and Terri A. Gibbs, Grace for the Moment: Inspirational Thoughts for Each Day of the Year (Nashville: J. Countryman, 2000), 304.))

Given the assumed authority for Christians of the biblical revelation, there is to be no doubt that, working persistently, powerfully, vulnerably, dependably, God has a dream, a plan, and the ability to bring it to eventual reality. The Maker of heaven and earth stands by the plan and chooses to be the ever-present Sustainer and Redeemer of even a fallen creation.8

Martin Luther King is best known for his speech, “I Have a Dream.” He dreamed of equality of the races and social justice for all people. The Book of Isaiah might be read as God saying, “I Have a Dream.” If so, we would see that God dreamed of a future in which righteousness prevailed among the people and peace prevailed among the nations. God then went so far as to foretell how He planned to redeem the world. In the most magnificent poetry of the Old or New Testament, He foretells the coming of His servant who will bear the names, “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).9

How closely the human family experience fuses with the spiritual experience. Is this a little of what God dreamed before the foundation of the world, a household of faith? I really do think so.10

We can claim that power for the future as well. The people of God are those who will dream dreams and see visions. That is the prophecy at Pentecost. God wants to give us His dream for our personal lives and for society. I am on the board of the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle, founded by a young man from Minnesota who was given a dream by God fifty years ago. He came here during the depression years and began a work to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to help the alcoholic and the lonely. He had no resources except his dreams. His dream is still going on. Every year the Union Gospel Mission provides tens of thousands of meals and beds and caring for needy men and women. God has a dream for you as well. Twenty-five or fifty years from now, other people may be walking around in your dream. ((Bruce Larson and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Luke, The Preacher’s Commentary 26 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 345–46.))

See also God Has a Dream for Your Life by Sheila Walsh.

These authors mean to express something of God’s will, desires, or plans, which are biblically appropriate terms and concepts. And while dream can be roughly synonymous, I think there are good reasons for avoiding it with reference to God. Will, desire, and plan are more neutral terms and don’t have carry the same baggage with them that dream does. Dream can convey “a wild or vain fancy” and seems to carry with it the connotation of powerlessness to effect what is hoped for. By using the term dream, something is—or at least, can be—lost of the absolute sovereignty and omnipotence of God. Dream doesn’t contribute anything that other terms lack, so I see no good reason to use it—especially with our children.

Agree? Disagree? Why?

More conversation on this topic over on Facebook.

Footnotes

  1. Tony Morgan and Andy Stanley, Killing Cockroaches (Nashville: B&H, 2009), 186.
  2. Kenneth Boa and John Alan Turner, The 52 Greatest Stories of the Bible (Ventura, CA: Gospel Light, 2008), 186.
  3. James Emery White, Life-Defining Moments (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2001), 69.
  4. Diana Wallis, Take Heart: Daily Devotions with the Church’s Great Preachers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001), 227.
  5. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, The Daily Study Bible Series, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 2000), 14.
  6. William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans, The Daily Study Bible Series, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 2000), 222.
  7. Judith A. Dwyer, The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2000), 641.
  8. Barry Callen, God as Loving Grace (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 1996), 135.
  9. David McKenna and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Isaiah 1–39, The Preacher’s Commentary 17 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 20–21.
  10. Louis H. Evans Jr. and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Hebrews, The Preacher’s Commentary 33 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 92.

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5 Responses to Does God Have Dreams for His People?

  1. Vincent Martini January 31, 2013 at 6:45 am #

    Phil,

    I think you make some great points here. There are times when words fail us, and we are left with nothing but anthropomorphic descriptions of the “feelings” of God the Father (for example), but such anthropomorphic words must always be used with the understanding that they are just that.

    When writing for a popular audience (as with the books you cited), an author should, I believe, be more surgical in their careful usage of such language, so as not to mislead the unlearned or misrepresent the Lord in a problematic manner.

  2. Hannah Anderson January 31, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    I’ll take up the devil’s advocate position–maybe because I’ve used the word “dreams” in my own writing to describe God’s sovereign plans.

    I think one of the problems is that “dream”–like any word–cannot be understood apart from context. Word-based interpretational schemes can overemphasize the definition of a specific word without taking into consideration that words are in constant flux. Meaning is heavily influenced by larger context and authors often bend definitions to highlight a specific aspect of a concept. For me, the word “dream” is only problematic if the surrounding theology reinforces a weak God unable to fulfill the dreams He has for His creation. But this is an issue of the larger text, not simply one word.

    I’ve always used the word “dream” to describe the emotional connection that God has to His sovereign plans. In our common understanding, the word “plans” is limited to schematics and schedules. I wanted a way to express both the grandeur and intimacy of God’s sovereignty.

    • Phil Gons January 31, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

      Hannah, thanks for dropping by and sharing your take. I agree that all words must be understood in their individual contexts. I also agree that authors may use dream terminology of God and believe and intend to communicate right theology about God. Where I start getting concerned is on the other side of the act of communication. (1) Not everyone has the proper hermeneutical foundation to know how to interpret dream terminology used of God contextually (e.g., children). IMO, that places greater responsibility on the communicator to use terminology that is as clear, understandable, unambiguous, and precise as possible. The word dream seems prone to over-communicating when used of God. (2) What an author intends and a reader understands are often not the same thing. And while there is shared responsibility, I think more of it falls on the writer/speaker (who is usually more educated) than on the reader/listener.

      The fuzziness and imprecision of dream language may be why the biblical authors and writers throughout most of church history have avoided this kind of talk about God’s desires. Both the OT and the NT have words for dream, and I find it interesting that we never find them use them of God in the way that many contemporary authors do.

      I’ll ponder more your point about some of the added value dream may contribute that its rough synonyms wouldn’t.

  3. Isaac Stokes January 31, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Phil – insightful post. The word “dream” is definitely a popular term commonly used in Christian literature these days. While I believe many of the authors’ intentions are to use the word to refer to God’s ultimate and sovereign purpose, will, and plan, I understand the word can carry with it misconceptions based on people’s ideas of its meaning (or lack thereof). It seems as if words – even commonly used direct Biblical words – get hijacked in their meaning and application. I think it’s a worthy and valuable task to stay original to the Scriptural text itself while seeking new ways to convey foundational Biblical truths shrouded often by familarity and misconceptions. Thanks for the post!

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