I’ve always had vivid dreams, even as a kid back in Kansas. Full of strange characters, conversations and symbols. Sometimes I can barely make sense of them, even if I write them down in my journal. Like a series of dreams I had last spring. I kept seeing buses, subways and hallways. But I always got on the wrong bus, missed my subway stop or never made it to the end of the hallway. It felt as if I were being warned. Then again, maybe I was just having stress dreams about the subway, like any other New Yorker!
I never quite figured out those dreams, and my puzzlement only intensified once I started working at Mysterious Ways. I heard story after story about warning dreams from readers and even from my colleagues. My fellow editor Danielle Lyle shared an incredible one. Years earlier, she had worked at a huge seven-level athletic store. One night, in a dream, she saw a blond boy playing on the fourth floor of the store, right by the thick rope railing that overlooked the levels below. The boy was leaning against the railing when he suddenly fell through.
“There was an urgency to what I saw,” Danielle said. “I knew it was real. That it was going to happen soon.”
She got to work early the next morning and took her manager to the spot she’d seen the boy fall in her dream. They lightly tugged the ropes of the railing. The top three were fine. But the last one came right out.
Danielle’s dream floored me. I knew God spoke through dreams. Many an Old Testament hero received a warning in a dream. But is he still doing that today? Why warn us in a dream and not, say, through a text message? Why is the method as mysterious as the message?
I brought my questions to James W. Goll, a minister and best-selling author of Dream Language: The Prophetic Power of Dreams, Revelations and the Spirit of Wisdom. According to Goll, warning dreams are still very much a thing. In fact, God may actually prefer to warn us in our sleep because we’re less likely to get distracted. Dreams that are “sticky” get our attention and spur us into action.
“They feel like flypaper,” he says. “Meaning, you can try and peel it off your skin, but it’ll only get stuck to another part of your skin. You won’t be able to get rid of it.”
There’s a reason Jesus liked speaking in parables—they’re memorable. Similarly, warning dreams are often filled with unforgettable imagery, metaphors, even plots. “God likes to put a hook in us to draw us closer to him,” Goll says. “Sometimes he’ll give us a puzzle to solve so that we have to search for the meaning.”
Goll recalled one such dream from several years earlier. In it, he saw himself lying on the floor. Soldiers in dark green towered over him, their presence overwhelming. He was filled with dread. Then the scene changed. This time, Goll saw himself standing up, looking down at the soldiers, which turned out to be tiny plastic Army men. At the end of the dream, Goll heard someone say, “And your enemies will become like grasshoppers in your own sight.”
Goll woke up, confused. He had no idea what the dream meant. Until three months later, when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He remembered the toy soldiers and grasshoppers. This time, it brought to mind a story from the Bible. Of Moses sending 12 spies to Canaan. Ten spies returned to Moses, overwhelmed by the Canaanites, who made them feel as small as grasshoppers. But two of the spies—Joshua and Caleb—reported something different. From their perspective, Canaan was conquerable. Just like Goll’s lymphoma.
“God was warning me about my illness and advising me too,” Goll says. “He was telling me to look at it from his perspective.”
Dreams like Goll’s are far more common than you might think. According to Dr. Michelle Carr, a researcher at Swansea University Sleep Laboratory, dreams can sometimes predict health problems years in advance. In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Carr cites the example of a man who had a recurring dream of a rat gnawing at his stomach. He was later diagnosed with an ulcer.
“There are several cases cited in [research] of dreams that directly indicated illness through imagery,” Dr. Carr writes. “For example, dreams preceding migraines have been reported to include pertinent images, such as being shot or struck by lightning in the head.” A 2015 study conducted by Dr. Larry Burk in Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing also found that the warning dreams of women later diagnosed with breast cancer “were often reported to be life-changing experiences that prompted medical attention leading directly to diagnosis.”
Could it be that the body knows it’s in trouble long before symptoms actually appear? Or is God warning us about our health as we lie sleeping? While we may never know for sure, the lesson seems to be to pay attention. You might even be able to change the outcome.
That’s what happened to Joy Parrott, a minister and author of Parables in the Night Season. Several years ago, Parrott had a startling dream. She saw herself standing outside her home as it was consumed by flames. Unsure what it meant, Parrott prayed about it. Every day for weeks and weeks.
Months later, while on vacation with her husband, Parrott received a phone call from her teenage son. He’d made plans to go out with his girlfriend after work but felt compelled to rush home first. He entered the house and smelled smoke.
“The smell got stronger as he walked toward the armchair where I always sit,” Parrott says. “Next to the chair was a table where I kept my coffeecup warmer plate. It was on the floor, burning.” Parrott’s cat had knocked it over, and the impact of the fall had turned it on. Her son arrived just in time to put out the fire. Parrott believes her son wouldn’t have made the last-minute stop home had she not prayed right after her dream.
But why does God warn some and not others? Or does everyone get warnings and just not know it? “God is a loving father,” Parrott says. “He’s going to alert his children to look before crossing the street. But sometimes we get so busy with our lives that we might not see or hear what he’s alerting us to.”
Which is why you could be warned through someone close to you or even a complete stranger. “If God warned you in a dream and you dismissed it,” Parrott says, “he might ask someone else to step in and help.”
So how can you know whether or not you’re being warned? Goll recommends noting anything out of the ordinary. “God will speak warnings more than once,” he says. “Either you’ll have the same dream again or you’ll keep hearing a phrase in your waking life that brings you back to the dream.”
As I’ve discovered, it’s also a good idea to write down your dreams. Look for ominous or unusual imagery. Things like dark clouds, cliffs, floods, unfriendly animals. Bridges, doorways and roadways are significant too. They often symbolize impending periods of change or testing.
After talking to Goll and Parrott, I went back to my dream journal and took another look at my dreams from last spring. Buses, subways and hallways that never went anywhere. At the time, I’d been searching for a new job. The process was stressful. I had several offers on the table. But, for whatever reason, none of them felt right. Maybe those dreams were preparing me. Making me uneasy so I wouldn’t take a job that put me on the wrong path.
Sure enough, my dreams immediately shifted this past June. Right around the time I started working at Mysterious Ways.
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