Q. Is it possible to sin in dreams? Do you think that dreams in any sense reflect one’s state of morality absent of inhibitions or consequences? Do you think that they serve as warnings in terms of what might be the consequences of various actions? Or are they just dreams and shouldn’t be paid much attention?
Whether it’s possible to sin in a dream depends on what sense of sin is in view.
The Bible envisions sin in two different senses. In one sense it’s conscious willful disobedience to the known wishes of God, or, put more simply, doing something that you know is wrong. This involves a choice of the will, and that’s why it’s not possible to sin in this sense in your dreams.
Dreams are symbolic subconscious expressions of our imagination, impulses, wishes, and desires. They tend to depict something we want to happen, or else something we don’t want to happen, or they represent the realization of something that’s been apparent before us but hasn’t previously registered in our consciousness. (In this last sense a dream may indeed serve as a warning.)
We are not morally responsible for every idea that pops into our heads, every thought that flits through our minds, or every feeling or desire that wells up inside us. So dreams don’t really reflect what we would be like morally if we had no consequences to fear.
What we are responsible for is what we choose to do with these things that come into our minds and show up in our dreams. It’s not a sin to become angry with someone, for example. (The Bible itself says, “Be angry, but do not sin.”) But it is a sin to choose to take a further step and hold a grudge, plot revenge, or lose our temper and become verbally or physically abusive.
For example, suppose you have an argument with someone during the day. That night, you dream about killing them. This is not a sin. It’s the expression of a feeling. But when you wake up, you are morally responsible for what you choose to do in response to that feeling, which you have now become vividly aware of. Following the Bible’s teaching, you should seek forgiveness and reconciliation with that other person.
In other words, what happens in dreams represents only the first stage in the process–an idea, or wish, or desire. Since our wills are not active in our dreams, but instead our unconscious mind paints a lively symbolic scenario based on an idea, wish, or desire, there is no moral culpability–no sin–on our part, no matter what happens in the dream.
But as I said, there is another sense in which the Bible envisions sin. It’s also a force that’s active within us to shape our thoughts, words, and actions towards evil, in ways we are often not aware of. This force is active even in our dreams. The very things we imagine, desire, and wish for are not necessarily morally neutral, but influenced by the force of sin.
And in that sense, while we still do not sin in our dreams, we dream while under the influence of sin, and so the way we put things together in our heads while dreaming, the way we organize the events and incidents of the day and week while we are asleep, may be “sinful” in the sense that it does not reflect God’s perfect balance of love and justice, but rather some skewed version of it that appeals to us in our sinful state.
So while we still do not need to “repent” of anything that happens in our dreams in the sense of confessing guilt and asking forgiveness, we do need to “repent” in the literal sense of re-thinking the way we have put things together in a dream, critiquing that apparent resolution or aspiration in light of biblical teaching prayerfully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the full light of day.