The Terrors of Night: God & Our Nightmares

We’ve all had bad dreams. Most of us don’t remember them or if we do they stand as simply one random distressing moment. There are individuals, however, who struggle with recurrent nightmares. These bad dreams can become a torment to individuals causing intense anxiety, panic, and insomnia. God can speak into our nightmares, however, when we understand them, understand Him, and bring Him into the pictures that scare us.

Understanding Nightmares

We don’t know exactly why we dream. It has been theorized that our dreams are an effort on the part of the brain to store memories and/or process emotions. As our brain tries to process data (either to move it from short-term memory to long-term or to discard it) it turns it into visuals to make sense of the content, which we experience as dreams. Dreams often reflect aspects of our reality (though not always). That is to say, there is a continuation of our lived experiences that the brain plays out in our sleep. Certainly we can have weird and bizarre dreams, and we can have dreams in which we do things we would never do in real life. Yet, often dreams reflect things we think about or experience we’ve had in real life. Nightmares too often reflect the kinds of stresses and anxieties we worry about during the day. This is particularly true for those who experience PTSD and whose dreams are often flashbacks of horrific traumatizing events.

This does not mean that you are directly responsible for what you think about in your dreams or nightmares. Dreams and their “details are beyond the volitional control of the dreamer” (Craig Heller, Secrets of Sleep Science, 78).You are not choosing your dreams, nor are you morally culpable for things that you visualize while sleeping. Yet, there is a correlation and that correlation can help us as we seek to respond to chronic nightmares.

Understanding God’s Response to Nightmares

If we are not in control of what we dream about then we can conclude that God does not condemn us for our dreams. For those who experience especially distressing dreams, God is not disappointed or angry at you for your nightmares. They are not your fault, and He does not condemn you for them.

In fact, more to the point, we can go to God when we experiencing horrific dreams. In Psalm 91 David speaks of God’s trustworthiness. There he calls God a shelter and refuge. He speaks of God as a deliverer and protector. And then he speaks directly to the “terrors of the night.” He writes:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Whether in darkness or noonday, whether at night or in the daytime God can be trusted. The Psalmist encourages us that we do not have to fear the terrors of night.

Of course the trouble for some, when they read this Psalm, is that they have in fact faced arrows by day and destruction at noonday. How, then, can we resist the fear of terrors at night? If you’ve faced a traumatic event that haunts your dreams you may often feel very afraid of sleep. The answer to our dilemma is found in the following verses:

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
    the Most High, who is my refuge—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot

Verses 11-13 are actually quoted in the New Testament, but by an unlikely source: Satan. At the moment of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness Satan comes to our Lord and seeks to tempt him. He encourages Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple and then he utters these words as a motivation, saying essentially: God won’t let you be harmed (Luke 4: 9-13). Satan knew that this passage was ultimately speaking about Jesus, the Messiah, but he is tempting Jesus to misuse the promises of this text. Satan wants Jesus to use this passage to test God, to skip hardship, and go straight to glory. Jesus resists that temptation; he chooses suffering, hardship, and ultimately the cross. But His embrace of suffering doesn’t negate the validity of God’s promises.

The promise of protection, deliverance, and shelter does not mean that we, like Jesus, will evade all suffering. In fact in the final verses of the Psalm God responds to the Psalmist saying:

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

God blesses the one who holds fast to Him, but notice in verse 15 part of that blessing is the presence of God in the midst of trouble. Sometimes blessing comes by means of a direct escape from danger, and at other times it comes from the presences of God in trouble. David knew this well as he wrote in Psalm 23 about God’s presence in the “valley of the shadow of death.” Sometimes we will face the “terrors of the night” but we do not have to fear them because God is with us in them.

Bringing God into the Nightmare

How, then, do we face nightmares – especially chronic nightmares – without being afraid? We do so by bringing God into the pictures that scare us. There is a type of therapy for nightmare disorders that is sometimes called Imagery Rehearsal Therapy. IRT is an evidenced-based therapy that seeks to help people rehearse scary or distressing images from their nightmares with an alteration leading to a positive ending. You might think of this exercise as rewriting a nightmare so that it takes on a positive association.

In 2010 the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that the two most effective means of treating nightmare disorders were medication and IRT – each treatment having equal efficacy. For the believer, the potential effectiveness of this treatment can go up when we remember who our God is and the power and love He demonstrates in our lives. If we can alter the script of our nightmares by including reminders of the presence of God we can tap into a greater truth that provides our brains with new content for dreams.

Remember that our dreams can often be a continuation of the thoughts we focused on during the day. When we rehearse a nightmare with the more positive twist, with the inclusion of God into the narrative, we can train our brain to draw a different association. So, by rehearsing the altered nightmare throughout the day we can equip our brain to draw on this narrative when we sleep, as opposed to the recurrent nightmare. For those whose nightmares are directly related to traumatic flashbacks it will be important that you don’t do this exercise alone. 

The basic steps of a modified IRT are as follows:

  1. When you wake up from a nightmare write down or record quickly the scary details of the dream (you may leave a light and a pen and pad next to your bed). Acknowledge what has happened and what the intense or terrifying parts of the dream were. You do not need to try and process everything at that moment if it is too intense. If you want to wait to process the dream simply practice breathing and meditation to calm yourself down.
  2. When you are ready, try to remember the narrative of your dream. Write out a script of what the nightmare was. You can add to the dream by writing a short story (try to keep this to a paragraph or two in length).
  3. Then rewrite the narrative drawing on key similarities, but this time bring God into the picture. Allow Him, His truth, His power, and His love to reframe the script. Perhaps think of a Biblical story that could serve as a parallel to your situation which show God’s intervention, care, and presence.
  4. Rehearse this script multiple times throughout the day. Allow this story to sink into your mind.
  5. Don’t be discouraged if this exercise doesn’t prove immediately effective in eliminating nightmares. Try it again.

This is one potential help for those who suffer from chronic nightmares. God cares about the terrors of the night that you are facing. Allow Him to speak into them by meditating on His presence with you in trouble.

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