The complete and total sovereignty of God in and over all things is a doctrine we teach our children. We also teach them that they are responsible for their actions. Both doctrines are clearly taught in Scripture and so we teach them both to our children. But just because both doctrines are taught in Scripture and we believe them doesn’t mean that, in our day to day lives, we aren’t challenged by one or the other or both at times.
Our children have sometimes struggled with the doctrine of the sovereignty of God when it comes to the existence of evil in the world or with hard things in everyday life. Who hasn’t? One of the day-to-day life issues that our children have struggled to reconcile with the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is bad dreams. On occasion our children have been so frightened by a particular dream, perhaps because it is so vivid or perhaps because something particularly frightening has happened in the dream, that they have questioned why, if God is good, he allows or ordains such bad dreams to happen.
[NOTE: The entertainment habits of a family can be a regular cause of bad dreams. The points below are not meant as some sort of spiritual inoculation to poor entertainment choices. Parents should be wise about what and how much they allow their children to watch. If all your children eat is candy, it will not do to make your them brush their teeth 30 times a day to avoid cavities. Changing the diet is the first step to fighting tooth decay. Then you can worry about whether the brush strokes should be clockwise or counter-clockwise.]
Like anything in life, bad dreams can provide good opportunities. Below are some of the ways our family has tried to deal with bad dreams.
1. When our kids wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat or in tears due to a bad dream, it is not time for a theological lecture. The best response at times like this is to calm them down, hug them (if they are quite young still), sing a hymn or a reassuring favourite song of theirs, rub their back, get them a drink, etc., and above all pray for/with them. Reminding them of some key verses or portions of Scripture is also good. I don’t mean stuff about the sovereignty of God even over bad things but rather about the love, goodness, kindness, nearness and tender care of God. Also remind them that you are in the next room (or just down the hall) and that God is closer still. Remind them that God will never leave them or forsake them and that he cares for his own.
2. Don’t forget that the way we act when we do the above will likely teach our children as much or more about the Fatherhood of God than what we do. In the middle of the night, immediately after the drama of a bad dream, how you care for your child is at least as important, probably more so, than what you do. Reassuring them that there are no monsters under the bed is not most effectively accomplished by barking out, "there's no such thing as a three headed, purple slime-spewing dragon-wolf so go back to sleep." Gentle nurture is hard at 2 am. The temptation to be annoyed at being woken up will likely be strong. You will certainly not be at your best, at any rate. But remember their frame.
3. When our children question why God would let them have bad dreams, we should not get after them for asking “such things”. We should let them know that such a question is a fair one. Children who are asking sincere and honest questions about the reality and nature of God and how this impacts their daily life should never be stifled with a reply along the lines of “don’t question the inscrutable ways of God for his ways are not your ways and neither are his thoughts your thoughts”. God’s Word may not spell out a context-specific answer to all the questions of “why” and “how” that our children ask but God does show that he is big enough to take such questions from his people who are genuinely struggling in the midst of some hard circumstances. The questions of Job (why, God?) and the Psalmist (How long, O Lord?) come to mind, for starters. God is big enough to take the hard questions and it is a sign of and opportunity for real growth when our kids are asking such questions. Don't panic and fear that they are doubting God. Rather, rejoice that they are maturing and wanting to know more of who God is and what he is like. God can handle such questions and God’s Word, rightly applied, can answer such questions, even if the answers are sometimes along the lines of “that’s not for you to know…yet”.
4. In the morning, remember to talk about the bad dream with your child again. I don’t mean rehashing every detail of the dream, but we should talk it through. If there were things in the dream that are untrue of God or of your family or of reality, it can help your child immensely just to state the obvious corrective facts. It can often be most effective to think through those facts by easy to answer questions posed to your child. Usually the scariest part of a young child’s dream is when bad things happen to them at the hands of people from whom they ought to expect something else. Example: I still remember dreams from my childhood where I had been left behind somewhere, say at a store or a park or some such place, when the rest of my family was gone. I used to wake up feeling betrayed and forgotten about. Talking through the dream, my parents would reassure me that they would never leave me somewhere or forget about me, that they loved me too much to ever do that. I can also recall dreams where I would float way up into the air but not be able to come down again. The sensations caused by such dreams were truly frightening, but a couple of calm questions from a parent (especially if said parent is sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a frightened child’s hand) can help a child to think through the impossibility of their nightmare ever really happening.
[NOTE: Further to the above, don’t assume that if a child is having dreams where some type of abuse is happening, that it is a figment of their imagination. Those sorts of things don’t get invented in the minds of young children all on their own. Better to ask them some sensitive questions about areas of their lives where you may not be fully aware of all that is going on (school situation, spending time in other homes or places when you are not there or not immediately supervising, things they have been exposed to, perhaps not directly but visually, things other kids have told them, etc.). Take such things seriously and follow up right away...once it is morning.]
5. View bad dreams as one of the ways God trains us to trust his Word above our own experiences and emotions. God ordains that we have experiences in life that challenge the truth of his Word. This is not because he wants to trip us up, but because he wants us to really believe in and trust him. He is growing our spiritual muscles of discernment and our trust in him and his Word. Bad dreams are one of the things God allows to train a child’s mind to rely on his promises and to foster a stronger belief in him despite what their sensations and emotions are telling them at the moment. This is where a parent has an excellent opportunity to talk through the situation of a child’s bad dream in light of the truths of God’s Word. Bad dreams can seem so real while the child is having them or has just awoken from them. Children need to be taught and reassured that, no matter how real those dreams felt, they were not true, but God's promises to them are. There will be many times in a child's life (more frequent the older they get and the more of culture they are gradually exposed to) when messages in the media or from peers or elsewhere will challenge the truth of God's Word with an alternate "truth". They need to learn to discern the real truth from things that pose as truth, no matter how sincere or plausible such things seem.
6. So often, what children watch or hear or do or think about while awake affects their dreams while asleep. Therefore, we should fill their minds with things that are good, wholesome, right, true and godly (Phil. 4:8). Our children will probably still have bad dreams, but they will be better equipped to deal with them when they come.
Don't forget, our children daily face things in their waking lives that challenge their belief in the truths of God’s Word and we aren't always be there to help them in the moment. Many challenges to the truth that they face will seem very plausible, quite convincing, and have powerful emotional pull on them. But such things are ultimately like bad dreams. They seem so real at the time, and their emotional after-effects can last for a while, but when we wake up to the reality of truth, when compared to the sure promises and character of God, we come to see them for the fictions they are. We want our children to have this type of discernment and trust in God. But that will only happen if our children are solidly grounded in the truth of God’s Word. Bad dreams are good opportunities to train them in this.