Even among the pagans there was a difference of opinion about dreams. One pagan sage (Protagoros) stated: "Each dream has its own meaning, its own significance, and it is useful in life to heed [them]." Another pagan sage (Xenophon) explained that all dreams are vain and deceptive, and that whoever pays attention to and arranges his affairs based upon them, is going astray. One must seek truth within, i.e. first of all, one need not pay attention to all dreams, and second, one should not necessarily disregard all dreams as vain and empty of meaning.
First, we said that one need not pay attention to all dreams. Through Moses, God Himself admonished the people through Moses not use dreams for fortunetelling ("... neither shall ye use enchantment, nor observe times ... " Leviticus 19: 26). Sirach explains "The hopes of a man void of understanding are vain and false: and dreams lift up fools. Whose regardeth dreams is like him that catcheth at a shadow, and followeth after the wind. The vision of dreams is the resemblance of one thing to another, even as the likeness of a face to a face.... " (Ecclesiasticus 34: 1-3). Most dreams are simply the natural result of an active imagination. Man dreams of whatever is of great interest to him, of what he passionately wants or does not want. St. Gregory tells of a certain man who foolishly believed in dreams, and who was told in a dream that he would live a long life. He saved a vast amount of money, to provide resources for a long and happy life. However, he suddenly fell ill and soon died. Thus, he was unable to use his treasure, and at the same time, was unable to bring any good works with him into eternity. It follows that there are many vain and deceptive dreams which are void of meaning, dreams to which we should pay no attention.
However, second, there are dreams which are of significance for us, and which we should heed. One example is that dreamed by Joseph, one of the twelve sons of the Patriarch Jacob. Joseph dreamed that he and his father and brothers were collecting the harvest in the wheat field. Joseph's shock of wheat stood up straight, while those of his father and brethren surrounded him and bowed down before him. Some time later, that came to pass: Joseph, sold by his brothers into [slavery in] Egypt, became Egypt's ruler, and his father and brothers, who had moved to Egypt, had to bow down before him and treat him with respect. In like manner, a dream, which came to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, proved to be prophetic, and came to pass. Had Pharaoh paid no attention to that dream, had he not prepared stores of grain from years of bumper crops to use in the lean years, he would have come to bitterly rue that decision: those who lived in Egypt, and Joseph's father and brothers would have starved to death.
There are many people, perhaps even those among us, who have reason to repent of having failed to heed certain dreams. For example: A certain wayward youth did not listen to the admonishments of his best friends, who wanted him to direct him onto a different, better path. He dreamed of his father, who in the dream strictly ordered him to give up his dissolute and atheistic way of life, and to live a better life. However, as Jesus Christ told us, "If they hear not [the law] neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.... " The young man paid no attention to his dream. Later he had a similar dream: He again saw his father, who told him that unless he mended his ways, he would meet death on a certain day, and would have to face the Judgment of God. The young man joked to the friends who shared his way of life about the dream. Not only did he give no thought to amending his way of life, but he even wanted to mock the threat he had received in the dream. He scheduled a big drinking party with his friends, to be held on the very date his father had warned him he was to die. What followed? While drinking wine, the son was struck with a fit of apoplexy, and died minutes later! From the stories related here, we can see that not all dreams are vain and deceptive. There are dreams which do come true.
Some recommendations on how to regard dreams
1) If your dreams inspire you to do good and keep you from evil, you should consider them to be the finger of God, pointing out the way, indicating the path to heaven and directing you away from the road to hell.
God speaks once, and if man does not perceive it, He speaks twice, "in a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumbering upon the bed; then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction..." to keep man from his purpose and separate him from his pride. "He keepeth back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword ... " Job 33, 14-18).
St. Barsanuphius teaches that when you see the image of the Cross in a dream, know that the dream is truly from God, but strive to receive an interpretation of its meaning from the saints, and not rely on your own ideas (Barsanuphius and John, Instructions on the Spiritual Life, p. 368).
2) If you are not sure if a dream is from God, or if you have no intelligent basis to think that it is, especially if it deals with unimportant matters, there is no need to pay heed to such dreams or to base your actions upon them. Be careful, lest, by paying attention to every one of your dreams, you become superstitious and fall prey to sin.
3) Finally, if a dream tempts one to sin, it is the result of our corrupt, disturbed imagination, our fantasy, or it comes from the one from whom may God through His grace keep us, i.e. from the devil.
A Monthly Publication of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Washington, DC