On the very night before Herod was to bring him to trial,
Peter, secured by double chains,
was sleeping between two soldiers,
while outside the door guards kept watch on the prison.
Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood by him
and a light shone in the cell.
He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying,
“Get up quickly.”
The chains fell from his wrists.
The angel said to him, “Put on your belt and your sandals.”
He did so.
Then he said to him, “Put on your cloak and follow me.”
So he followed him out,
not realizing that what was happening through the angel was real;
he thought he was seeing a vision.” – Acts 12.6 – 19
The difference between spiritual experiences, dreams, and visions is useful to ponder.
Peter’s escape from prison was an extraordinary spiritual experience with an angel.
So too was Saul’s Damascus Road encounter, though somewhat different from Peter’s. Saul’s was more of an interior spiritual experience – Saul was blinded by a light, and heard a voice giving instruction (Acts 9.1-9).
Both experiences are different from a dream or a vision. So, what is a dream and how does it differ from a vision?
In the Christian spiritual tradition, from time to time, the Spirit of God uses dreams and visions to communicate from a “higher” dimension to us. The difference between a dream and a vision is that ordinarily, dreams occur while we are sleeping, and visions occur while we are more awake.
Dreams occur in the state of consciousness that we experience as sleep, and probably deep sleep. Dreams may or may not have a spiritual orientation, and seem to be more psychologically grounded. Some dreams are useless. Some dreams are useful. Many dreams are simply the ordinary mental processing of the day’s events. And some dreams are given by higher energies – such as the Spirit of God – from a messenger – such as an Angel – for a specific purpose or guidance for our life or for someone else. Thus, dreams require discernment and sometimes interpretation.
Visions occur in the state of consciousness that we experience as not asleep and not awake. It’s an in-between zone that is more spiritual than psychological. It involves a “higher” or “deeper” level of seeing that seems to utilize imagination and visual mental activity. While dreams are sometimes given, and mostly just occur, visions are always given. Visions also may require interpretation, but more often than not, the vision is understood intuitively and objectively, like high poetry or art.
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