There are many different forms of prayer. All of these involve speaking to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit – in a language which is known to us. However, speaking in tongues – the Greek word is glossolalia – is prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit in a language which we neither know nor have learnt.
What is the gift of tongues?
Speaking in tongues occurs when we pray to God in a language that we have never learnt, and that must be a miracle! Speaking in tongues is a supernatural phenomenon – it is the Holy Spirit providing us with words we cannot understand so that we may speak more effectively to the Father.
Some leaders accuse Pentecostals of making far too much of tongues. They suggest that the gift of tongues is a minor irrelevancy, a Corinthian aberration tucked away in a half-verse here and there. Others have argued that the phenomenon of tongues ceased with the apostolic age and should not be desired or practiced today. However, related to this debate, there are five important passages of Scripture which need to be examined and read most carefully: Mark 16:15–20; Acts 2:1–13; Acts 10:44–48; Acts 19:1–7 & 1 Corinthians 11:2–14:40. These suggest that we should believe in the contemporary manifestation of tongues and encourage those who have the gift to practice it.
Tongues are a language given by the Holy Spirit – who then enables the believer to enunciate words. It is not just sounds. Sounds may precede words, as in all language development, but language, with proper syntax, quickly follows.
In Mark 16:17, Jesus said that tongues would be one of the five signs which would accompany those preaching the gospel.
This means that tongues have a place in bringing unbelievers to faith in Christ. Paul emphasised this in 1 Corinthians 14:22, and it was seen at Pentecost when the praise and mystery of the tongues were part of the challenge to the crowd.
In Acts 10:44–48, tongues are accepted as the evidence that Cornelius’ household had received the Holy Spirit. The person who has not been filled with the Holy Spirit by Jesus will not speak in tongues. Prayer in tongues is reserved for those who have been filled with the Spirit.
A gift from God
1 Corinthians 14:5 teaches that speaking in tongues is a gift which is available to all believers to enhance their prayers and worship. It also shows that it is a gift given to the Church to build it up in worship and challenge unbelievers.
From the way this gift is received and developed we can see that tongues are a product of divine and human cooperation. On our side, we cannot invent a language; and God, on his side, does not impose a language against our will. We provide the vocal chords, breath, tongue, palate, teeth and lips; the Holy Spirit supplies the words. We move our speechmaking mechanism and – as the Spirit suggests the words – we speak them out. Volume, speed, starting and stopping – these are all are under our control.
New and other
The gift is described as ‘new’ tongues in Mark 16:17 and as ‘other’ tongues in Acts 2:4. In Greek, this is kainos and heteros, which means it is new, not in the sense of never having been heard before, but new to us, different from the language we are accustomed to using.
A particular tongue may not necessarily be a known human language. 1 Corinthians 13:1 suggests the possibility that it might be an angelic language.
Acts 2:3 describes ‘tongues of fire’. In the Old Testament, fire fell upon the altar of the newly built temple to ignite the offering – thus demonstrating its acceptance by God. Tongues are given to believers today to equip us for ministry and ignite us for action.
This gift has been a trigger releasing many people into supernatural devotion and service, and is often a conscious experience of assurance.
Prayer without ceasing
In John 4:14, Jesus indicated that the living water he was to give – which we understand to be the Spirit – would continually well-up inside believers. This alludes to Psalm 36:9 & Isaiah 58:11.
Is it too much to suggest that the gift of tongues is one facet of this fountain bubbling up inside, offering light and praise to Jesus? Praying audibly in tongues would then merely be the adjustment in volume to allow the inner, everlasting bubbling to be heard.
It is not a message from God
Many make much of ‘messages in tongues’ but 1 Corinthians 14:2 is unambiguous: tongues are God-ward in direction, not-human-ward. Speaking in tongues is a mode of prayer, not a means of communication. When we use the gift, we address God. This means that any explanation or interpretation of tongues will be in the form of prayer or praise. It will be us speaking to God, not God speaking to us.
This is not to say that an interpretation of tongues may not be used by God to convey a message. For example, the phrase, ‘Oh promise-keeping God, we praise your holy name’, might be the very word to aid someone struggling with an unfulfilled promise. However, the interpretation would, properly speaking, have been a prayer of praise to a promise-keeping God, not a message from God to remind us that he keeps his word.
It is not a linguistic ability
The gift of tongues was not, and is not, a shortcut to communication in missionary work. Tongues were not necessarily languages of the people to whom the disciples were preaching. The crowds on the day of Pentecost heard the disciples praising God in their own languages, but when Peter preached he used his native tongue.
It is not a psychological abnormality
Speaking in tongues is not an ejaculation from the subconscious. It is not a result of suggestion, nor linked to schizophrenia, catalepsy or hysteria. In fact, the lack of excitement in tongues means that it can be a disappointment to those seeking a spiritual thrill instead of an aid to deeper prayer.
It is not a miracle of hearing
Some suggest that the miracle of tongues does not take place in the mouth of the speaker, but in the ear of the hearer. That would be a remarkable miracle, but the Bible never suggests this. In fact the opposite is true, for such a miracle would make the gift of interpretation unnecessary.
It is not a restricted gift
Some, who correctly suggest that the ‘Do all?’ questions of 1 Corinthians 12:29–30 presume the answer ‘No’, go on incorrectly to assume that this means tongues are not for all, but only a few.
But 1 Corinthians 12:27–30 refers to the structure of ministry in the Church. It emphasises the plurality of ministry by listing nine different categories of ministry. Paul’s implied ‘No’ is a reply to these two questions: ‘Should all believers bring public prayers in tongues during the public worship of the church?’ And, ‘Should all apostles, prophets and teachers – and so on – also have a public ministry in miracles, healing, tongues – and so on?’
Paul’s ‘No’ does not suggest that only a restricted number of believers will be able to pray privately in tongues. It seems to me that 1 Corinthians 14:5 shows that it is possible for all to pray in tongues. This echoes Mark 16:17.
It is not an involuntary act
Some still maintain that speaking in tongues is ‘ecstatic’ – that we cannot control the gift, that we pray in tongues only when God ‘makes’ us. But we have complete control over the phenomenon. This is why tongues can be suppressed.
We can adjust the volume and vary the speed. Most people can pray in tongues without making an audible noise. The words are formed in the usual way, with the tongue moving rapidly, but the lips are not opened, thus preventing the sound from being heard. Unfortunately, some people ‘mutter in tongues’ and it is this which conveys the impression that tongues is involuntary.
The upbuilding of the church
1 Corinthians 11–15 contains detailed teaching about the public worship of a local church. These chapters stress the centrality of holy communion, the place of women, the primacy of love and the need for spiritual gifts – including praying in tongues – to be exercised in the worship services of a local church.
The key verb of chapter 14 is oikodomeo. This is usually translated as ‘to edify’, but is better rendered ‘to build’. We can understand this more fully by the phrase ‘to build together in order to build up’. If we desire the up-building of the Church we must pay special attention to 1 Corinthians 14.
The following principles about the use of the gift of tongues in public worship are taken from this chapter.
- The believer who brings a public prayer in tongues during a meeting is built up.
- It is desirable and possible for all to use this gift in public.
- An interpretation is not a translation. The Greek verb diermeneuo means ‘to explain fully’. This is used in Luke 24:27 to describe Christ’s explaining of the Scriptures. The word ‘interpretation’ creates the impression that a tongue is translatable, but the interpretation is the Spirit-imparted ‘gist’ of a tongue.
- Prayer in tongues followed by the interpretation builds together and builds up the local church.
- The interpretation should be focused upon, as this is the element which builds up the local church.
- Prayer in tongues should not be brought during worship without an interpretation.
- Those who have received the gift of tongues should pray for the gift of interpretation.
- We should not be unbalanced and pray only with the mind – or only in tongues.
- There should be the fourfold balance in public worship of prayer with the mind and prayer in tongues, singing praise with the mind and singing praise in tongues.
- We choose whether to pray in tongues or in our natural language.
- Prayer in tongues can be an expression of thanksgiving.
- Prayer in tongues is a sign for unbelievers.
- Our motive for praying in tongues should be to benefit the Church, not to draw attention to ourselves.
- The gift of tongues must not be suppressed.
- A prayer in tongues should be spoken euschemonos (1 Corinthians 14:40). In most versions of the Bible this is translated as ‘decently’, but it can be better understood by ‘gracefully’. A tongue should not be ‘gabbled’, but delivered slowly and beautifully so that all can hear.
Some people think that an interpretation makes the preceding tongue redundant. ‘Why the tongue?’ they say. ‘Why not just the interpretation?’ There are two answers.
Firstly, though the two gifts do make a complete unit, each element has a unique function. The tongue is a sign to unbelievers in that it is an obvious supernatural manifestation; the explanation builds up the Church. Taken together, they glorify God.
Secondly, the gifts are presented in the context of ‘body’ teaching. Each gift requires another to be complete. This underlines the point that nobody is omnicompetent. The interpretation needs a tongue, and the tongue needs an interpretation. Together they make a whole.
Tongues in evangelism
Mark 16:16–17 lists five signs which demonstrate to unbelievers the truth of the proclaimed word and reveal an insight into the power and glory of the living God. Speaking in tongues is one of these signs which are given for use in serious evangelism.
1 Corinthians 14:22 makes it clear that tongues are a ‘sign for unbelievers’. Here Paul reveals that tongues are a part of Christian worship which particularly challenges unbelievers.
Some leaders reserve prayer in tongues for believers’ meetings. They think that praying in tongues will put the unbelievers off, and they base this on the idea that the reference in 1 Corinthians 14:21 to Isaiah 28:11–12 shows that tongues are a sign ‘against’ unbelievers.
But the fact that the Samaritans would not listen to God does not mean that God does not speak to them. All the Mark 16 signs can be – and often are – rejected by those who observe them, but this is no reason for not using them in evangelism.
Christians who have been exposed to false teaching about the gift often profess to having been offended by the use of tongues – even quiet, graceful, orderly, worshipful ones! However, the right use of tongues and interpretations often intrigues and amazes unbelievers.
The use of tongues in evangelism is essentially that of a sign. It demonstrates that a supernatural God has broken through; it drives back the evil one; it enables vital guidance to be received. For the world’s sake, this use of tongues must be rediscovered.
The use of tongues
The gift of tongues can be used in every area of prayer – in thanksgiving, confession, petition, adoration, supplication, intercession, praise and so on. However, there appear to be six areas where, if we are living in the Spirit, tongues will naturally be used – either personally, when we are praying on our own, or corporately, when we are together.
When we are worshipping, the gift of tongues helps us to express our love for Jesus in a better way than mere human language. We struggle in human relationships to find a more creative and meaningful way of saying ‘I love you’. In our divine relationship, the gift of tongues does this more beautifully, more aptly, than human artistry can ever attain.
The gift of tongues is especially valuable in intercession when we do not know what to pray. Romans 8:26 promises that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We are often asked to pray for a person and have no idea of their needs. This is a time when praying in tongues is most helpful. The Spirit will intercede through us, according to the mind of God.
The gift of tongues helps in the achievement of spiritual breakthroughs. We looked at ‘warfare praying’ in Part Seven, and tongues can be used in this ‘warring’ way.
Replies to prayer are often slow in coming, either due to demonic opposition or because God is pressing patience and perseverance into our lives. When our faith is low because of the delay, we should pray in tongues. God’s faith is never low, and it is our spirits which are in tune with this sort of faith.
In impossible situations, when opposition is great or circumstances are grim, our prayers can easily become statements of doubt. These are the moments when the gift of tongues is so helpful. Prayer in tongues is full of God’s faith. It is full of his selfconfidence.
The gift can be used to articulate sadness. Many of us have a problem lamenting to God. How can we pour out our anguish over events like Dunblane, Rwanda, an earthquake, a plane crash, a terrorist atrocity such as 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London? How do we share in God’s agony? Prayer in tongues can be a meaningful lamentation about the unspeakable horrors of a world which is reaping the results of human sin and divine judgement.
How can English express adequate gratitude at the conversion of a wayward child or the healing of a close friend? ‘Thank you’ appears beggarly. Prayer in tongues is much better. We know then that we have said ‘thank you’ properly. The gift of tongues has a special place in thanksgiving.
The gift of tongues builds us up. It is the experience of many that regular, frequent, consistent praying in tongues has played a significant part in transforming them from people with an ineffective witness into people whose witness brings lasting results.
Prayer in tongues is recommended when we know a specific conversation or meeting will take place and are unsure how to proceed. This gift is for those times when we are uncertain of God’s will. We should pray in tongues, focused on the person whom we will meet.
It does appear that we can focus, or direct, our praying in tongues. The praying is with our spirit, and the directing is with our mind. We can picture the individual in our ‘mind’s eye’, then begin to pray in tongues for them. It is the experience of many that this discipline, in conjunction with prayer in their own language and fasting, brings results that are not otherwise seen.
Some critics of tongues consider that congregational singing or praying in tongues is forbidden by 1 Corinthians 14:23. However, this verse deals more with a large number of people all offering different prayers in tongues one after each other, rather than with them all praying or singing the same prayer at the same time in their heavenly languages.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul suggests that there should be only a few consecutive tongues, and that the tongues should be interpreted or explained in some way. He does not comment on corporate tongues.
Many congregations move on from singing a particular song in their own language to singing in tongues. When this happens, they are expressing the theme of the song or hymn in their heavenly languages.
Some people suggest that the Hebrew word selah – which appears frequently in the Psalms – represents a congregational pause to allow the musicians to play ‘theme music’ relevant to the Psalm. Perhaps singing in tongues – singing with the spirit – is the selah in a meeting.
When people sing or pray in tongues together, there is a God-given unity to the praising or praying. When two hundred people sing in tongues, there are not two hundred different songs all needing a separate interpretation – that would be chaos. Instead, one song is being sung in two hundred different ways – and that is beautiful.
It is the same when a congregation prays together in tongues. There is only one prayer being prayed in a variety of ways and languages.
Starting to pray in tongues
Prayer in tongues is only for those believers who have been filled with the Holy Spirit. Those who desire to receive this gift must surely believe there is such a thing as praying in tongues. It might be helpful to ask a friend to give a demonstration of praying in tongues – especially if we are worried about the issue of losing control.
We also need to believe that speaking in tongues is for us. Some people have the notion that, ‘If God wants me to speak in tongues, he’ll make sure I do’. God does unexpectedly give this gift to a few who do not ask, but normally those who receive are those who have kept on asking.
We should ask the Holy Spirit to give us this gift and we should receive it by faith. Faith is not persuading ourselves about the truth of tongues. Faith is letting the truth about tongues persuade us.
What I am going to suggest may appear somewhat mechanical, but we have to start somewhere. Both the Holy Spirit and us have a part in praying with tongues. Acts 2:4 states, ‘They began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance’. The Holy Spirit does not provide lips or breath as his part of the package. They are our responsibility. We need to stop speaking in our natural language – for nobody can speak in two languages at the same time – to take a breath and trust the Lord, and then to form our lips into a word.
We then begin to speak that word, trusting the Spirit to give the following words. Some people start immediately with a complete language. Others stay at an elemental stage for several weeks. Many agonise for months, persistently asking, seeking and knocking, before they pray in tongues. Patience, perseverance and obedience are the keys to faith and maturity.
As soon as we receive this gift, doubts start to come our way. The evil one sows disbelief in a frantic attempt to silence the prayers flowing from our lips.
He has great success with two lies. Firstly, ‘You are making it up’. Everybody who has prayed in tongues has heard this lie, yet few people possess the ability to create a new language. The gift of tongues is for most their first experience of hearing God speak through them. It is always more natural and ‘everyday’ than they expected.
The second doubt will be, ‘It is not a language, it is gibberish’. All have suffered the agony of this lie. The truth is that most foreign languages sound gibberish to those who do not understand them!
The best advice is to seek reassurance from a tongue-praying leader. He or she should guide you from the first faltering sounds to complete maturity in your God-given language of prayer.