“…If you praise him in the private language of tongues, God understands you but no one else does, for you are sharing intimacies just between you and him….I’m grateful to God for the gift of praying in tongues that he gives us for praising him, which leads to wonderful intimacies we enjoy with him. ” I Corinthians 14:2 and 14:18 – The Message Bible
If you read through your Bible you will eventually come across a few instances in the New Testament where people are either speaking in tongues or referencing this act. The early church believed that tongues were a gift from God, associated the gift with the promised coming of the Holy Spirit, and were encouraged to practice this gift as a part of their new life in Jesus.
If you are a believer in Jesus, then this gift is also available for you to experience today. Perhaps you’ve read some places in the book of Acts, or I Corinthians, and wondered, “What the heck are tongues? What is this tongues thing all about?”
Tongues are often portrayed by secular media as something ridiculous that only wacky ultra charismatic churchy people do—and if you do a topical search on YouTube on the gift of tongues you’ll see that some of the first videos that come up seem to backup that notion: people shouting weird stuff, wailing and travailing with tears, shaking uncontrollably and so on.
I’d like to offer up a different perspective.
WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT?
When I came to faith in Jesus in my teens, I knew next to nothing about the gift of tongues. I don’t remember reading anything about it and certainly none of the churches I attended talked about it either. However, I do remember one very special afternoon when I was twenty-one:
My wife and I were newly weds as we entered my last year of college. On this particular Fall day the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and college was going well with the end of my four year education in sight (actually took me five years). And what I remember the most is that it was just a wonderous, BEAUTIFUL late-fall day.
This was one of those rare moments where I felt compelled to stop, drop everything that I was doing, and worship God. I was overflowing with happiness and thanksgiving for all the things God had done in my life and for the potential future that lay before me. Filled with such simplistic joy, I got down on my knees in our little apartment, raised my hands, and started to praise and thank God for this moment. After a few minutes of praying I ran out of things to say—I mean how many times can you say “thanks for the day God” before you feel like it is too redundant?
It could not have been more than five minutes of thanksgiving when my prayers started to get repetitive. My prayers felt inadequate. Even though I had exhausted my vocabulary of thanksgiving I continued to feel like I had more thanksgiving to say in my heart. I just didn’t know how to express it. And as I kept praying something interesting happened.
As I began to pray again the words that came out of my mouth were not in English. These non-English words only lasted 2-3 seconds because I abruptly stopped them. I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought, “What the heck was that??”
What seems funny to me now is that it my curiosity with these foreign words didn’t occupy my mind for very long. I just scratched my head, got up off my knees. and continued on with my day. That was back in Fall 2002.
It was a lengthy process of development before I became fully comfortable with practicing prayer via this method. Since then I have grown in the gift of tongues and has it has become a very precious and intimate way of having relationship with Jesus in my everyday life.
How can I explain this experience was to others? And what is the purpose of these weird “tongues”?
If I were to condense my answers into one sentence I would say that tongues are, primarily, a gift given to experience deep intimacy with God. Increased intimacy with God does not nearly encompass every purpose/benefit included in this gift, but it will be the focus of this particular blog since so many folks testify of this benefit.
Tongues, as it used in the Bible, is just another word for languages. Therefore, when a person is speaking in tongues they are, in essence, simply verbalizing and communicating in another language.
One example of the gift of tongues is recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 2:
Jesus’s disciples are waiting for His promised Holy Spirit (Luke 24:29, Acts 1:1-8). A few weeks after Jesus’s ascension the Spirit descends on them in dramatic fashion with the gift of tongues accompanying. The disciples spilled out of the upper meeting room and drunkenly stumbled into the streets. Some of the city bystanders are witness to this event and both see and hear the disciples speaking in tongues. In this particular example of tongues there are two different schools of thought: either the disciples were actually gifted with the ability to supernaturally speak in foreign languages, or the bystanders were supernatural enabled to hear the tongues in their own native language. For this blog will will consider the later to be the case.
The Act 2 account does not seem to echo my own experience when I received the gift of tongues. I’ve never miraculously spoken in a different earthly language like, Chinese or Arabic, and I don’t know of anyone else who speaks in tongues that has either; that is except for some vague, unverifiable rumors of missionaries suddenly speaking in a native language on the mission field.
Does that invalidate my personal experience with tongues? Does Acts 2 force us to conclude that for a personal, genuine experience with the gift tongues you have to be uttering words in an existing human language? No.
The Bible mentions different types of tongues as shown in First Corinthians. Chapters 12-14 specifically has quite a bit of content concerning tongues—chapter 12 broaches the topic, Chapter 13 puts the gift in context for it’s proper usage, and Chapter 14 gives insight into what the gift actually is, what is does, and how is should be used during church meetings.
I Corinthians 13 verse 1 says that, “if I speak in tongues of men and angels“, and in I Cor. 14:2 it says, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.”
From these verses we can deduce that there are perhaps both tongues of men, and of angels— tongues of men being human languages that another person can identify/understand (like Spanish, French, etc.), and tongues of angels, being an angelic-type language that humans are not able to understand.
Some theologians claim that for the gift of tongues to be valid the tongues need to be words spoken in established human/foreign languages—like German or Arabic. But that theory does not account for angelic languages. And as we just read, I Cor. 14:2 says that tongues can also be exercised in a communal way where they are completely indistinguishable to other humans. In fact, the main point of I Corinthians Chapter 14 is that since “no one understands” these tongues is it better for church meetings to focus in on using spiritual gifts that minster to the body rather than engaging gifts that edify only the individual.
WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING WHEN ONE SPEAKS IN TONGUES
At this point I would encourage you to read through I Cor, 14:1-33, and verses 39-40, on your own three to five times in a row. Read them SLOWLY, and use more than one translation. We are about to go all in and examine these verses with a finely tuned microscope. You will be surprised to find that there is quite a bit of information here about the gift of tongues!
If tongues are an angelic or heavenly type of language that is unknown to humans, then the obvious question remains: What is being said when I speak in tongues? What is the purpose of using this language if I don’t know what I’m saying???
Great questions. Lets start with the first half of I Corinthians 14:2.
“For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God...(New International Version)”
First off, we are speaking directly to God when we speak in tongues. It’s direct communication with our Creator. We are not speaking to ourselves, nor are we speaking to any other person in the room when we speak in tongues. It is only between you and God. It is an individually benefited experience.
Here’s the second half of verse 2:
“…Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. ”
When you speak in tongues you are speaking by the Spirit. Huh? What is that suppose to mean? That might seem vague and nebulous so let me take that apart:
Humans have a spirit. Call it the human spirit if you will, but recognize that it is separate and distinct from our soul and emotions.
Next, the Bible says that when we join with the Lord we have become one with Him in Spirit (i.e. I Corinthians 6:17). The spirit of a human being is not connected with God at birth. It is autonomous from God and therefore able to be corrupted.
When we believe in the Lord Jesus, He gives us a spiritual “rebirth” (John 1:12-13, John 3:6, James 1:18, I Peter 1:22-24, 1 John 3:9, 5:1). This is what Jesus was talking about in John 3:3-6 when he says we need to be born again to enter into His Kingdom. Being born again means that we enter into a spiritual birth that is conceived through God’s Spirit. Our human spirit is made new, given a rebirth, and is now incorruptible, sinless, holy, and as perfect as Jesus is (II Cor. 5:17, Ephesians 4:24, I John 4:17, I Peter 1:23).
Additionally, when a person believes in the Lord Jesus He promises us to come and fill us with His Holy Spirit (John 14:16-18). This one-time filling of the Spirit is a separate event among the salvation expreience as also witnessed in Acts 8:14-17 and Acts 19:1-4.
So now, our new incorruptible human spirit is now in union and fellowship with the Holy Spirit. This co-mingling of our spirits (Romans 8:16) is the very presence of God abiding in and with us! It is out of this intimacy of our united spirits that the Holy Spirit gives us inspiration for our human spirit to speak in a language that is of a spirit nature. It is not a language originating out of our human nature such as our mind, emotions, thoughts, or flesh, but rather it comes from the spirit realm of our existence as influenced and activated by the Spirit of God living in us.
The speaking by the Spirit from I Corinthians 14:2, then, is our human spirit speaking in an unknown tongue to God via the inspiration of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
PRAY IN THE SPIRIT
Prayer in its rudimentary definition is simply talking and listening to God. So whether I say I am praying to God, or speaking to Him, it is the same function. The I Corinthians 14 passage uses “pray with the spirit” and “speak in tongues” interchangeably (compare I Cor. 14:14-16 with the rest of the passage). With this understanding in mind we see that references to “praying in the spirit” and “speaking in tongues”, are the same thing as well.
This was important for me to realize because before I made this connection I never understood what it was meant when Paul wrote, “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication....” (Ephesians 6:18). And we also see this expression in Jude verse 20: “But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit“.
Without knowing what praying in the Spirit actually meant I wasn’t able to understand what these verse were talking about.
Ephesians 6:18 and Jude verse 20 are simply encouraging us to pray (talk to God) in the spirit by speaking in tongues. Oh, and if you look at the greek words using for “pray” and “Spirit” you’ll notice they are the same in each three passages. Sometimes almost verbatim:
This correlation seems simple and easy to understand. What doesn’t make sense are some of the commentaries that have been written about “praying in the spirit” when seen outside of the context of tongues. If you look at some of the commentaries on Ephesians 6:18 you’ll find that many folks try to describe “praying in the spirit” as some mystical or nebulous type of prayer that is ridiculously lofty at best. I don’t think that understanding the phrase, “praying in the spirit”, was meant to be so difficult to understand. It’s just talking about speaking in tongues to God. And when we later examine the benefits of praying in tongues we can see why Paul in I Corinthians 14 and the writer of Jude verse 20 encourages us to use this gift. We will see that its a powerful gift!
In keeping with this concept I will use “pray in/by/with the spirit” or “pray in/by/with tongues”, or “speak in/by/with the spirit”, or “speak in/by/with tongues” interchangeably for the remainder of this post.
WHO DOES THE SPEAKING?
Ok, next up. WHO is doing the speaking when we speak in tongues? Does the Holy Spirit just take control of our mouths and leave us powerless to only observe until the phenomenon is over?
I Corinthians 14:14 says, “ For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”
It is our human spirit that is doing the praying. This prayer emerges out of a beautiful unity and perfect communion with the indwelling Holy Spirit. Our born-from-above, regenerate human spirits are in such perfect unity with the Spirit of God that when we speak in tongues we are actually speaking the perfect mind and will of the God even know it is our very own spirits that are speaking. The Holy Spirit gives us the power, ability, and sometimes even the urge to speak—but it is we ourselves that have to do the speaking.
I don’t believe the Holy Spirit takes control and begins talking through us forcibly. I Corinthians 14:32 says, “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets (KJV)” which in plain speech means that we can control when we use the gift of tongues, or prophecy, or an other gift from God. The gift is subject to our control. This is why I have such a very hard time with the practice of some people who claim to be uncontrollably flopping around on the floor, or aimlessly wailing, or “slayed in the spirit” to the extent that they say they can’t help it. This doesn’t seem to line up with the heart or context of I Corinthians 14. They should be able to turn the gift off. No wonder why non-believers and some believers as me alike look at that and think—”these guys are nuts and wacko!”.
For example, there have been a few times where I have been personally praying with the spirit, or where someone else has laid hands on me as they were praying in the spirit, when I’ve suddenly been filled with joy and fell into good-hearted laughter—I mean really really laughed! It’s an enjoyable experience. And as someone who gets stuck in their head and can’t stop analyzing everything this spontaneous laughing needed to be tested. “Is this for real?? Wait a minute, I should be able to stop this at anytime. I’m in control, right?” So I remember one time when it happened I tested myself and yes of course, I could shut it down. So when I see videos on YouTube or on charismatic Christian television with people acting so crazy to where they claim they can’t stop it I have to just turn the channel. I don’t buy it. Perhaps they could make the argument that they are fully giving into the Spirit and allowing Him to have total reign. I guess I could agree with that within reason. But I don’t buy that their experience is totally out of their control. Some of the stuff they claim is the spirit is WAAAAY out there.
Also, some tend to think that God only bestows this gift sovereignly insomuch that a person will just start speaking uncontrollably to the extent that this will happen whether they want to speak in tongues or not. I wouldn’t agree with that belief. From what I see in the life and ministry of Jesus as in the Gospels I see that He doesn’t force Himself upon anyone. I do however believe in and have experienced an urge to pray in the spirit but nothing has ever taken over my mouth before and I don’t have any associates who practice the gift who have had an uncontrollable experience with tongues either. Cooperation must be involved.
The bottom line is that it is your spirit that is praying when you pray in tongues (I Cor 14:14) and you can control it (I Cor. 14:32). But, in knowing this and experimenting with tongues I’ve found that allowing myself to yield to the Spirit and give Him as much free reign as I can leads to the best results.
WHAT IS OUR SPIRIT SAYING TO GOD?
What are we saying to God when we pray and speak to Him in tongues? Let’s first review. Up to this point we’ve established that:
- tongues are a gift from God for those who come to believe in his Son Jesus and receive the filling of His Spirit
- tongues are languages that are not understandable to humans
- it is our spirit that is speaking and this is out of a fellowship and communion with the Holy Spirit living in us
- we are speaking directly to God and not people, and we are the ones doing the speaking and have control as to when to speak and when not to speak.
I believe that the primary function of tongues is to allow us to intimately praise, give thanks, and worship God in a way that surpasses our our human capabilities via operating in the spiritual plane to which God exists.
When the disciples in Acts 2 first spoke in tongues the bystanders were able to understand them. Ever wonder what the disciples were saying? The Bible actually tells us! “When they heard this sound [the disciples speaking in tongues], a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?…we hear them declaring the wonders of God.“ – Acts 2:6-8,11
The bystanders heard the disciples praising God and declaring all of His wonders. This goes right along with with the Apostle Paul says about tongues in I Corinthians 14:16-17:
“…when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.” (NIV)
In verse 16-17 Paul is giving instructions for the usage of tongues in the church setting. Without going into how tongues are to be used in a community setting we can still pull out from these verses that when we pray in tongues we are “praising God in the Spirit”, offering “thanksgiving“, and “giving thanks well“. And from Acts 2 we know that we also “declare the wonders of God“, This is what is happening when we speaks in tongues. That sounds pretty awesome to me! What a beautiful gift that God has given us to know and worship Him by!
THE BENEFITS OF TONGUES
We just learned that when we pray in the spirit we are vocalizing praise, thanksgiving, and worship toward God. That’s a HUGE benefit in itself. I can’t tell you the incredible amount of joy, peace, and satisfaction that speaking in tongues to God brings me. It feels like I temporarily leave this world and am able to give myself over to undivided worship and intimacy with God. When we pray in tongues we are praising and worshiping God on a level that transcends normal human capabilities. Your voice is loosed to be able express intimacies with God that are beyond the reach of our mind and emotions. I’m able to leave the confines of this material world and enter into a level of expression to God that is on a spiritual plane—worshipping Him in spirit in truth. There’s nothing quite like it and there is no way to convey the experience without one having the experience themselves.
Another benefit comes from book of Isaiah in chapter 28 verses 11-12 (directed quoted by Paul in I Corinthians 14 as pertaining to tongues). Here the Old Testament prophet describes and foretells about the tongues which were to come:
“For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people, To whom He said, ‘This is the rest with which You may cause the weary to rest,’ And, ‘This is the refreshing‘…”
Rest for the weary? A place for refreshing? Wow! Sounds exactly like something we all need in this modern chaotic world. So we need to add rest and refreshing in the benefits column!
The apostle Paul makes note of still another benefit in I Corinthians 14:4. “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself,”
The Spirit edifies us personally when we speak with tongues. What exactly does edify mean? It’s an all inclusive word used to express a variety of different things. It can include to teach, train, guide, instruct, uplift, enlighten, train, to build improve, etc.—wow, those are HUGE benefits as well! Do we want instruction from the Lord? We can pray with the spirit and receive from the Lord directly. Do we want to be enlightened to the kingdom of God, we can speak with tongues and the Holy Spirit will teach and guide us.
No wonder why Paul says “I wish that all of you pray in tongues“ (I Cor. 14:5). Of course Paul would want everyone to experience this personal edification. It’s life-changing.
No wonder why Paul says “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18). Of course we would want to continually be praying in the Spirit because the Spirit builds up our faith in this process. Who wouldn’t want their faith to be built up and increased? Personal edification—yup, another benefit!
You would think it would stop there, but we see yet another reference to the benefits of tongues in Jude verses 20-21: “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. (NIV)”
Praying in the spirit keeps us in the love of God. It makes God’s love aware to us. The love of God expressed through our spirits in tongues, packaged in thanksgiving and praise and in extolling His marvelous works, permeates into our soul and very being. It supernaturally fills us with His love. Imagine the benefits we would receive if we experienced more of God’s love. Imagine the impact we would have on the world and to others if we were in pursuit of keeping ourselves in the love of God. The love of God transforms lives, it breaks down barriers, gives our lives purpose, it even fills us with the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19). Are you beginning to see how incredible valuable praying in tongues can be?
God has clearly given us a very special way to connect with Him via praying in the spirit. For in addition to giving us the gift of tongues to praise, worship, and give thanks to Him directly from our spirits in a transcendent way it also serves to edify and build up our faith, keep us is in His love, purpose in that it helps further develop and grow our faith personally. Amazing!
WHAT DO YOU DO WITH YOUR MIND?
One interesting feature that God set up with this spiritual gift is that praying in tongues is completely independent of our cognitive thinking: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding [mind] is unfruitful. (I Cor 14:14) You can pray in the spirit and have something completely else going on in you mind. For example, a person can pray in the spirit and golf, or read a book, or drive, or watch tv. This rings true with my experience in tongues as well. My mind has the ability to disconnect from the verbal expression of my spirit. Weird isn’t it?
Having your mind separated can be good. There are times when I’m not in the mood to pray, or the busyness of life has me so that I can’t focus my mind on the things of God. Praying in tongues has allowed me to bypass both my lethargic will or racing mind in a way that after a few minutes of praying in the Spirit I find myself calmed down, focused, and in a better place to receive the things of God. And when our minds don’t know what we ought to be to praying for the Spirit can even help and pray for us (Romans 8:26). So in those example there can be seen a clear benefit to having separation between our minds and tongues.
The flip side to a disconnected mind is that you can pray in tongues and have your brain just sitting there twiddling it’s thumbs. What should we do with our minds during this process?
I use a number of techniques to keep my mind fruitful in the process of tongues. Knowing that one of the foundational purposes of tongues is to express worship, praise, and give thanks, I place my mind on those things and set my heart upon loving on God. Sometimes I use imagery to help with that. I visualize Jesus having compassion and ministering healing to people, or visualize the Father sitting on the throne with thunder and rainbows around it (Revelation 4:3 and 5), or I just think about how good God is in Himself, or what His restored Kingdom on earth will be like. Other times I might use my mind and think about a Bible verse that I want more understanding on, or a spiritual concept I’m learning about. I ask for knowledge during my tongue speaking. And wisdom also. Still at other times I try to empty my mind and see if God wants to show me something from scratch. When I pray for people I will at times just pray in the Spirit with an open mind and see if God reveals something to me for that situation. I try not to bring an agenda to praying in the Spirit unless I feel impressed to do so.
My default is to focus on praise and worship. This is how it all started for me at the beginning when I first experienced the gift as well. We can certainly benefit by using our minds with tongues but our minds can also get in the way. For the first few months following my initial experience I wouldn’t be able to use the gift for more than a few syllables or a sentence before my mind would say, “This is foolishness. This can’t be real. What is going on here” and then I would shut it down. My mind was a hinderance in that it slowed my development and confidence in tongues. Additionally, I didn’t tell anyone about my ability to pray in the spirit and there wasn’t an atmosphere in the churches or people I was around to start up a conversation on the topic. Practicing and seeking the gift in a supportive community would have probably remedied my inhibitions. So because I was an island to myself and my anxious mind was left to its own devises it wasn’t till over a year or two later that I slow learned to flow more freely in tongues. Now I have days where I speak hours in tongues just spending time with the Lord as I go about my day—driving in the car, doing yard work, golfing, neighborhood walks, hiking, etc.. But, even to this day my brain will at times try to analyze this experience and it can trip me up if I don’t keep it in check.
AN AMAZING GIFT OF INTIMACY
As recorded in John 4:24 Jesus said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.“ We are instructed to relate to God on spiritual level rather that from a heady, earthy approach. There is no question that tongues aids and assists with communicating and communing with God directly in the Spirit realm. It is by far not the only way to relate with God, nor is it the end all by any means, but it is indeed a very powerful tool! That is probably why the Apostle Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12:1 “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” To be uninformed would be to miss out on an awesome opportunity.
When we pray in the spirit we are entering into intimacy with God on a deep and mysterious level. It surpasses our minds understanding. We enter into a plane of worship where the very secret place of the Lord dwells and has His being—the Spirit realm. As we yield to the Holy Spirit and step out in the gift of tongues we allow ourselves to connect with Him directly; speaking wonderful intimacies flowing from our spirit as given inspiration from the indwelling Holy Spirit. His Spirit builds us up in our faith and edifies us in countless ways. What an amazing gift of intimacy!
No wonder why Paul says, “I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all…“ (I Corinthians 14:18). Paul knew God and knew Him intimately with tongues. The same intimacy is available to us as believers in Jesus. The Bible encourages us to enter into intimacy with our Creator by using the gift of tongues that He has generously given for the purpose of, as the The Message Bible so beautifully puts, “….praising him, which leads to wonderful intimacies we enjoy with him.”
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!