While I sorted my list of the gifts in my previous article in the same order as they appear in the Bible passage quoted, I’m going to deal with them in a different order, beginning with tongues. Why? Because tongues is the most controversial and misunderstood of the gifts and is subject to the worst biblical scholarship among both charismatics and non.
When we talk about speaking in tongues aka glossalaia, the words “other” and “unknown” are often used as adjectives. This means that the language given by the Holy Spirit is completely alien to the speaker. So if a bilingual person speaks English and Spanish, that person’s unknown tongue given would be neither of those languages. Many Americans have an unconscious mindset of unknown tongues meaning “not-English,” but someone who has never heard a word of English before being baptized in the Holy Spirit could very possibly be given English as an unknown tongue.
The language itself is selected by the Holy Spirit Himself. Some people who pray in tongues are given only one language. Others, such as myself, have 2 or more. But the Holy Spirit is the sole determiner of what unknown-to-the-speaker language is spoken by what person at any given moment.
As I said earlier, there are two manifestations of the gift of tongues: 1) our private prayer language, and; 2) public utterances in tongues during gatherings of believers. This distinction comes from 1 Corinthians 14:28 where it states there is both a personal “praying in the Spirit” and a public one. For the sake of brevity and succinctness in this discussion, I’m going to label them “personal tongues” and “public tongues,” though these terms are not at all commonly used within the charismatic and Pentecostal communities.
As we discovered in a previous article in this series, speaking in tongues was the normative experience of the 1st-century believers whenever they were baptized in the Holy Spirit as chronicled in the Book of Acts. In almost all of these cases, they received what I have termed above as “personal tongues.”
Personal tongues enable us to pray effective prayers apart from our own limited perceptions, understanding, preconceptions, prejudices, and other human frailties. There are several significant benefits to personal tongues, aka our “prayer language.” When we speak in our prayer language:
We Choose When to Speak & When to Stop
This is not an easy concept to communicate, but I’ll give it my best shot. Whenever I speak in English, I mentally compose what I want to say (hopefully using godly wisdom in the process :-) ) and then choose to say it. The motor centers of my brain take it from there, turning the words I’ve chosen into nerve impulses that cause my mouth and vocal chords to form the sounds corresponding to those words.
When I speak in an unknown tongue, a similar process takes place. The difference between the two is that in the former case, I choose the words I’m going to speak whereas in the case of tongues, the Holy Spirit is making those choices. He bypasses my cognitive and intellectual centers and takes direct control of the motor centers controlling how my mouth and vocal chords form the words while I retain control over inflection and volume so long as I choose to yield my mouth to Him.
Speaking in Tongues is Independent of Our Emotional State.
People respond to the presence of the Holy Spirit in highly individual and personal ways. Personally, I’m a weeper and sometimes get so choked up I cannot talk or sing. But that is not how multitudes of others respond to His presence. Truth be told, though, most of the time when I am praying in tongues, I feel nothing emotionally. The point I’m trying to make here is that praying in the Spirit is not dependent upon us getting emotionally worked up. The idea of uncontrolled emotional outbursts in tongues is a legacy of classic Pentecostalism and has no basis in the Scriptures.
Whenever We Speak in Tongues,
We Build Up Ourselves Spiritually
He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. — 1 Corinthians 14:4
The Greek word for “edify” is oikodomeo or oikodomos:
- to build a house, erect a building
- to build (up from the foundation)
- to restore by building, to rebuild, repair
- to found, establish
- to promote growth in Christian wisdom, affection, grace, virtue, holiness, blessedness
- to grow in wisdom and piety
- to build a house, erect a building
As you can see, no matter how you cut it, these are all good things to have happening to us spiritually. We have no other Scriptures describing how this edification takes place, only this one reference that flatly states that edification takes place whenever we speak in tongues.
Allow me to use an analogy here: I expect the vast majority of you reading this have tried to drink water from a garden hose during the summer. When we first turned the faucet on, hot water with a horrible plastic taste came out because the water in the hose had been baking in the sun, usually for hours. After some time passed and the nasty hot water got flushed out, the water that came out was cool and refreshing.
When we are struggling with various situations and don’t know how and what to pray to resolve it because our flesh is screaming doubt and unbelief or frustration or fear, there is a place we can go in the Spirit through praying in our prayer language, that allows us to flush all that hot, nasty water out until the cool waters of the Spirit are flowing out. This echoes the sentiment of Jesus’ words when He said:
And in the last day of the great feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. The one believing into Me, as the Scripture said, “Out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”‘ But He said this concerning the Spirit, whom the ones believing into Him were about to receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. — John 7:37-39
There is a story told by a famous charismatic evangelist and teacher about when he was attending college as an adult. When he enrolled in a required algebra class, he’d start reading the textbook to do his homework and almost immediately his mind would completely lock up. His response was to look away from the book and pray in his prayer language until his mind relaxed, then he would try again. As he continued in this process over time, the interval between lockups grew longer and longer until he finally could read for as long as he wanted with great comprehension the whole time.
Having taken inspiration from his story, I do the same thing whenever I am frustrated or overwhelmed in my efforts to accomplish something technically. I pray in the Spirit while allowing let my mind go fallow for a bit. After awhile, my perception clears, and I can resume whatever I was doing with a new resolve and focus that had been previously eluding me.
Our Spirit Speaks to God in “Mysteries”
For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries…For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. — 1 Corinthians 14:2,14
In other words, when we pray in our prayer language, the Holy Spirit is praying to Father God using our vocal chords. Because the Holy Spirit is also God, He always prays a perfect prayer with perfect faith, perfect expression, and perfect insight into everything and everyone involved in whatever situations He is praying over. Because He is God, the same Voice that created the universe “calls things which do not exist as though they did” (Romans 4:17) using our human voice.
And because He is bypassing the limitations of our human frailties — our lack of faith and/or knowledge and/or understanding and/or maturity — we cannot interfere with that prayer by words to the effect of, “Holy mackerel, that can never happen!” or “I’ll believe that when I see it!” and similar declarations of unbelief.
I personally have lost count of the times when I was at a complete loss as to how to pray for a given situation, often a dire one. I would pray the best I could with my understanding and then pray the following, “Lord, I don’t how else to pray over this because my ignorance is too profound. Please pray through me in the Spirit the perfect prayer for this situation.” and I would then begin to speak with tongues and continue until I felt led by the Spirit that He was done.
I remember a story told by a nationally known charismatic pastor who went on vacation with his family. While they were on the plane en route to their destination, he felt led to intercede in the Spirit, so he spoke in tongues under his breath until the Lord let him stop. When they arrived, the family went out to the country someplace where they were pedestrians on a narrow 2-lane bridge with a sidewalk on either side. One of his sons decided to cross to the other sidewalk and stepped out into traffic without looking, directly in front of an oncoming car. Seeing this, the pastor instantly realized that there was no way to rescue him and no possibility of the car stopping in time. Miraculously, before his very eyes, the boy was miraculously at rear of the car without having been struck! When he later asked the Lord about it, God told him, “That’s what you were praying for in the Spirit on the plane.”
The Language We Speak in is Not Necessarily an Earthly One.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. — 1 Corinthians 13:1
Some non-charismatics teach that the language has to be an earthly one, but even the most highly trained linguists cannot ascertain if a language they hear is earthly or otherwise. Trained linguists can tell whether someone is speaking a real language or gibberish by listening to its structure as its spoken, but unless they have personal experience with that language or its linguistic family, they will not be able to discern whether it is an earthy language or not. There are literally thousands of languages and dialects spoken throughout the world, 163 in the Philippines alone, so how can an untrained minister or congregant possibly make such a distinction?
There are some who teach that when Paul mentioned speaking with “the tongues of men and of angels” in this passage, his reference to the tongues of angels is a literal term, that when the Holy Spirit selects such a language for one of us to speak, that the angels attending to that person get clearer instructions than when we pray with our understanding. This is a neat concept, but unfortunately unprovable this side of eternity.
No Interpretation is Required.
However, there is nothing preventing the Holy Spirit from giving us the interpretation of own private utterances in tongues, though that is quite rare in my personal experience. However, I’ve heard multiple accounts from other believers of occasions when the Holy Spirit provided interpretations of personal tongues.
We Can Sing as Well as Pray in the Spirit
What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. — 1 Corinthians 14:15
One of the most beautiful things you will ever hear is a bunch of believers singing together in tongues. The Holy Spirit is the Master Conductor and Composer and He comes up with some of the most amazing harmonies!
You Can be Confident Your Prayer Language is From God.
If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him! — Luke 11:11-13
Some people are afraid that the devil will somehow get involved in their speaking in tongues. They ask, “How can I know for sure? I can’t tell what I’m saying!” In answer to that question, why would God allow a prayer directed to Him be answered by Satan? The concept is ridiculous on its face! And Jesus promises in the verse quoted here that Daddy God will give us what we ask for, so that settles that matter.
If these benefits were the only ones we experienced by being baptized in the Holy Spirit, they alone would be worth the price of admission. But wait! There’s more! :-D
Public Tongues & the Interpretation of Tongues
What I call “public tongues” is the gift of tongues in operation during a church service or other gathering of believers, such as a Bible study, retreat, or conference. The companion gift to public tongues is the interpretation of tongues and the two are always supposed to work together. The two of them operating in tandem are the functional equivalent to the gift of prophesy. We get those concepts from the following passage:
He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification. — 1 Corinthians 14:4-5
Unlike personal tongues which are always available whenever we choose to speak in them, public tongues are occasional and in any given gathering of believers, there can be between zero and three instances of tongues and interpretation as the Spirit leads.
Public Tongues Always Require an Interpreter
If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. — 1 Corinthians 14:27-28
This is why I’ve included the interpretation of tongues at this point in my presentation. If a tongue is given and no one interprets, no further public utterance in tongues should be given because the lack of an interpreter causes confusion among the group. However, giving an utterance in tongues does not require you to know in advance that an interpreter is present. The underlying assumption here is that the Holy Spirit will not generate such an utterance unless He already knows someone gifted with interpretation is present in the group. But it could be that the person being told to interpret is quenching the Spirit through fear or other flesh reaction and the tongues speaker could have no foreknowledge that the interpreter would react that way, so further tongues should be withheld in such cases.
Interpretation is Not the Same as Translation
There are frequently cases when the tongue given and the corresponding interpretation are of two different lengths, usually with the interpretation being longer. That’s because interpretation of tongues is not a word-for-word translation as if a translator was present.
Here’s the difference as explained by the dictionary:
- the action of explaining the meaning of something.
- the process of translating words or text from one language into another
In Greek, the word used for “interpretation” here is hermeneia:
- interpretation of what has been spoken more or less obscurely by others.
Hermeneia is where we get the term “hermeneutics,” the theological discipline of how to properly interpret Scripture.
Public Tongues Can Be in an Earthly Language
Given as a Sign to Unbelievers Present
Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. — 1 Corinthians 14:22
This completely refutes the bogus concerns held by non-charismatics and certain denominations within the charismatic movement itself that public tongues would “freak out” non-Christians who are present during such a service.
There was a recorded instance where a charismatic missionary was supposed to address a group of people whose language he did not know and the interpreter didn’t show up. The evangelist asked the Holy Spirit to give him the language of the people present. He opened his mouth and spoke for over an hour in the native tongue of that audience without understanding a single word he said. He was later told that he had delivered the most powerful, moving sermon the believers who attended had ever heard — hundreds got saved, too!
In another instance that took place during the the Pentecostal Outpouring of the early 20th century, a group of people were in a room holding a prayer meeting when a Jewish rabbi showed up, hoping to use what he witnessed there for some nefarious purpose. A young pre-teen girl, looked up from her prayers, locked eyes with that rabbi and rebuked him in word-perfect Hebrew, telling him exactly who he was, why he was there, that he needed to repent, and give his life to Christ! After the rabbi fell to his knees, repented before God, and confessed Jesus as Lord, he explained what had transpired to those present and asked where the girl had learned Hebrew. He was astonished to find out that the girl had never even heard one word of the language prior to that day.
Utterances of Public Tongues Are Limited to a
Maximum of 3 Instances Within a Given Service
If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. — 1 Corinthians 14:27
This is nonnegotiable. The Holy Spirit says a maximum of three, so three it is!
I’ll continue dealing with the rest of the gifts of the Spirit in following articles.
Thanks for reading!