Tongues: An Interview

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

The gift of tongues has caused much controversy in the life of the church. This was true in the first century in Corinth and was part of the reason Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians. He felt compelled to address this issue. It’s also been true of the modern church ever since the Azusa Street revival broke out in 1905. Since then much of the church has been divided over this gift of the Spirit. However, I believe we are entering a new season that is bringing clarity and understanding where previously there was only confusion and misunderstanding.

What follows is a conversation between a Christian who is curious about tongues and their pastor. We’ll name the curious Christian “CC” and the pastor “P.”

CC: My first question is this, “Is the gift of tongues even operating today?” Some traditions of the church don’t believe it is.

P: Yes, I believe all the gifts of the Spirit are still operating today. We have no indication from scripture that they ever stopped.

CC: I’ve heard that some parts of the church believe that if you haven’t spoken in tongues, you don’t have the Holy Spirit. Is that true?

P: Well, maybe some churches somewhere believe that, but that is an exaggeration of a theological view called “Second Blessing” theology. Most charismatics and Pentecostals believe that if you believe in Jesus you have the Holy Spirit. Period.

The source of some of the confusion is that many people have testified to having a second experience with the Spirit, after salvation, where they felt set free from sin and empowered with gifts in a new way. Many call this second experience being “baptized” in the Spirit or “filled” with the Spirit. Charismatics and Pentecostals often witnessed people speaking in tongues during or after this second experience with the Spirit. What developed over time was “Second Blessing” theology that states, “if you haven’t spoken in tongues, you must not have been filled with the Spirit.” This is the theology that most other evangelicals find troubling.

CC: So do you think that if a person hasn’t spoken in tongues that they aren’t filled with the Spirit?

P: First, we need to understand that “receiving” the Spirit at salvation is one thing and getting “filled” with the Spirit is a different thing. I like to say that when we are filled with the Spirit we don’t get more of the Spirit but the Spirit gets more of us.

As to your question, my answer is “No.” I don’t think tongues are the only sign of someone experiencing a filling of the Spirit. I think there are many “signs” that a person has experienced a “baptism” in the Spirit or “filling” of the Spirit. One of those signs may be that they now pray in tongues. But I believe there are other signs that accompany that experience. Some people weep, others shake, others fall down under the weight of God’s power and glory, and the list goes on. I believe tongues is sometimes a sign and sometimes not.

More important than the initial sign is the actual fruit in a person’s life. If a person truly did experience a filling of the Spirit, they will have increased victory over sin in their life, increased power to live holy and surrendered, increased intimacy with the Lord, likely brand new gifts of the Spirit and/or gifts that were already there get lit on fire by the power of God.

CC: Are you saying you do think there is such a thing as a “baptism in the Spirit” that is different than what happens when we receive the Spirit at salvation?

P: I believe that we receive all of the Holy Spirit at salvation. I also believe we can experience these moments after salvation were we get “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). When charismatics and Pentecostals talk about the “baptism of the Spirit” I believe they are referring the the “first time” a person experiences a filling of the Spirit. Yet, I believe we can have many of these moments throughout our journey with Christ.

Evangelicals tend to believe that the “baptism of the Spirit” is what happens at salvation when you receive the Spirit. Yet, I grew up in the Southern Baptist church where people would have moments after salvation that they would call “rededicating their life” to the Lord. These “rededication” moments sometimes involved a new victory over sin and a general turn around in their life. I wonder sometimes if they simply experienced a “filling of the Spirit” in those moments and, because we were Baptist, just didn’t have language for it.

CC: So where do tongues fit into your theology?

P: Like I said, I do believe they can be a sign that accompanies a moment where a person has an encounter with God and experiences a filling of the Spirit. I also believe it can show up like any other gift. For me, I had a radical encounter with God that was a “filling of the Spirit” more intense than anything I had ever experienced before. Charismatics and Pentecostals would probably call this my “baptism in the Spirit” moment. But for me, this moment was preceded by a process and this moment did not involve speaking in tongues.

Imagine wading out into the ocean until finally a wave crashes down on your head. This is how it was for me with the Holy Spirit. There was a year and a half process of wading deeper and deeper into the waters of the Spirit until I experienced a wave of the Spirit that crashed over me. Pentecostals might call the wave crashing my “baptism in the Spirit” but really, it started with a process and culminated in an event. It wasn’t just about the event.

After that I kept having new and fresh encounters with the Lord in different ways. It definitely was a “filling of the Spirit.” But for me, when a person is filled with the Spirit it isn’t that they get more of the Holy Spirit. It is that the Holy Spirit gets more of them. That’s what happened to me.

For six months after that I didn’t pray in tongues. I wasn’t given that gift. But I did want that gift, so I asked a friend of mine to pray for me that I receive it. And it didn’t come like a volcano, erupting out of me from the depths of my belly like it does for some. It came more like a slow trickle. Then the trickle became a stream and the stream became a river. It grew in me much like many other gifts have. It was a process.

CC: So you speak in tongues?

P: I pray in tongues. Meaning, I have a prayer language that is in tongues. I do not have the corporate gift of speaking in a tongue in a public setting and having it interpreted. That is a different kind of tongues. What people may not realize is that there are many kinds of tongues, and the Greek in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is in the plural. There is the tongues that erupts out of some people when they are filled with the Spirit for the first time and it acts as a sign (and less like a continual gift). There is the tongues that is the prayer language. There is the tongues that is the public gift that should be interpreted in a public setting. There is the tongues that is a literal human language given to people for the spread of the gospel in missionary settings. All of these are real and all of these are a version of the gift of tongues.

CC: So you pray in tongues. What does that mean?

P: It means in my private prayer life, I will often shift from praying in English, my native language, to praying in tongues, which is more of a Holy Spirit language. Paul said, “If I speak in tongues of men or of angels….”(1 Corinthians 13:1). Some people’s private prayer language sounds nothing like a human language. Some people’s private prayer language sounds just like a foreign language that they don’t know.

This shift into tongues can happen whenever I choose, but it sometimes happens without me choosing. Specifically, if I am praying either in great celebration and joy or in great agony and pain, I find that I will almost automatically shift into tongues during those moments. It’s like the Spirit is saying, “Here, since you don’t know what to pray, I’ll pray through you.”

CC: Fascinating! What would you say is the purpose of praying in tongues if you don’t even know what you are saying?

P: The way I describe it to people is this…you know how you can start a worship service feeling disconnected from God or just distracted. Maybe your heart and mind aren’t really focused on Jesus. But then you worship, and 30 minutes later you feel totally different. You feel connected to God. You feel His Presence. Your heart and mind are focused on Him. Your worries have dropped to the ground and your faith is rising. You feel His love for you and your heart feels like it is back to a place of peace, grounded in Christ. When you pray in tongues, what would take 30 minutes of worship to get you into that place spiritually takes only a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds.

The apostle Paul said the purpose of a person praying in tongues is to “edify themselves” (1 Corinthians 14:4). In other words, praying in tongues quickly realigns your heart and mind toward Christ and ushers you quickly into the Presence of God in a way that few other things can. When a person prays in tongues for extended periods of time, there is a kind of saturation of the Spirit that happens where hearing God becomes easier and communing with God feels natural.

CC: Are there other purposes for praying in tongues?

P: Definitely. The other kinds of tongues have other kinds of purposes. But “praying in tongues” specifically can also be used in spiritual warfare. I have found that demonic spirits hate when people pray in tongues. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to them. So there have been times in deliverance prayer sessions where we used it as a kind of weapon to weaken and expose the enemy.

CC: Are there certain times you pray in tongues more than others?

P: I try to pray in tongues every morning more as a spiritual discipline. But I especially find myself praying in tongues in moments of need. Like, if I am on my way to pray for someone who is critically ill and desperately needs healing, I would likely pray in tongues. In that moment I desperately need to hear from God, feel His Presence, and bolster my faith. Tongues helps that happen in a very short amount of time.

Or, if I am in a worship environment that is supercharged with the tangible Presence of God, I will likely find myself praying in tongues. This happens not because I am in a state of desperate need, but more as a reaction to the manifest Presence of God. It’s like the Psalmist wrote, “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7). The Holy Spirit in me is responding to the Father making His Presence felt in the room.

CC: Do you pray in tongues out loud in a worship service? And if so, does that distract the people around you?

P: When I am praying for a person individually or I’m in a worship service, and I feel the urge or need to pray in tongues, I tend to do so under my breath. I don’t do this because I am somehow ashamed of tongues. Not at all. I love the gift of tongues and would want it for everyone. But I pray under my breath out of respect for the people around me who might take issue with it. I don’t want to be a distraction or a hinderance to their worship. But, if I am in the company of people that also pray in tongues or don’t object to praying in tongues, then I will do so in a way that is more vocal.

CC: Do you think people who don’t pray in tongues are somehow lesser Christians or less mature?

P: No. God is more concerned with our character than our gifts, and tongues is just one gift among many. It’s an awesome gift and a useful tool, but it shouldn’t be used as a barometer of spiritual maturity. There are plenty of spiritually immature Christians who can pray in tongues and plenty of mature Christians who cannot.

CC: Any final comments about praying in tongues?

P: The apostle Paul said, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues” and “do not forbid speaking in tongues“(1 Corinthians 14:5, 39). And I understand why he felt this way. It’s a great tool for the believer to have. So if you want to pray in tongues, pursue it. Pray for it. Ask someone who can pray in tongues to pray over you to get this gift.

But also understand that we shouldn’t fret over not having this gift. The Holy Spirit decides who gets which gifts. And while he does respond to our asking, he also is sovereign. If you don’t pray in a tongue, don’t worry about it and don’t judge others who do. Those are the two errors I see people fall into the most. Often out of insecurity, they either fret about not having the gift or they get cynical and judge others who do have this gift. Both reactions are unhealthy. Grow in the gifts you already have. Be a faithful steward of those gifts and trust God with the rest.

Words and Tongues

I went through most of my Christian life not engaging with the practice or the issue of praying in tongues. Then, a few years ago, I entered a new season of my walk with the Lord where I began to pray in tongues. As someone who did not grow up in a charismatic church, this transition caused me to do a lot of research on the issue. I have been asked on a number of occasions to bring clarity to this issue.

But what has been surprising to me is how Christians can be so concerned with tongues (both positively and negatively) and yet so few Christians are concerned with the damaging effects of our words. This is an imbalance that must be corrected in the church.

Whatever interpretive controversy there may be around speaking or praying in tongues, there is no interpretive controversy around what the Bible says about our words. Our words matter. Our words are powerful and can do serious damage. Yet, many Christians, especially on social media, act like verbally destroying people they disagree with is okay. It’s not.

The tongue has the power of life and death,
    and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Proverbs 18:21

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…

…no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?

James 3:6, 8-11

Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.

Those who are kind benefit themselves, but the cruel bring ruin on themselves.

Proverbs 11:12, 17

The bottom line is that the Bible has many scripture passages that talk about the damage that can happen from our words. Over and over again in the New Testament we are instructed to “bless and do not curse” and, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil“(Romans 12:14, 17). Yet, how many followers of Jesus are heeding this instruction from the Lord?

Instead, we want to argue about things like the gift of tongues. Isn’t that ironic? We argue about praying in tongues while never stopping to control our own tongues.

If you have confusion about speaking in tongues, you can go to this link where I taught a seminar on the Supernatural Christian Life. On Week 6, I spent the whole session unpacking the gift of tongues. In summary, I believe the gift of tongues shows up in 5 different and distinct ways in the church today. Each of these is for the building up of the church or the believer. None of these expressions of tongues make someone more or less spiritual than anyone else.

Personally, I celebrate the gift of tongues as an incredible gift from the Lord. Praying in tongues has been a powerful tool in my own life. But if we, as the church, want to focus on something even more powerful, let’s learn how to speak words of life that build up and encourage people. Let’s learn to bless those who curse us.

Praying in the Spirit

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.

Jude 1:20-21

One way to build ourselves up and keep ourselves in God’s love is to pray in the Spirit. Paul mentions to the Ephesians that praying in the Spirit is one of our spiritual weapons as we put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:18).

What does it mean to pray in the Spirit?

I believe praying in the Spirit means that we are submitting to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we pray. It is going beyond a list of petitions and into a kind of praying that hears from and connects to the Holy Spirit. This includes praying in tongues and normal intercession. Both can be forms of praying in the Spirit.

When teaching the Corinthian church about tongues, Paul writes:

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… Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves…

1 Corinthians 14:2, 4

So we know that there is a self-edification, a building up, that happens when a person is praying to God in tongues. It has a way of supernaturally strengthening the spirit of the one praying. I have experienced this firsthand.

Do you know that feeling of connection and intimacy that you have with the Lord after a great worship service, a great sermon, a long prayer walk in the woods, or time in solitude with the Lord on the beach? Most of the time it takes time for our minds to calm and our spirits to begin to connect with the Lord. But after a while, there is a intimacy we feel with Jesus. We begin to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Now imagine it took about half an hour to go from “normal life” to that sense of real intimacy with the Lord. What happens with tongues is that it takes you to that place of intimacy in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes. This is why it is listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:10. It’s a great tool to have.

Tongues quickly draws you into the supernatural Presence of God, which is why it is so edifying for the person who is praying in tongues. It’s also really useful when you need to pray for someone, and you need to connect with the Lord to hear from Him, but you don’t have an hour to soak in His Presence.

But this isn’t the only way to pray in the Spirit. Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to pray in tongues and to pray with their mind.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.

1 Corinthians 14:14-15

So when we pray in the Spirit by praying in tongues, it is as if our spirit partners with the Holy Spirit and takes the lead. We don’t understand what we are praying, but there is a building up happening in our soul and spirit. When we pray in the Spirit by praying with our mind, it is as if our mind partners with the Holy Spirit and our thoughts are led by the Spirit.

Jude advises us that if we want to keep our faith strong and keep ourselves in God’s love, then we need to regularly be praying in the Spirit.

Roman Spear

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 

Ephesians 6:18

Out of all the armor listed in Ephesians 6 there is one major weapon missing that Roman soldiers would have always had with them. The spear was their main offensive weapon. While fighting may have eventually devolved into hand-to-hand sword fighting, it would have started with a phalanx of shields and spears.

While Paul doesn’t specifically call prayer the “spear of the Spirit,” by putting it last in the list, that is the impression we get. By the time Paul got to the end of this list of armor, the Ephesians would have all been wondering, “But what about the spear?” Its absence was too conspicuous to miss. By Paul concluding with the need for prayer “on all occasions” he was saying that prayer is our main offensive weapon, just like the spear for the Romans.

But what is praying in the Spirit? Is Paul talking about praying in tongues here?

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul does connect praying in the Spirit with praying in tongues:

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise 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.

1 Corinthians 14:14-17

I believe praying in tongues is one of the ways to pray in the Spirit but is not the only way. I believe praying in the Spirit means that we are not just saying cursory prayers, but that we are connected to the Holy Spirit as we pray. I believe we are praying in the Spirit any time we connect our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit’s leading as we pray.

When we pray in the Spirit, we not only launch javelins in the spirit realm for the sake of the people we are praying for, but there is also a “building up” that happens to us as we pray. Jude says:

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.

Jude 1:20-21

In Romans, Paul articulates how praying in connection to the Holy Spirit helps us as we pray:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Romans 8:26-27

In the Ephesians 6 passage, Paul is clear that praying in the Spirit can take the form of “all kinds of prayers and requests.” This means that praying in the Spirit can look like intercession, prayer of petition, prayer of command, prayer of praise, declarations, praying in tongues, and even just silent listening prayer as we wait on the Lord. Praying in the Spirit is more about the connection between our heart and the heart of God and less about what comes out of our mouths.

Some of the most powerful prayers I’ve ever prayed were never articulated in words at all. They were times when I was simply weeping over someone as my heart connected to the heart of God.