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.