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.