As a young Christian, I did not speak in tongues. I wondered if I had received God’s Holy Spirit, if I was really spiritual, and why this gift had not been given to me. One day, as I was worshipping the Lord, His presence became so real and everything seemed indescribably wonderful. I had experienced God’s presence many times, yet now my prayers seemed cheap and unworthy. Strange syllables began forming in my mind, trying to find a place on my lips, but I refused them, assuming them to be emotional foolishness. The more I worshipped, the more intense the conflict became between my mind and spirit. Finally I gave in, and a flow of tongues erupted from my mouth. God’s presence became even more intense, and while I was unaware of what I was saying, I knew I was in His will. These words were somehow worthy of the Lord. They were neither cheap, nor empty, but full of life. Something wonderful was happening—I was speaking in tongues.
Although for some today speaking in tongues is controversial, Jesus said that it would be a normal experience for believers. “And these signs will accompany those who believe. In My name they will drive out demons; they will speak with new tongues.” (Mark 16:17). The first disciples were empowered on the Day of Pentecost and spoke in tongues as the Spirit gave them the ability; they proclaimed the mighty deeds of God in languages they did not know. (See Acts 2:4). Disciples have been speaking, praying, and singing in tongues ever since. (See 1 Corinthians 14:13-15).
Different Kinds of Tongues
Paul says there are different kinds of tongues. (See 1 Corinthians 12:10). Tongues may be expressed in recognized human languages never learned by the speaker as on the Day of Pentecost. (See Acts 2:4- 11). Equally, the language may be angelic in its nature. (See 1 Corinthians 13:1). Either may form the private prayer language that God designed for personal edification. This is not for use in public meetings but is a valuable part of a believer’s life and is available to us all. This private prayer speaks mysteries to God. We may not understand it, but we can nevertheless see powerful results through praying in this way, whether by receiving the Spirit’s encouragement or equipping for intercession and spiritual warfare.
Tongues in Prayer
Personally, I have noticed different types of prayer being expressed when I speak in tongues. Sometimes I feel a sense of militancy; on other occasions tears fill my eyes because I am worshipful. There are moments when I do not feel emotional at all; then perhaps the tongue is a prayer of petition or thanksgiving. At other times, it is a heartfelt cry of deep supplication. All types of prayer, such as petitions, supplications, dedication prayer, praise and worship, thanksgiving and intercession, can be prayed in tongues. Paul refers to one of these—the giving of thanks in tongues—in 1 Corinthians where, in the context of speaking in tongues, he writes: “If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among you and who does not understand say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying. You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.” (1 Corinthians 14:16-17).
Even though we understand so little, the Holy Spirit does much through us when we pray in tongues.
Some “unknown tongues” are appropriate for public meetings. “When you come together...everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:26). Because speaking in tongues is a mystery, it should normally be followed by an interpretation so others will understand it. Where no one is gifted to interpret, it should not be spoken out publicly. (See verse 27). But because Paul wants us to receive God’s encouragement, he tells us that we should pray for the gift of interpretation. (See 1 Corinthians 14:5-18). Note that tongues and interpretation seem (unlike prophecy) to be directed towards God rather than towards people and should therefore generally be interpreted as such. (See 1 Corinthians 14:2).
Another tongue appropriate for church meetings is congregational worship in tongues or singing in the Spirit. This singing may not need interpretation. True worship is intimate and personal. When worshipping with the church, our experience is still individual and private, but we are aware of those around us. At times our corporate worship will rise as one, but essentially it is between oneself and God. At this level we may all sing or speak in tongues but without interpretation.
An Offensive Sign
Tongues are beneficial for Christians and not for unbelievers, although at first glance, Scripture seems to say the opposite. “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” (1 Corinthians 14:22). However, to understand this passage we should pay attention to the word “sign” and to the previous verse. “In the law it is written: ‘Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to Me,’ says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign.” (1 Corinthians 14:21-22).
This quote from Isaiah 28:11 refers to an offensive sign given to unbelieving Israel while in Assyrian captivity. Jesus was such a sign to the Pharisees of His day. The Scripture calls Him, “the stone the builders rejected that has become the capstone” and “a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” (1 Peter 2:7- 8).
Tongues may be an offensive sign to unbelievers. Without changing the meaning, some additional words in italics may make this clearer. “Tongues, then are an offensive sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is spoken for believers, not spoken for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together, and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, they will be offended and will stumble over the speaking in tongues. Will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everyone is prophesying, even though it is not intended for him, he will be convicted by all that he is a sinner.... So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Corinthians 14:22-25) (Words in italics added).
Clearly then, unknown tongues are not for unbelievers. We should not speak in unknown tongues without interpretation at outdoor gatherings, on Christian TV, or when the church meets to reach the unsaved. They are for God’s people unless they are tongues spoken in a recognized language.
Six Benefits of Praying in Tongues
- Speaking in tongues is one of the evidences that we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 2:4; 2:15-16; 10:44-46; 19:1-6).
- Praying in tongues enriches our relationship with God. It lifts us out of the natural and into the spiritual. “He utters mysteries with his spirit to God.” (1 Corinthians 14:2). God is Spirit so when we pray in the Spirit we are drawn into a deeper intimacy with Him.
- Praying or speaking in tongues is a supernatural power sign to others when it is used in a recognized language to unbelievers (See Acts 2:4-11), or with interpretation to believers. (See 1 Corinthians 14:13).
- Praying in tongues builds our faith. (See 1 Corinthians 14:4; Jude v. 20).
- Praying in tongues lifts us from the constraints of our human intellect and into the unknown mysteries of God. (See 1 Corinthians 14:2).
- When other spiritual tools are not enough, tongues can shift us into turbo drive. We find ourselves co-operating with God even though we do not understand the details of our prayers. Significant power and faith are present.
As Christians we need to be equipped with every grace and gift available to us. Our battle is spiritual, and we need His strategy and power to fight successfully. May we follow Paul who said, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” (1 Corinthians 14:18).