Praying in Tongues


'Descent of Holy Spirit on the Apostles' by Mikhail Vrubel, 1885Speaking in tongues.

Just mentioning tongues gives many people pause. Tell others you speak in tongues and the stares come out. Talk about glossolalia (the fancy term for speaking in tongues) in polite company (heck, any company) and you’ll be branded forever. It’s not enough that being a Christian separates you from other people, speaking in tongues separates you from other Christians, as a minority of Christians today in the West care to deal with tongues. In short, if you’re in a group and desire to be left alone, talk excitedly about speaking in tongues.

What the Bible says:

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
—1 Corinthians 12:7-11 ESV

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
—1 Corinthians 12:27-30 ESV

For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
—1 Corinthians 14:2-5 ESV

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.
—1 Corinthians 14:18 ESV

So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.
—1 Corinthians 14:39-40 ESV

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
—Romans 8:26-27 ESV

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
—1 Corinthians 14:14-15 ESV

{emphases mine…see below}

I quoted a lot from 1 Corinthians. In truth, reading chapters 12-14 of that book are  essential for understanding the Bible’s teaching on this spiritual gift of tongues (and the other gifts too).

Unpacking truths and realities about speaking in tongues

  • 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:27-30 seem clear to me (though not to all Pentecostals, for certain) that the spiritual gifts a person receives from God vary according to God’s purposes. God apportions gifts as He alone sees fit. Paul’s many “do all?” qualifiers appear to me quite obvious that the answer to his rhetorical question is no. No, not everyone fills every Church office or has every spiritual gift. So despite what many of my Pentecostal brethren believe, I don’t think that tongues is an automatic gift for everyone. Paul’s desire that everyone speaks in tongues may be wish fulfillment more than anything else given that he already notes that Spirit-endowed believers don’t always manifest all the gifts. That the early Church had its clear prophets and nonprophets says that when Paul wishes everyone would prophesy, that was not the case for everyone either. Feel free to disagree with me here, but I don’t see those verses mentioned as supporting all gifts for all people at all times. And that includes tongues.
  • That said, we should always desire all the gifts, even if we do not receive them all. I can’t support this thought fully from Scripture, but I would not rule out that God may impart a gift for a season or for a specific need at a specific time—but don’t quote me on that.
  • As for “my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful,” science actually backs this up. PET scans of tongue-speaker’s brains shows none of the intense activity related to language when a person is speaking in tongues. Even more surprising is that a person faking speaking in tongues DOES show high-level language activity. So clearly, something is going on that is beyond natural when a person speaks in tongues. (See “A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues” and “Why We Talk in Tongues,” both New York Times articles and NOT from Charisma Magazine.)
  • That latter NYT article above notes a recent Pew Research Center  survey that claimed 18% of Americans spoke in tongues several times in a year. If so, that’s one of the most underreported spiritual facts I’ve ever noted. We’re talking almost one-fifth of the American populace—and that’s just those who self-reported.
  • Paul writes, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.” That ends any arguments right there. Sadly, that may be the most ignored Scriptural command in the Bible.
  • Tongues comes last or near last in lists of spiritual gifts in the Scriptures. While it’s the most obvious supernatural gift due to its vocal nature, Paul also downplays some of its importance by placing it a distant finisher in importance to prophecy.
  • While the most commonly considered use of tongues is to build up the Church through the combo gift of the interpretation of tongues (so the tongues may bless everyone, even those who do not understand them otherwise), Paul also mentions praying in tongues. And that’s the gist of this post.

Praying in tongues: the what, the why, and three benefits

What is praying in tongues? It’s using the gift of tongues in one’s prayer life, whether in private or in public prayer for others. Pretty simple.

Why pray in tongues? Well, we have the example of Paul and his other notes to us on the function of this gift. Since Paul writes his readers that he is worthy of being imitated (1 Corinthians 4:16), if he prays in tongues, then so should we.

And what are some benefits of praying in tongues?

  • Praying in tongues is a means of continuing in prayer when normal words fail. I endorse that fully. Sometimes, as the Scriptures say, we don’t know how to pray. Tongues removes that roadblock. As noted, the language centers of the brain get bypassed, going around the roadblock. This is a truly spiritual event. It’s the Spirit of God in us teaming with our spirit to connect with the Father and get to the root of a matter. Think of it as broadband rather than dial-up. (I will add that for those who do not have the gift of tongues, perhaps their normal prayer life is naturally more fruitful as is OR they are less likely to find themselves stymied in prayer.)
  • Praying in tongues regularly produces immediate well-being. Though I should be used to it by now, I am regularly surprised how quickly praying in tongues can improve a situation, especially if it is personal and related to mood or physical health. “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself” is most definitely true! When praying in tongues by oneself, peace is often the first feeling encountered. This reflects God’s mercy and is one of the strongest reasons that we should pray in tongues. Heaven knows we all need more peace in our lives.
  • Praying in tongues will take us deeper. Because this is spirit to Spirit communication, and the Spirit of God searches all things, praying in tongues may address deep-seated issues in an individual. This includes granting spiritual healing and release from habitual sin. Those roadblocks mentioned earlier? Not all are language. They may be keeping spiritual ground from being plowed, unusable as is for planting good things from God. Tongues cut through and may help break up that fallow ground in a person’s life. Much good comes from allowing God to work in us through tongues. Again, we allow God to build us up through this gift.

Many more benefits exist for praying in tongues, but as I see it, these three are indisputable and indispensable. Please feel free to share your wisdom in this or your own positive personal experiences with tongues in the comments below.

That Gift—And Why We Need It


For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.
—1 Corinthians 14:2

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
—1 Corinthians 14:15

Going deeper in prayer through tonguesI don’t think any spiritual gift causes more problems than tongues. Talk about tongues in some Christian circles and you’ll be ostracized. Fail to talk about it in others and you’ll be written off as a spiritual flyweight. Both reactions are a mistake.

I almost have to apologize in advance for being a charismatic, because charismaniacs have poisoned the well a million times over. But I came to the charismatic ranks through the Lutheran Church, believe it or not, so my journey has been a little bit different. Mostly, I praise God that He has kept me out of the excesses that plague some sectors of the charismatic movement. I think there is a pure strain of charismatic thought and theology that still holds true to the way things should be in the Church, and I thank God for those sane voices out there who have kept me on the straight and narrow.

That said, while I talk about charismatic issues from time to time here at Cerulean Sanctum, rarely do I talk about a specific gift, and never do I talk about tongues.

Do I speak in tongues? Yes, but usually only in prayer, and mostly when I am praying for other people and need direction for how to pray for them. Even then, I pray in tongues almost inaudibly so that it is more a prayer between the Lord and me and not for any showy reason. In other words, I’m not one of those loud SHAMBALAHONDA folks by any means. (And yes, they sometimes drive me a little bit nuts, too.)

Despite any negatives people might conjure about tongues, I want to be forthright here and say that I cannot run away from the truth that praying in tongues makes a huge difference in one’s prayer life. Huge. When I add tongues to my prayers, it’s like throwing gasoline on a fire. Like Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:15 above, I sometimes pray normally, then mix in tongues, especially in those situations where I need help praying, need supernatural insight, or when God taps me on the shoulder and asks me to pray in tongues.

The other night, I was with a group of fellow believers and we went into a time of prayer; immediately, I felt drawn to tongues. God directed my entire offering of prayer, and I only shared those portions with the group that I prayed normally. The tongues part I prayed quietly as I reached out by the Spirit to commune with the Lord on a deeper level.

And I do believe it is a deeper level, just as 1 Corinthians 14:2 above states. Praying in tongues quietly drove the public, English portion of that prayer that I offered to the group. I believe my spirit tapped into a reservoir of God and His spiritual riches, allowing me to pray more effectively. It was a more anointed prayer. Less of me, too, and more of the Lord. I could not have prayed that prayer any other way.

That’s why it bothers me that some Christians erect the wall right away when speaking in tongues is mentioned. When I think how much tongues betters my prayer life, I can’t possibly see why God would retract that gift or simply let it pass away with the last apostle. Praying in tongues makes for a better prayer life. How could God not desire that for His people?

Don’t get me wrong; this is not a first-class-tongues-praying Christian versus second-class-non-tongues-praying Christian issue! If anything, tongues itself takes the runner-up spot to prophesying. Paul saw the benefit in both prophesying and tongues, but he correctly notes why prophesying is the gift he desires most for people. I’ve also met plenty of Christians who claim to speak in tongues but who offer up “lead balloon” prayers while their non-tongues-speaking counterparts pray with obvious anointing.

Still, there is a mystery and power in tongues that should not be ignored. And as we all know, Christianity cannot escape being rooted in a lifetime of trans-rational mystical experiences. To simply say that Jesus rose again and lives inside each believer is by its very nature a mystical belief. So is the operation of tongues. Or faith, in general, for that matter: we believe in an invisible reality we cannot see save for the mystical eyes of faith.

As I get older, the more I see the value of tongues as a supplement in my prayer life; call tongues a spiritual multivitamin. It doesn’t comprise the entirety of the prayer “meal” I eat each day, but it ensures I get every spiritual nutrient in God’s bounty that was provided for me at the cross of Christ.