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Speaking in Tongues


It is virtually impossible to argue that the Bible does not support speaking in tongues. The phenomenon may be vastly over-rated, and wrongly equated with spiritual superiority (or even touted as a necessity for salvation), but there can be no denying that it is a valid gift from God, and that it was widely practised by early Christians. So rather than condemn it, let's try to get it into perspective with other New Testament truths.

One argument is over whether or not speaking in tongues was only the miraculous ability to speak in another known language, or whether it could also be an experience of totally unintelligible gibberish... a "heavenly language" known only by God. It sounds like a serious point of disagreement. But when you think about it -- if you were to speak fluent Swahili for the first time in your life (never having heard it before), it would still be "unintelligible gibberish" to you when you first started doing it. It would take much the same faith for you to speak that gibberish as it takes to speak what some call a "heavenly language". The real test in either case would be whether or not you were willing to risk making a fool of yourself in obedience to the promptings of God's Spirit.

The desire to have all that we say and do firmly under the control of our conscious mind often overlooks the possibility that God may have a different picture of things than what we have. "My ways are not your ways," says God. (Isaiah 55:9) And the only way to make them God's way is for us to learn to let go of what is presently "our way". Speaking in tongues is an exercise which points us in that direction. It allows God to take control of at least that one area of our lives.

We have often said that the biggest barrier to hearing from God is just our unwillingness to let go of our natural understanding -- based too often on traditions, emotions, and prejudices. Speaking in tongues is an exercise (whether the tongues are known languages or not) that tests our ability to let go of a certain amount of "control" and yield ourselves to the leadings of God's Spirit. It is humbling to start talking nonsense, and to trust God to direct us in something about which we have no formal education to act as our guide.

Yah-bah-woobee-doo! God doesn't care what the words are. What matters is the spirit behind the sounds. Are you expressing love to God? thanksgiving for the gift of life? grief at the death of a loved one? passion for lost souls? Anger at the injustices of a greedy selfish world? remorse at your own sinfulness? In each case, what matters is the sentiment, and not your choice of words. The Spirit itself makes intercession for us with "groanings which cannot be uttered." (Romans 8:26)  Sure, on the human level people would be shocked if we talked gibberish to them. But God, who knows the secrets of our hearts, does not need poetry and flattery. He is not impressed with our grasp of the language. He seeks only a humble and contrite heart, fully open and transparent before him.

To pray in tongues is to pray in the spirit. The spirit (or sentiment that you are expressing) is the important thing. Setting aside our concerns about grammatical correctness and diplomatic choice of words can help us to touch the emotions of those with whom we seek to communicate, whether it be God or our next door neighbour. And if we can learn to do this in our communion with God, it will soon affect our communication with everyone.

Speaking in tongues is an experience or baptism of the emotions. We jump in and submerge ourselves in emotional expression. Forget the words. Just express the feeling.

Yes, it has been abused. Some feelings have been less than Christian too. And some worshippers have begun to worship the feeling rather than using it to worship the Creator. But none of this disproves the need to marry emotional content with rational content in order to become more effective communicators. (And apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are all communicators.)

There are more important things than feelings, but without feelings life (and our communication) can be pretty dull. Obviously in marriage faithfulness is more important than a torrid sex life. But if you leave out sex altogether, faithfulness becomes a pretty dry duty. As long as we realise that feelings are not the most important thing, there is nothing wrong (and there is much that is right) about incorporating a lot more feeling into all that we do.

Something about the tongues experience makes people capable of communicating in a dimension unknown to the pre-tongues world. The strongest opponents of the charismatics must admit that they have had a powerful impact on the world -- that they are, on the whole, powerful communicators. Often irrational and even heretical maybe, but powerful nonetheless.

Speaking in tongues is usually linked with an experience of God's Holy Spirit. The ultimate representation of God's Spirit is in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said, "The words that I speak unto you, they are Spirit and they are Life." (John 6:63) Speaking in tongues can help us to communicate the emotional content of those words.

The Bible says that when we have received God's Spirit, we will become powerful "witnesses" for him. So what happens between you and God, in the secret place of prayer, will affect your ability to proclaim the truth to the general public outside the secret place. From the "heavenly language" will come greater skill in your earthly communication.

The Bible says the disciples actually preached in known languages on the day of Pentecost... languages that they had not known before. Why isn't that happening today? We don't have full answers for that. Some claim that there have been isolated incidents where known languages were miraculously spoken. However, as we have found with most miracles, there are an infinite number of gradations between what could be considered miraculous and what could be regarded as natural. We have noted this, too, with regard to language learning and the movings of the Holy Spirit.

For example, if you are surrounded (for some time) by people who speak German (and if you have never spoken German before), and then you begin to pray in tongues, you will almost certainly find yourself using sounds that are somewhat German. Whether they actually mean anything in German is not important. What is important is that you are beginning to speak German in the way that babies learn their first language. You are "playing with" the sounds that are peculiar to that language. This form of play will give you greater confidence when you do actually attempt to communicate in a language which you may also be studying with your normal mental skills. How much of your ability comes from the classroom, and how much comes from your prayer life is not worth arguing about. The real point is not whether we can capture a miracle and put it in a box, but rather it is whether or not you are growing in your ability to go into all the world and preach the good news of Jesus.

So how do you do it? And how can you know that you are not being deceived into something that is not actually from God?

The answer to the first question is that you just wipe your mind blank with regard to language, and you concentrate on the feeling of what you want to say, and you then let sounds come out of your mouth. Try not to even listen to the sounds yourself. Just focus on the feeling you are trying to express. That feeling will begin to come through the sounds as well, so that someone with the gift of interpretation would be able to tell almost instantly something about the emotion that is being expressed.

And the answer to the second question is that you are no more likely to be led astray while speaking in tongues than you would be in anything else that you do. In fact, one of the greatest deceptions of the devil is the deception that we are infallible in our ability to tell good from evil. Ultimately, we are dependent on God to "deliver us from evil" in every situation, and we need to be asking for that deliverance whether we are listening to a sermon, preaching a sermon, or speaking in tongues.

Jesus said that if you ask your father for a fish ( a symbol for Jesus), he will not give you a snake (a symbol for the devil). And he follows that same statement up with this one: "How much more will your heavenly Father give his Holy Spirit to those who ask?" (Luke 11:11-13)

The deception that has taken over charismatic circles did not come from their willingness to yield control of their minds and hearts to God. In fact, it came from just the opposite. If they were greedy before speaking in tongues, they were greedy afterwards. If they were full of lust before, they were full of lust afterwards. The deception came when they felt that an emotional experience could take the place of faithful obedience to the rest of what Jesus taught.

Right in the middle of St. Paul's discourse on tongues is that beautiful chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13). It begins, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity (love), I am become as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal." In other words, speaking in tongues without a genuine love for God and others will end up being nothing but a lot of noise.

These words come from the same man who said, "I wish that you all spoke in tongues, even as I speak in tongues." He recognised the benefits of the gift, but he also knew that the tool was only as good as the heart of the receiver.

Paul also said that he would rather that we could all prophesy. In other words, there is not a competition between the prophets and the tongues talkers (Paul wants us to be able to do both.) but if there were, it would be the prophets, or the forth-tellers of the truth, who would win. And for that reason, we have not promoted tongues to the extent that most Pentecostals have.

But neither have we resisted it. Speaking in tongues will add to the effectiveness of whatever spirit now controls you. If you are preaching lies, it will make you a more effective liar. But if you are preaching the truth, it will make you a more effective preacher of the truth. By all means, preach the truth. But do so in the most effective way possible.

After all, why should the devil have all the best tools?

(See also The Spirit of Christ.)

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