Is the gift of tongues really to be used for prayer? Are you really missing out if you don’t have it? Should we all be praying in tongues?
Does God honor a prayer in tongues more than he does a prayer in our ordinary language? Are prayers in tongues more powerful than ordinary prayer? If you are genuinely wanting answers to these questions, and if you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, this article will help you.
IT’S RIGHT TO QUESTION
Questioning any of these claims, now common in a large cross-section of the Christian Church, is considered to be almost heretical. The closing of ears in this instance is an attempt to short-circuit any honest analysis. Truth stands up to scrutiny, and God is not afraid of truth or offended by it. As Christians we’re called, and even commanded in Scripture, to test and to examine whether what we’ve been told or led to believe by others is the truth. Here’s an example, in which the Lord Jesus commends those who are testing claims of apostleship:
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false (Revelation 2:2).
Testing claims is precisely the intent of this blog. This post is a little lengthy, so if you want you can scroll down to a sub-heading that takes your interest.
MORE POWERFUL PRAYER?
On Christian radio I heard a minister tell how he had been praying for a half hour about something important, but it seemed to him that God wasn’t paying attention, and he wasn’t getting anywhere. So, he said, he began to pray in tongues, and suddenly felt that he was getting through to God via the Holy Spirit. The heavens had opened up, he decided. Is this a valid testimony? It certainly is a common one. Does it make sense, scripturally, that God will only listen to prayers or take action if those prayers are in tongues?
THE WITNESS OF SCRIPTURE
Read through the New Testament, including the book of Acts, and you will not find one single prayer uttered in tongues. You will not find one single prayer that needed interpretation, and you will find no suggestion that it’s prayers in tongues that accomplish things and make things happen. I could give numerous examples here of the exact opposite. Neither will you find any command or recommendation that prayers should be in tongues. Surely, if prayers in tongues were more effective, Paul and other apostles would have stated so. A few verses are interpreted that way sometimes, but we will see that these are interpreted incorrectly.
Two previous posts of mine considered the claims that tongues are the words of the Holy Spirit speaking to us or through us, and that tongues are heavenly languages, or languages of angels. It would help you in the study of today’s subject to read those posts. But briefly, as I noted, if tongues were some mysterious and super-powerul family of languages, or if the Holy Spirit were speaking through tongues- in which case great things would have been achieved whenever they were spoken-Paul would never had told the tongues-speaker to be quiet as he did:
If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).
EMPTY, POWERLESS WORDS IF NOT UNDERSTOOD
Neither, if tongues are the words of the Holy Spirit, would Paul have suggested that those words were almost pointless and empty:
So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:9).
Speaking into the air! If you are speaking into the air, you are achieving nothing whatsoever! Would this not be an insulting thing to say of the Holy Spirit, if it were true that it’s Him praying through the speaker? Paul goes on:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue (verses 18 and 19).
If the Holy Spirit were speaking through someone in tongues, or if a powerful angelic language were being spoken, would Paul really say that ten thousand words spoken in tongues were worthless compared to just five in ordinary speech? The answer is, “No he would not!”. Therefore, the best we can say about prayer in tongues is that the speaker himself is praying, not the Holy Spirit. In this case, what is the benefit of praying in tongues? Not surprisingly, that was one of Paul’s concerns. He made clear, first of all, that tongues speakers were not speaking the words of the Holy Spirit, but were speaking to themselves and to God:
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 (verses 14 and 15).
Note the word “my” when Paul says “my spirit prays”. You are not, repeat not being fruitful if you pray in tongues, says Paul. Where then is the evidence, scripturally, that praying in tongues achieves greater things? Paul is telling the Corinthians to pray and sing in the language that they and everyone else understands, in order to produce spiritual fruit.
YOU ARE SPEAKING TO GOD, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND
Again, it is not the Holy Spirit speaking:
Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God… Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves (verses 2 and 4).
The sincere tongues speaker is simply speaking to God, not the other way around. What, then, can you say to God other than what you already know? And how are you going to engage your mind in that prayer if you are babbling? Jesus Christ counselled us not to disengage our minds, but to employ them to the full in our worship of God. If you really want to love God and worship Him, you will use your mind to do it:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12:30).
But Paul is saying that using tongues that no-one understands is in effect disengaging the mind! He isn’t saying that disengaging the mind is a good thing, and therefore, isn’t saying that praying something you don’t even understand yourself is a good thing! He is saying that it’s a mistake and a failure:
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 and 15).
ARE TONGUES FOR PERSONAL EDIFICATION?
The gift of tongues was not intended for personal edification, but only produced that if used without interpretation. So Paul laid out the better way:
Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church (1Cor 14:12)
Tongues were not for the purpose of building up onesself through prayer: this was only the effect of them if the speaker were not understood. Instead, says, Paul, we need to seek the gifts that build up others.
PRIVATE OR PUBLIC?
Paul declared that the ultimate purpose of the gift of tongues is as a sign:
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers (verse 22).
Ask yourself how tongues can possibly be a sign-and that to unbelievers-if they are spoken as private prayers. Isn’t there a huge dichotomy here? And tongues were not a sign to just any unbeliever (who might think that you are mad-verse 23) but to a specific set of unbelievers-the Jews. They may be spoken among Gentiles occasionally, but they were a sign to the Jews. That’s why Paul quotes from Isaiah 28:11 and 12 here in verses 20 and 21, in sharing with the Corinthians the purpose of the gift. This isn’t just a titbit of irrelevant information that Paul is sharing: he is stating for the education of the Corinthians, who are misusing the gift, what its true purpose is. He is correcting them.
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written:
“With other 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.”
The few instances of tongues-speaking in the book of Acts are all signs to an unbelieving generation of Jews, even and especially when used by Gentiles. They are a sign of judgment, and of the fact that the Lord has turned His attention from the Jews and to the Gentile world. This is a subject for another blog post, or this one will be far too long!
DID PAUL SAY THE HOLY SPIRIT PRAYS FOR US IN TONGUES?
In a previous post I covered the claim that Paul stated in his letter to the Romans, how in tongues the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, or more accurately, for some of us and not for others. It’s necessary to correct this claim again here. Here is the passage in question:
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).
The first thing to notice is the term “wordless groans”. Genuine tongues were, and should be, uttered in “words” (1 Corinthians 14:19) but Paul in this passage speaks of the Holy Spirit interceding with “wordless groans”. The KJV translates is this way:
…the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
When something cannot be uttered it cannot be expressed in words or even in any verbal sound at all, since that is the definition of “utterance”. This passage, then, is not speaking of the gift of tongues at all.
Secondly, there’s no mention here of tongues or unknown languages. These terms are not used, and neither is the word “gift”. If these words were being used Paul would be excluding those who don’t speak in tongues, and would be saying to those saints, essentially, “Your prayers and your feelings don’t matter to God as much as those with the gift of tongues. He isn’t going to help you in your weaknesses. He is not going to pray for you. He doesn’t search your heart. You’re out of luck, unless you get the gift!”
In a future post I will discuss the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that all believers-not just some-can enjoy it.
INTERPRET PRIVATE PRAYERS?
Paul told the Corinthians that if anyone were to speak in tongues in the church, what they were saying had to be interpreted, or the speaker was to keep quiet:
If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God (verses 27 and 28).
Ask yourself this: If tongues were intended to be for private prayer, why is Paul telling the church that those prayers must be interpreted publicly for all to hear and understand? Wouldn’t that be insulting and embarsssing to the speaker and an insult to the Holy Spirit? No, the far more logical conclusion is that tongues were not and are not for private prayers.
…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 (verses 16 and 17).
In this example, Paul is saying that the tongues speaker, one who he says is praying with his spirit only, is not only mystifying the hearers, but is merely giving thanks “well enough”. There is no powerful thanksgiving going on here, but only an adequate expression of thanks, which no-one else is going to benefit from anyway. The non-tongues speaker can give thanks just as well, or even better, because others will understand. There is no special power in a tongue!
One of the verses in this passage is sometimes used erroneously as an apologetic for modern tongues. It is used to support the use of tongues for prayer:
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful (verse 14).
Obviously, says the tongues speaker, Paul is here saying that tongues are for the purpose of prayer. But this lifts the verse out of its context. He is in fact continuing his discussion that tongues without an interpretation are not going to be understood. He is saying that if you pray with your spirit ony-which tongues-talkers and non-tongues talkers can both do-you will not be understood. And Paul is not saying that this is a good thing, he is saying that it’s a BAD thing:
Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 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? (verses 12-16).
THE ATTACK ON FAITH
In true prayer we are to engage our minds. We are to know what we are saying so that others will understand also. And the idea that only tongues prayers carry power is arrogant and completely unscriptural. Not only this, but it really is a veiled attack on the freedom that all believers have in Christ. It’s an attack on the gospel which says nothing about the need to speak in tongues. It’s an attack on those of faith who don’t speak in tongues. It’s an attack on their faith and their faith in prayer and in the belief that God cares for them. Instead, we should all recognise the liberating truth of the Christian gospel:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness” (Colossians 2:8-10).
Here’s what James had to say about prayer:
The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:16b).
It’s righteousness which has clout in heaven, not the practice of babbling or of falling over backwards. Isn’t it interesting that the concept of righteousness is somehow being left out of the equation today?
In our time, many churches are requiring as a priority in leadership skills the abilities to speak in tongues and to get people to fall over. Why is there no such suggestion in Paul’s discussion of who should be chosen for leadership? Read, for example 1 Timothy chapter 3, and you will find no mention of tongues as a prerequisite to service in the church, as it is in many churches and parachurches today. In our time, the words of Scripture are being bipassed or ignored. “God is doing something new”, we are told, and even that new apostles are speaking new words directly from God. This is deception originating from the father of lies. It should be a large warning to those of us who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Remember that God will never contradict what He has said before. Any contradictory amendment or addition to Scripture is not God…it’s another spirit.