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22 January 2019

Praying too loud—in tongues.

Likely you know what Jesus taught about showing off when we pray. If you need a reminder, here ya go.

Matthew 6.5-6 KWL
5 “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites who enjoy standing in synagogues and major intersections,
praying so they might be seen by the people. Amen! I promise you all, they got their satisfaction.
6 When you pray, go into your most private room with the door closed.
Pray to your Father in private. Your Father, who sees what’s private, will satisfy you.”

Betcha you’ve never heard it applied to praying in tongues.

Yet if you’re in one of those churches which don’t stifle tongues, you’re gonna notice whenever there’s a prayer group, those who pray in tongues tend to do so at a very audible level. Sometimes at the volume of an ordinary speaking voice. Often even louder.

If they were praying in English, would this be considered appropriate behavior? Nope. Jesus’s teaching about hypocrites showing off would immediately come to mind. We’d consider it disruptive. Someone would take that person aside and have a private little corrective chat with ’em. And if they kept it up regardless, they’d be asked to leave the room, if not the group.

So… why do tongues get a free pass to be noisy?

Because, Christians shrug, it’s tongues! It’s a powerful prayer, supernaturally enabled by the Holy Spirit. He’s making us able to pray in the Spirit’s power, for all the stuff the Spirit particularly wants. For that reason, shouldn’t it take priority over everything else in the room?

Maybe so, maybe not. It’s not the issue, actually.

The issue is volume. Are we meant to outshout everyone else when we pray? No. Are we meant to interrupt others when we pray? No. Are we meant to be noisy or disruptive when we pray? No. And if it’s true of prayer, it's just as true of prayer in tongues. We don’t get a free pass to be fleshly just because the Spirit gave us the power to pray tongues. In fact it’s all the more reason to not behave this way: Making noise means we’re kinda nullifying any of the building up 1Co 14.4 which the tongues are meant to do for us.

1 Corinthians 13.1 KWL
When I speak in human and angelic tongues:
When I have no love, I’ve become the sound of a gong, a clanging symbol.

Not a prayer warrior; a noisemaker.

And quit blaming the Holy Spirit for your bad behavior, wouldya?

Our immaturity confuses immature Christians.

Years ago I had a Baptist coworker. She’s one of those odd ducks who doesn’t deny God continues to do miracles in the present day… but you’d never, ever see miracles in her church. ’Cause they don’t go there. They just don’t. They accept God still cures the sick, but they’re so wary of false faith healers, they don’t bother with any faith healing. They accept God still speaks to and through people, but don’t trust any prophets. They believe speaking tongues is theoretically possible… and that’s what it remains, theory.

(Bluntly, it’s unbelief disguised as open-mindedness. That merits its own article. But not today.)

Anyway she visited one of my church’s prayer meetings. We’re Pentecostal, so naturally we had some folks in the room who were praying tongues. And after the meeting was over, she privately objected to me.

SHE. “They’re doing it wrong.”
ME. “Praying in tongues wrong?”
SHE. “When you speak in tongues you‘re supposed to wait for an interpretation. They weren’t doing that. They just kept right on speaking in tongues.”

I get where her objection comes from. It’s the bible of course:

1 Corinthians 14.26-28 KWL
26 So how does this work, fellow Christians, when you get together?
Each person has a psalm, a teaching, an apocalypse, a tongue, a translation?
Make everything be for building up.
27 Either tongues-speaking is limited to two, or three at most:
Each says a part, and someone must interpret.
28 When there’s no interpreter, be quiet in the church.
Speak to yourselves and to God.

Problem is, she’s making a common mistake we see in people who have little to no experience with the supernatural: She thinks the only purpose of tongues is prophecy. She assumes whenever Christians speak tongues aloud in church, they’re prophetic tongues—because why else would people speak ’em so loud? They’re said loud enough for an interpreter to overhear them, so there’d better be an interpretation thereafter.

See, when we’re too loud in tongues, we get unintended consequences like this one. And it gets worse. You might explain to folks exactly what I did—“There’s more than one kind of speaking in tongues; that’s the prayer kind, not the prophecy kind”—and they’re the type of know-it-all who insists we’re wrong; they’ve read their bibles, they know the only kind of tongues is the prophetic kind, and therefore all tongues require interpreting. Every time you pray in tongues, better have an interpreter! Which is ludicrous, but know-it-alls can get that way.

Prayer tongues don’t require interpretation. When you pray tongues on your own, by yourself, in your prayer closet or whatever private space you use, do you expect the Holy Spirit to tell you what he’s having you pray? Well if so, feel free to ask him. But most of us who pray tongues recognize we don’t actually need to know. We trust the Spirit will tell us when we do need to know—and when he doesn’t, it’s probably none of our business anyway. He might have us praying for other people’s unspoken prayer requests, and he’s keeping ’em private too. They don’t need interpreting.

Okay, that’s on our own. How are we to pray when we’re in a group-prayer setting? Obviously we have to submit to one another, which means keep ’em in consideration: Make everything be for building up. 1Co 14.26 Is it gonna build up, or mess up, the prayer group?

If, when we pray all by ourselves, we tend to get loud and shouty, maybe we ought not do that in the prayer group. Don't wanna be that guy.

Likewise there might not be room (or a clean enough floor) to pray facedown on the floor. Likewise the others may not appreciate our prayer music or candles or incense or weeping. (Yeah, weeping. Some people don’t realize they’re to leave that at home too.)

Likewise praying out loud. Totally fine at home; totally fine if we’re leading the group. Totally inappropriate when we’re not. Yes, this totally includes loud tongues.

So the folks who are unfamiliar with tongues are understandably confused when people pray tongues at a volume level which suggests they need to be heard. Why would other people need to hear our tongues? Duh; prophecy! So they expect an interpretation… and if they don't hear one, they wanna know why we’re violating Paul and Sosthenes’s clear instructions to the Corinthians. They’re already kinda leery about whether we're practicing tongues properly as it is… so they’re looking for slip-ups.

Well, we gave ’em one. Just not the one they’re thinking of.

Showing off how we can do tongues.

Because too-loud tongues-speaking is such a common phenomenon, my fellow Pentecostals haven’t just grown used to it: Sometimes we expect it. Sometimes we invite it.

I’ve heard many a pastor encourage the crowd—right in the middle of Sunday morning services—“If you have a prayer language, pray it now!” And all the Christians in the room who can pray in tongues, do. And the Pentecostals are happy ’cause it feels extra Pentecostal up in here.

Y’know who’s not happy?

  • All the people who don’t know how to pray in tongues. They’re left behind.
  • All the people who can sorta do it, but can’t just turn it off and on, and need more practice at it.
  • All the people who don’t pray in public. Whether in English or in tongues, whether from shyness or conviction, they’re not comfortable about being loud in public.
  • All the people who feel, as I do (and I would argue as the apostles do), that prayer tongues aren’t meant to be a public activity. It’s like declaring, “If you have sins to confess, do it now!” Well of course we have sins to confess—but we do that privately, with mature Christians who can keep confidences. And y’know what’s also confidential? The meanings behind much of what the Holy Spirit empowers us to pray—which is why he conceals it in tongues.

But y’know, it sounds cool, which is why pastors keep demanding it. Regardless of whether it builds anybody up at all. It really doesn’t.

Much of the reason the Corinthians needed correction—why there’s a whole chapter on how to do tongues properly!—is because they were way too interested in their ability to speak tongues. I mean, it is a neat gift after all: The Holy Spirit uses us to pray, and it’s a really easy gift to exercise. The very same Christians who struggle to pray long prayers, can easily pray in tongues for hours if you let ’em.

But again: It’s not a group activity! Praying in tongues is between you and the Spirit, and no one else. Yet the Corinthians were trying to turn ’em into a group thing—and as a result it wasn’t building up anything. Not the individual Christians; not their church. It was promoting unnecessary comparisons—“I can pray tongues better and longer than you.” It made noisy services, with visitors wondering what on earth was going on or being said. And because tongues are really easy to fake, it was fostering hypocrisy among people who wanted to look like they were better at prayer than they were.

Most Christians recognize really egregious cases of these misbehaviors, and shut ’em down before they get too destructive. But we need to be far more proactive. Shut it all down.

I’m absolutely not saying we should never, ever pray tongues in church. Pray tongues anywhere and everywhere! But pray them quietly. Keep the volume down. Whisper if you gotta.

Save your volume for when you’re alone. Or when when you have to pray aloud. Or for when the Spirit tells you, “Okay, this tongue has an interpretation; get loud!” People aren’t always gonna realize the Spirit has an interpretation to follow if we’re always that loud. So reserve the loudness for the appropriate time. Group worship ain’t it.

Prayer.