Speaking in tongues.

1 Corinthians 14.39 KJV
Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.

The technical term for tongues-speaking is glossolalia. (Greek γλωσσολαλία ɡloʊ.soʊ.la'li.a, which Americans re-pronounce ɡlɑ.sə'leɪ.li.ə and just means “tongues-speaking.”) Theologians, psychologists, historians, and anthropologists call it this. ’Cause Christians aren’t the only ones who do it. Lots of people do. Including—and this fact tends to startle certain Pentecostals—lots of other religions.

Yep. Christians tend to assume only we do tongues. But plenty of pagans do. Actual tongues, not just muttering in foreign languages, like when you’re watching a bad horror movie and magicians suddenly start incanting in Latin. (’Cause somehow Latin has become the devil’s favorite language; Satan’s existed for millions of years, yet none of the other human languages did it for him until Etruscan evolved into Latin, and then it said, “Oh wait guys, we gotta learn this one,” and now all the devils speak it. But stupid movie tropes aside, other religions definitely do glossolalia.) The difference between Christian tongues and pagan tongues is really simple: Ours are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Theirs aren’t.

And the reason the apostles had to sort out the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 14, is because the Corinthians were more familiar with the way Greco-Roman pagans spoke tongues, and were bringing too many of these pagan behaviors and motives into Jesus’s church.

How’d Greco-Romans do tongues? As part of their worship, they’d get sloppy drunk. Or eat hashish or opium, or stand over natural-gas vents and get partially asphyxiated. They’d go into trances or semi-conscious states… and start babbling. Then their “prophets” would interpret the tongues. Spiritualists and psychics still do this: They try to alter their consciousness, babble a bit, then interpret the babbling.

Christians do not do it this way. Watch out for those who do!

Nope, we don’t go into trances. We don’t “lose ourselves” in any other state of consciousness. Our bodies don’t get taken over by the Holy Spirit, nor any other being. We’re fully conscious. Fully awake. Fully aware of our surroundings. Fully in control of our faculties: At any point we can intentionally stop, and no it’s not “quenching the Spirit” to do so. Like when somebody asks a question—“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but where’s the bathroom?”—or if prayer time has to stop for whatever reason. We’re in full control of ourselves. And the volume of our voices.

I know; some Christians regularly claim “I can’t help myself!” And they’re wrong. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. He’s not gonna break character because he’s making us speak tongues. If we have to pause, or stop, and pick it up later, we can. So those Christians who claim, “When the Spirit takes over, I’m not responsible for my actions,” are lying. They chose to be boisterous, attention-seeking, inappropriate, and rude. Same as anybody who shows off their public prayers on the street corner. Lk 18.9-14

If any tongues-speaker truly can’t control themselves, that ain’t God. Get an exorcist.

Physically, speaking tongues only consists of opening our mouths and talking. But rather than speak articulate words in a known language, we let our mouths do as it will. We disconnect the language centers of our brains from what our mouths do. Scientists, who’ve done MRI scans of tongue-speakers’ brains, found the creative and language centers have nothing to do with the tongues: The mouth works automatically and unconsciously, and meanwhile our minds are occupied with other things. (Hopefully prayer, as Paul instructed. 1Co 14.14-15)

The sounds coming out, will typically be the sounds one most often makes. This is why an English-speaker’s tongues will sound like English babble, and a Hebrew-speaker’s tongues will sound like Hebrew babble. The lips, tongue, and teeth may move unconsciously, but they’re not trying to make sounds they don’t normally make.

The syllables which come out of a tongues-speaker’s mouth have no standardized meaning. No grammar. No syntax. They’re not code. This is not a translatable language. They mean what they mean only in the moment. They’re not meant to teach us the language angels speak in heaven, so don’t bother trying to create a Tongues/English Dictionary, or printing tongues-words on T-shirts. (No seriously: People have made T-shirts.) Yet every so often a naïve Christian will try it: “I cracked the code! Wanda means ‘well done,’ and botta means ‘good and faithful,’ and honda means ‘servant,’ so that’s what it means to say Wanda boughta honda.” No no; don’t do that. You look like an idiot.

The usual purpose of Christian tongues is prayer. The Holy Spirit knows their meaning. Unless he empowers us to interpret these tongues, and let the rest of us in on their meaning, we don’t know their meaning—and usually don’t need to know. Translating them means we’re trying to do an end-run round the Spirit. We don’t wanna do that.

Cessationists and tongues.

If you’re cessationist—you believe God shut down all the miracles till the End Times, or even that there never were any miracles and the bible’s pure mythology—tongues-speaking is gonna challenge your beliefs pretty hard. Thousands of Christian denominations pray and prophesy in tongues. Daily.

’Cause more of us believe God never stopped doing miracles, than not. And even though tongues are considered part of the Pentecostal movement, the Orthodox and Catholics have always done tongues—and plenty of Protestants, in both the charismatic branches of mainline churches, and in pietist churches which embrace the Spirit’s supernatural activity, like Moravians and Quakers.

So if you’re dead set in your cessationist beliefs, you only have two options:

  1. Every last one of us is faking it.
  2. Satan and its imps have massively—and successfully!—deceived Christendom.

Or you’re wrong, and Satan’s deceived you in order to successfully depower you. But they really don’t care for that one.

So either we continuationists are liars or devilish. Both options are kinda insulting to us Christians, but that’s not even the real issue. It’s that if the Holy Spirit legitimately empowers tongues—and he is—the cessationists are blaspheming him. They’re saying, same as the Pharisees said of the One empowering Jesus to do miracles and exorcisms, he’s the devil. The One who’s supposed to be living inside them to empower them—yes them!—to do the very same miracles Jesus did, and to speak in tongues same as the apostles did, and to grow good fruit.

But they think he’s the devil. And if you can’t tell any difference between God and the devil, how in heaven and earth are you gonna follow God properly? Which is one of the reasons so many cessationist churches devolve into little cults. But I digress.

How do cessationists justify their beliefs, considering that scripture I quoted at the beginning of this article?—“Forbid not to speak with tongues.” 1Co 14.39 Aren’t they violating that verse? Sure; but they claim they’re not, because they narrowly define tongues as foreign languages. They take the experience of the first Christians at Pentecost, 33AD, and claim it’s the definitive description of tongues: Human languages, like Greek, Tyrian, Coptic, and Latin. Nothing more.

Acts 2.2-6 KJV
2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

So unless we’re doing that, it’s not biblical.

[O]n the basis of the phenomenon of foreign languages spoken of in Acts 2:5-12, we have argued that the tongues referred to in 1 Corinthians 14:13-15, 20-25 were also foreign-language tongues—not ecstatic utterances, gibberish, or nonunderstandable erratic variations of consonants and vowels with indiscriminate modulation of pitch, speed, and volume.

—W. Harold Mare, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1Co 14.26-40 summary.

Not gibberish, even though Paul and Sosthenes kinda described it that way in 1 Corinthians 14. Cessationists insist glossolalia must be an intelligible foreign language, must be what theologians call xenolalia (Greek ξενολαλία zɛ.noʊ.lɑ'li.ɑ, American zi.noʊ'leɪ.li.ə, “foreign-speaking”) demand it’s this, and only this, because they’re not comfortable with anything else. (And some of ’em are barely comfortable with it being a foreign tongue. Like the folks who shout at people on the subway, “Speak English! This is America.”)

Hence whenever Christians practice any other form of tongues than xenolalia, cessationists will object: “You’re doing it wrong.” And condemn us, and call us devilish, and blaspheme the Spirit, and think they’re righteous advocates for orthodoxy.

Types of tongues.

Contrary to cessationists, there’s more than one type of tongues-speaking. There are “families of tongues,” as the apostles put it. 1Co 12.10 And no, they didn’t mean families of languages, like Germanic languages, Romance languages, American Indian languages, and so forth. They meant tongues the Spirit empowers for different reasons and purposes. This is why they look different.

Generally, the scriptures describe four.

  • EVIDENTIARY TONGUES. When you’re baptized in the Holy Spirit, as the first apostles Ac 2.4 and the first Roman Christians were, Ac 10.45-46 y’notice they spoke in tongues. This miraculous act proved to the eyewitnesses that the Spirit was there, and doing something. It didn’t mean these Christians were now gifted in tongues, or linguistic ability; it only means the Spirit was poured out on ’em.
  • FOREIGN LANGUAGES. Some of the first apostles’ tongues were clearly human languages, ’cause Jews who spoke those languages understood them. Ac 2.6 At times the Spirit empowers Christians to speak languages we don’t know, so as to eliminate the language barrier.
  • PRAYER TONGUES. The rest of the time, the usual purpose of tongues is to pray for stuff. 1Co 14.2 Stuff we can’t express in English; Ro 8.26 or stuff the Spirit wants us to pray about, but doesn’t actually need us to know about. 1Co 14.14 This activity edifies us, 1Co 14.4 and significantly boosts our prayer lives… and gets abused a lot; hence the apostles’ corrections.
  • PROPHECY TONGUES. When the Spirit inspires people to interpret anything said in tongues so everyone else can understand it. 1Co 14.5 Then it becomes a message from the Spirit: It’s prophecy.

Other Christians claim there are more types, but once you pick their teachings apart, you realize they’re just talking about “deeper levels” of prayer and prophecy tongues. And sometimes they’ll try to sell you a book series on it.

Dark Christians add a fifth category: Devilish tongues. Like I said, Christianity isn’t the only religion which practices tongues-speaking. So dark Christians they figure the devil has to be behind at least some of the tongues-speaking in the world.

I’ll concede this idea… to a point. The problem is dark Christians are super paranoid, and too often they leap to the conclusion that any practice of tongues which doesn’t conform to their standards, is devilish. Same as the cessationists. In fact there’s a lot of overlap between cessationists and dark Christianity, which stands to reason.

But as you read 1 Corinthians, you’ll notice the apostles did not do that. True, they didn’t approve of the Corinthians’ behavior. But never do they therefore leap to the conclusion, “Y’all are speaking Satan’s tongues.” The Corinthians were speaking Spirit-empowered tongues—but doing it wrong.

What you’d see in the Corinthian church was loveless supernatural activity: A lot of Christians who forgot the point of the Spirit’s supernatural gifts is to minister to one another. Tongues included. We tongues-speaking Christians have the bad habit of doing ’em, but not in love—and the end product is we turn it into noisy nothing. 1Co 13.1-3 That was the Corinthians’ problem; it’s just as often our problem too.

The Corinthian church would gather to worship… then instead of worshiping together, they’d speak tongues. A lot. Good ’n loud. Now, this practice is fine when we’re alone, but when we’re together, and nobody can understand one another, we’re not gonna be blessed by what we’re praying for one another. ’Cause we don’t know what we’re praying for one another.

The core problem? Selfishness. Nobody was willing to step up and audibly, publicly pray for one another. But they were willing to speak in tongues super loud: “Check me out! God granted me the ability to pray in tongues! I’m performing a miracle! It’s so spiritual of me! Mamase mamasa mamkusa!

Useful rule of thumb: When you’re worshiping, don’t be a dick.

’Cause here’s what’s gonna happen when we’re praying for one another correctly: We’re gonna pay attention to the Holy Spirit ’cause we expect him to respond to our prayers. And he will. He’ll tell us stuff. He’ll inform us what to say. He’ll have specific messages for the people we’re praying over. Prophecy is gonna happen. The whole church is gonna get blessed.

In comparison, what’s gonna happen in a roomful of Christians praying in tongues? In my experience, we just get unnecessarily louder.

Why pray in tongues?

Those who dismiss or forbid tongues think they serve no purpose, and quote this verse for proof:

1 Corinthians 14.4 KJV
He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

“Edifieth himself,” building up yourself, is not no purpose. It’s a very good purpose. We’re all supposed to grow in Christ, right? Isn’t a built-up, mature Christian of great value? Don’t we want the individuals of our churches to be built up? Since when must the individual be tamped down in favor of the collective? Since when did we get all Marxist?

Facetiously riding the slippery slope aside, the purpose of tongues is to build Christians. It edifies us by getting us used to the Holy Spirit’s power as a normal, everyday thing. Praying in tongues on a regular basis makes us more familiar, more practiced, more in tune with him. ’Cause we are praying to God more often. Right?

As we’re speaking tongues, we’re also meant to multitask: We oughta be simultaneously praying silently, in our minds, to God. 1Co 14.15 You know, like people do when we recite rote prayers. We’re doing twice the praying.

We concentrate on the stuff in our minds, and the Holy Spirit deals with the stuff coming out of our mouths. We can ignore our mouths… unless of course the Spirit has us or others interpret it.

Romans 8.26-27 KJV
26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. 27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.

Too many Christians feel we gotta be in control of everything we do, and of every word which comes out of our mouths. And yeah, ordinarily we do. Self-control, y’know. But with such people it’s not so much about self-control as it is control. They wanna have absolute control over every word which comes out of their mouths—and don’t trust the Holy Spirit to say through us whatever he will. They lack faith.

But once we surrender our mouths to God, in so doing we’re practicing the supernatural. We’re doing something entirely through God’s power. The Spirit controls the words and the prayer requests. We’re praying nothing more, nothing less, than for God’s will to be done. Mt 6.10 And doing it better than we ever could on our own. It’s far better than guessing at God’s will and praying for that; far better than even praying the scriptures. We’re letting God choose the meaning of every word we utter, surrendering our prayers to him entirely. It’s a better posture of surrender to God than kneeling ever could be.

So. If you don’t yet pray in tongues, start. If you don’t think God’s empowered you with that ability yet, ask him for it!