Tongues, and how to pray in them.

The most controversial of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural gifts is speaking in tongues.

That’s because some Christians don’t merely think (as cessationists will) that it’s something Christians don‘t do anymore; that the Spirit doesn’t need us to do it anymore. Certain churches straight-up forbid it. Doesn’t matter what the scriptures say—

1 Corinthians 14.5 KWL
I want all of you to speak tongues—so that you can prophesy more!
Prophesying is greater than speaking tongues.
The exception is if one interprets so the church could be built up.
1 Corinthians 14.39-40 KWL
39 Therefore, my family, be zealous to prophesy. And as for speaking, don’t stop tongues!
40 Practice everything appropriately and in order.

—they figure if the Spirit doesn’t do it anymore, every single instance we see of tongues nowadays is devilish. And if they banned tongues, and we dare interrupt their “appropriate order” by speaking in weird sounds, our disruption is a sure sign we’re devilish. So they’ve banned tongues outright.

What about the possibility they’re blaspheming the Holy Spirit? They’re willing to risk it. Problem is, they totally are blaspheming the Spirit, and must answer to him for it.

To be fair, some of their concerns about “appropriate order” are totally valid. Many a tongues-speaker does act inappropriately. Humans are creatures of extremes, and it feels like Christians either take the attitude of “No tongues ever” or “Anything goes.” The whole point of 1 Corinthians 14 was to deal with the fact the Corinthians were speaking in tongues—as every Christian should, and the apostles encouraged them to keep it up!—but were doing ’em wrong.

The reason I bring tongues up in the Prayer & Praise category is because the primary purpose of tongues is prayer. That’s what they are: Prayer. Prayer is talking with God, and when we speak tongues that’s precisely what we’re doing: Talking with God. We’re saying stuff, God understands that stuff, and we’re getting built up as better people, better Christians, by praying in this manner. 1Co 14.4

Well… assuming we’re not praying in tongues willy-nilly, in a childish, undisciplined, fruitless way. 1Co 14.20 If we’re gonna speak tongues, let’s do them right!


The technical term for tongues-speaking is glossolalia glɔ.sə.lə'li.ə… which is just Greek for “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.

Yeah, Christians tend to assume only we do tongues. Nope. The difference between Christian tongues and pagan tongues is really simple: Ours are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Theirs aren’t.

Most of the reason the apostles had to sort out the Corinthians was because the Corinthians were more familiar with the way Greco-Roman pagans spoke tongues. As part of their worship, ancient Greek pagans would get drunk or stoned or asphyxiated, start babbling in tongues, and their “prophets” would interpret the tongues. Spiritualists and psychics still do it: They go into trances, tongues come out, and they try to translate.

Christians do not do it that way. (Watch out for those who do!) We don’t go into trances. We don’t “lose ourselves” in some other state of consciousness. Our bodies don’t get taken over by some other being. We’re fully conscious, fully awake, fully aware of our surroundings, fully in control of our faculties. At any point we can choose to stop speaking tongues, close our mouths, and start speaking English. We’re in full control of the volume of our voices.

Any Christian who claims they’re not in control—“I can’t help but be loud!”—is wrong. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and the Spirit’s not gonna force us to do something inconsistent with his fruit! So those Christians who claim, “When the Spirit takes me over, I’m not responsible for my actions”: They’re lying. They choose 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 the tongues-speaker truly can’t control themselves, that ain’t God. Get an exorcist.

Physically all speaking tongues consists of, is opening our mouths and talking. But rather than say what we want to say, and articulate words in a known language, we let our mouths do as it will. We disconnect the language centers of our brain from what our mouths are doing. 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 unconsciously and automatically, while our minds are occupied with other things. (Hopefully prayer, as Paul instructed. 1Co 14.14-15)

But the sounds coming out will be the sounds you’re most often making. That’s 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 be moving unconsciously, but they’re not trying to make sounds they don’t normally make.

Every so often a naïve Christian will try to translate these tongues: “I cracked the code! Wanda means ‘well done,’ and botta means ‘good and faithful,’ and honda means ‘servant,’ so that’s what it means! Wanda boughta honda.” No no, don’t do that. You look like an idiot.

The syllables which come out of a tongues-speaker’s mouth have no standardized meaning. No grammar. No syntax. They’re not code; they’re not a translatable language. They mean what they mean only at that moment. They’re not meant to teach us what 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.)

I repeat: The purpose of these tongues is prayer. God knows their meaning. Unless the Spirit empowers an interpretation, we don’t need to know what they mean. And translating them means we’re trying to do an end-run round the Spirit—and we don’t wanna do that.

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 KWL
A tongues-speaker edifies oneself. A prophesier edifies a church.

Followed by criticism of those who would dare edify themselves at the expense of their church.

Um… since when is this at the expense of their church? Isn’t a built-up Christian of value to their church? Shouldn’t we all seek Christian maturity? Don’t you want the individuals in your church built up? Since when must the individual be tamped down in favor of the collective? Since when did we adopt Marxism in our churches?

Facetiously riding the slippery slope aside, that’s the purpose of tongues: Building up individual Christians. And how it edifies us is by getting us used to the 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. After all we are praying to God more often. Right?

And as we’re speaking tongues, we’re 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 that… unless the Spirit has us or others interpret it.

Romans 8.26-27 KWL
26 Similarly the Spirit also accommodates our weakness: What should we pray?—must we pray?
We didn’t know But the Spirit himself intercedes for us with unspeakable groans.
27 One who examines one’s heart knows the Spirit’s mind:
He deals with the saints according to how God does.

Some Christians feel we gotta control everything we do, and 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 be in charge of the words 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 pray in tongues yet, start. If you don’t think God’s empowered you with that ability yet, ask him!