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Speaking in Tongues and the Law of Love

My little children, let us not love in word, neither in  tongue ; but in  deed  and in  truth. (1 John 3:18)

The Basic Issue

Some fundamentalist Christians claim that what Pentacostals call "speaking in tongues" is only a phony caricature of the genuine manifestation recorded in the New Testament.  At the other end of the spectrum, some Pentecostal Christians claim that any believer who does not speak in tongues is not "Spirit-filled", and hence deficient in faith and experience.

The heart of the "tongues" issue is not words, nor outward appearance, nor emotional response, but rather deeds and truth. Whether tongues has a place in the church today stands or falls on the answer to the following question:

Does speaking in tongues contribute to Christians' loving God and others in deeds and in truth?
Let us therefore examine tongues and true love in the New Testament church, both at Pentecost and afterwards.

Speaking in Tongues at Pentecost

Tongues at Pentecost must be understood in relation to the fundamental significance of what transpired on that date.  Pentecost was the birthday of the Body of Christ. This Body came into physical existence when men and women came together, desiring to be One in Christ (John 17:20-23).  The Holy Spirit supernaturally breathed new life into them and they became a single collective organism with its own independent life (Acts 2:2-4). The assembled believers did not lose their individuality -- rather, each was transformed, their individual senses and capabilities awakened and energized through association with the new organism.  Those men and women functioned within the Body much as biological cells function within the human body.

On Pentecost, the Body of Christ spoke its first words.  These words were produced by the whole Body responding to the Holy Spirit in coordinated action.  These words were the "tongues" described in Acts chapter 2.

Not everyone who heard could understand this speech, but only those whose hearts were open and receptive.  In the very same way, when the Father spoke from heaven to His Son Jesus, some heard Him speak while others heard only thunder (John 12:29). Again, on the road to Damascus, Paul heard Jesus speak intelligible words, while the others heard only raw noise (Acts 9:7, 22:9). It seems likely that at Pentecost there were instances of two people with the same native language both listening to the disciples, one hearing praise and the other hearing only drunken babble. As any communications link involves both transmission and reception, so the divine communication mediated by tongues involved miraculous speaking AND miraculous hearing.

Neither should we assume necessarily that individual disciples at Pentecost spoke individual languages. Indeed, this seems quite unlikely -- a large crowd of men all shouting simultaneously in different languages would have been unintelligible to everyone. Rather, it was the CUMULATIVE effect of their speaking which somehow diverse hearers were able to resolve into diverse languages. The Church spoke as a single Body, not as a collection of unconnected individuals.

In summary:  Tongues at Pentecost attested to the birth of the Church. Tongues bore witness that the Church was One in mind and spirit, with one Head Jesus Christ.

Speaking in Tongues in the New Testament Church

We first need to understand that "speaking in tongues" (which could also be translated "speaking in languages") is a descriptive name for an event, just like "sunrise" is a descriptive name for an event. Though the sun appears to be rising up from the ground at sunrise, it is not actually doing so.  Similarly, the person speaking in tongues appears to be expressing himself in a language--but this does not necessarily mean that he is speaking in a genuine  language, either human or 'angelic'.  The phrase "speaking in tongues" is a descriptive term and NOT a technically accurate explanation of the underlying phenomenon (the same thing could be said of the expression "filled with joy" or, for that matter, "filled with the Spirit" -- but this is a whole other topic in itself!)

The only way to thoroughly understand what "speaking in tongues" truly is, is to examine the New Testament descriptions of phenomenon which it refers to.

First, consider the outward appearance of speaking in tongues. The New Testament descriptions consistently indicate that tongues-speakers appear like drunks or madmen gibbering nonsense. Not only are the words apparently meaningless, the animated demeanor of the speakers makes them appear nuts.

Next, consider what's going on inside the tongues-speaker as he gives forth utterance.  Paul provides us a detailed description in 1 Corinthians 14 of the internal state of the tongues-speaker. First, Paul says that he or she is  speaking to God, and not to men.  So tongues is for prayer, and not for preaching or teaching.   Second, he or she is speaking mysteries in the spirit.  Mysteries are hidden truths which cannot be fully expressed in human language, and cannot be fully comprehended by the human mind except through a special revelation from God.  Third, Paul indicates that the speaker himself does not understand what he is saying (although some would claim otherwise, a close analysis of 1 Cor. 14:13-19 leaves no room for any other interpretation).  He is speaking directly from the heart, moved by the Holy Spirit, and his speech is not processed or understood by his mind.

In summary, New Testament tongues was an intensely personal, mystical  encounter with the Holy Spirit which outwardly appeared  bizarre to the point of insanity (compare the behavior of King Saul in  1 Samuel 19:23-24, which apparently was not unusual among prophets).

Speaking in Tongues in the Present Day

Let me relate my own experience of praying for my brother, who at that time was not walking with the Lord.  We were not on speaking terms at the time, so I had no idea what he was thinking or feeling.  I often felt a heavy, heavy burden on my heart for him.  I used to go out into the woods where no one could hear me, and shout and sing in tongues (or "unintelligible sounds", if you prefer) until the burden was lifted.  I knew that I was praying for my brother, that I was pouring out my heart before God for him. Various images flashed before my mind as I prayed, but there is no way I could write a transcript of the contents of my prayer-- it was more than my mind could process.  Eventually, my brother did come back to the Lord and is now serving Him.  I believe that my prayers contributed to his return to the Lord.

Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons that the reason does not understand." When speaking in tongues, the heart expresses itself directly, without being filtered through the intellect. A deeper, fuller expression of the soul is possible, though its essence cannot be captured in rational words.  Just as Paul tells us in Romans 8:26-27, "The Spirit also helps us in our weakness: for when we don't know how we ought to pray, the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with  groanings  which cannot be expressed.  The one who searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 14 that a person speaking in tongues is actually praying with his/her spirit.  If a tongue is interpreted in an assembly, the interpretation is not necessarily literal, but rather conveys the import of what the person is trying to express through his/her spirit.

I remember hearing about a linguist who taped the tongues spoken in a Pentecostal assembly, analyzed them and concluded that they do not have the characteristics of a language.  This causes no problem for our understanding of the significance of tongues.  Someone who is expressing mysteries in their spirit is not necessarily using a "language" as we ordinarily understand the term. Music is highly expressive medium, but neither does music have the characteristics of language. We must be aware that any 'interpretation' of a tongue is only a partial representation of its significance: we should not expect that 'mysteries' or the hidden things of God can be adequately expressed in human language.

Can music be edifying?  There is scarcely a Christian who would deny this.  Can music inspire to a greater love for God and for others?  Again, we have near-universal agreement.  But does music have a rational significance? That is, does music have a meaning which can be equivalently expressed in words?  Obviously not.  But for that reason, is it any less edifying and inspiring?

Now how about tongues?  Tongues admittedly does not have a rational significance which can be equivalently expressed in words.  However, this does not disqualify tongues from our spiritual repertoire, any more than music.

Music is an expression of the soul; tongues is an expression of the spirit.  There is a great deal of leeway in the interpretation of a piece of music; and the same holds true for tongues.

Many are suspicious of tongues because it conveys to them the impression of  uncontrolled emotionalism.  Emotions are easily manipulated by skillful demagogues, the kind who "speak great swelling words of vanity, who allure through the lusts of the flesh" (2 Pet. 2:18). To be sure,  excesses and abuses of the gift of tongues are epidemic. It all depends on the heart of the speaker.  Is the speaker motivated by a desire to be the center of attention?  Is he trying to impress others with his (so-called) "spirituality"? Is he trying to manipulate others into being carried up in a wave of enthusiasm? Is he subtly trying to promote his own spiritual agenda?  Such motivations are all to common, and the false is probably more prevalent than the true. Even the true usually has some "leaven" mixed in: for "The heart of man is desperately wicked, who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)


Perhaps reading this has piqued your interest in tongues, or in spiritual gifts in general. I only ask, dear reader, that you put aside your pride in your own level of spiritual knowledge and attainment.  Put aside your fear of appearing foolish in others' eyes. Do not let apathy stifle you, nor let inertia weigh you down.  Recognize that you are poor, pitiable, blind, and naked -- for before Him who is all glory and wisdom and power, that is exactly what we are. Make yourself poor in spirit, for only thus shall you inherit the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. Speak from the heart: "God, I  want to receive from you every good and perfect gift which you are pleased to give me.  I don't care if it makes me appear foolish.  I don't care if it proves that I have been wrong. I don't care if it forces me to re-evaluate my entire life and begin on a completely different direction."  The Lord will answer, and He is able to bless abundantly, above anything which we can ask or think.  He may give you tongues.  He may give you knowledge and revelation.  He may give you laughter. He may cause you to fall prostrate. He may give you a completely new manifestation of His Spirit which none of us has ever experienced of nor even heard of.

Prayer: Father, you are the living God.  Forgive us for limiting You by our man-made doctrines and concepts, which can never adequately capture Your nature and truth. We pray that you will invade our hearts and minds and destroy the religious fortifications which we have built to keep You out.  Through the cross of  Jesus Christ we have forgiveness of sins.  Through Jesus are free to forsake the darkness and enter into Your marvellous light.  Draw us out of our self-protective bomb shelters and pillboxes. Father, strip us of our self-wrought armor, and bring us out into Your open pasture, soothed by the cool wind of Your Spirit, clothed only with the righteousness we have by faith in Christ. Place a seal and mark upon us, Father, bestow heavenly graces upon us by Your Spirit, that we may know You have adopted us as Your own children, sharing Your nature and Your inheritance. We pray in the name of Jesus Your only-begotten Son, through whom we have privelege to request these things of You.

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Copyright © 1999 CrossPollen
Last Revised: Augsut 28, 1999

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