I belong to a Pentecostal church. A good number of our members practice what they call praying in tongues. I presently do not pray or speak in tongues, and have sometimes wondered if that means the others are more spiritually mature than I. More in touch with God. This, of course, made me question my spirituality. I have prayed and asked God to baptize me in the Holy Spirit with the “evidence” of speaking or praying in tongues. When that didn’t happen, I considered myself the odd man out. Satan used this opportunity to get me to question my Christian maturity and whether I should remain at my church. Since this was a big question, I decided to talk to someone at the church whose opinion I value. Also, I did some research on praying in tongues versus speaking in tongues. I want to share my research with you, my blog followers.
My first question was what is the difference between praying in the spirit and praying in tongues? I have been told by some Christians that these were the same thing. Praying in the spirit is mentioned three times in Scripture. 1 Cor. 14:15 says, “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind.” Ephesians 6:18 says, “And pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Jude 20 says, “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.” So, what exactly does it mean to pray in the spirit?
The Greek word “pray in” can have several different meanings. It can mean “by means of,” “with the help of,” “in the sphere of,” and “in connection to.” Praying in the spirit does not refer to the words we’re saying. Rather, it refers to how we are praying. Praying in the spirit is praying according to the Spirit’s leading. It is praying for things the Spirit leads us to pray for. Romans 8:26 tells us, “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 with us in groans that words cannot express.”
Some, based on 1 Cor. 14:15, equate praying in the Spirit with praying in tongues. Discussing the gift of tongues, Paul mentions “praying with my spirit.” 1 Cor. 14:14 states that when a person prays in tongues, he does not know what he is saying, since it is a language he does not know. Further, no one else can understand what is being said unless there is an interpreter of the tongues. In Ephesians 6:18, Paul tells us to pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of requests. How are we to pray for the saints if no one, including the person praying, understands what’s being said? Therefore, praying in the Spirit should be understood as praying in the power of the Spirit, by the leading of the Spirit, and according to His will, not praying in tongues.
There are four primary Scripture passages that are cited as evidence for praying in tongues. Romans 8:26, 1 Cor. 14:4-17, Ephesians 6:18 and Jude 20. The passages in Ephesians and Jude mention praying in the Spirit. However, praying in tongues as a prayer language is not a likely interpretation of praying in the spirit. Romans 8:26 teaches us, “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 with groans that words cannot express.” I see two key reasons why it is unlikely that this Scripture is referring to tongues as a prayer language. First of all, the passage says that it is the Spirit that groans, not the believer. Second, Romans 8:26 states that the groans of the Spirit cannot be expressed. The very essence of speaking in tongues is uttering words.
That leaves us with 1 Cor 14:4-17, and verse 14 specifically, which says, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” This verse says “praying in tongues.” What does that mean? First, we need to see the context in which this is mentioned. 1 Cor. 14 is primarily a comparison of the gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy. Versus 2-5 make it clear that Paul views prophecy as a gift superior to tongues. At the same time, he speaks of the value of tongues and declares that he is glad that he speaks in tongues more than anyone (Verse 18.)
Acts Chapter 2 describes the first occurrence of the gift of tongues. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles spoke in tongues. Chapter 2 makes it clear that the apostles were speaking in a human language. (Acts 2:6-8) The word translated “tongues” in both Acts Chapter 2 and 1 Cor. Chapter 14 is glossa, which means “language.” It is the word from which we get the modern English word “glossary.” Speaking in tongues was the ability to speak in a language the speaker does not know, in order to communicate the Gospel to one who does speak that language. Corinth was a city of many cultures and languages at the time. The gift of tongues was extremely valuable. The Corinthian believers were better able to communicate the Gospel and God’s Word as a result of the gift of tongues. Regardless, it is important to note that Paul made it abundantly clear that even in this usage of tongues, the utterance was interpreted or translated. A Corinthian believer would speak in tongues, proclaiming God’s word to someone who spoke that language, then that believer, or another believer in the church, was to interpret what was spoken so that the entire assembly was edified.
This does not agree with those who view tongues as a prayer language. This alternative understanding can be summarized as follows: praying in tongues is a personal prayer language between a believer and God (1 Cor. 13:1) that a believer uses to edify himself (1 Cor. 14:4) I don’t believe this is biblical. How can praying in tongues be a private prayer language if it has to be interpreted? (1 Cor. 14:13-17) How can praying in tongues be for self-edification when Scripture says that the spiritual gifts are for the edification of the church, not the self? (1 Cor. 12:7) How can praying in tongues be a private prayer language if the “gift of tongues” is a sign for non-believers? (1 Cor. 14:22) The Bible makes it clear that not every believer possesses the gift of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:11, 28-30) How can tongues be a gift for self-edification if not every believer can speak in tongues?
Some believers believe praying in tongues is a “secret language” that prevents Satan from understanding our prayers and thereby gaining an advantage over us. This interpretation is not biblical. The New Testament consistently describes tongues as a human language. It is unlikely that Satan and his minions are unable to understand human languages. The Bible records countless believers praying in their own language, out loud, with no concern of Satan interpreting the prayer. The devil and his demons hear and understand the prayers we pray. But they have absolutely no power to prevent God from answering the prayers in accordance with His will. We know that God hears our prayers, and that fact makes it irrelevant whether Satan and his demons hear and understand our prayers.
What do we say then about the many Christians who experience praying in tongues and find it very personally edifying? First, we must base our faith and our practice on Scripture, not experience. We must view our experiences in light of Scripture, not interpret Scripture in light of how we feel. Second, many of the cults and false religions of the world also report occurrences of speaking and praying in tongues. Obviously, the Holy Spirit is not gifting these non-believers with praying in tongues or speaking in tongues. So, it seems that demons are able to counterfeit the gift of speaking in tongues. This should cause us to compare even more carefully our experiences with what the Bible has to say about those experiences. I also read that speaking in tongues can actually be a learned behavior. Through hearing and observing others speak in tongues, a person can learn the procedure, even subconsciously. Also, the feeling of “self-edification” is natural. The human body produces adrenaline and endorphins when it experiences something new, exciting and emotional.
Praying in tongues is most definitely an issue on which Christians can respectfully and lovingly agree to disagree. Praying in tongues is not what determines salvation. Praying in tongues is not what separates a mature Christian from an immature Christian. I am glad I’ve been able to come to this conclusion. Whether or not there is such a thing as praying in tongues as a personal prayer language is not a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. So, while we believe the biblical interpretation of praying in tongues leads away from the idea of a private prayer language for personal edification, we also recognize that many who practice such are our brothers and sisters in Christ and are worthy of our love and respect.
It is for this reason that I am willing to remain at my Pentecostal church and not run to something new. First of all, what I have now is a known quantity. I understand what the Scriptures have to say about the idea of praying in tongues. I am vested in the relationship I have with my pastor and the elders of the church. I have made many fine Christian friends over the seven years I’ve been attending. If I jump ship and go to a new church, I run the risk of landing at a church that has no instances of spiritual gifts, or one that is dead. I have to focus on my own personal relationship with the Lord and not feel like I am “less than” the other believers in my church who seem to be practicing praying in tongues. I am so grateful for the leading of the Holy Spirit during this study. I pray that this post has been helpful to those of you who may have some of the same questions.