Speaking In Tongues

I’m trying to get ahead for Pentecost, due to some impending leave. As I began preparing (yet another!) sermon on Acts 2, I found myself going in several directions. Eventually I put aside the stuff trying to allay the fears of traditional churchgoers about the gift of tongues into a newsletter (‘Topic’) article. Here is what I wrote. The sermon will follow in the next day or two.

I am writing this before going on holiday. I am in the middle of trying to write my Pentecost sermon three weeks ahead of time. As I scribbled my notes, I realised I was going in two directions. I had some big points to make about the work of the Holy Spirit, but I also knew that every year when we read Acts chapter 2, a number of Christians get nervous about the references to speaking in tongues. Like a columnist in the Methodist Recorder last year who described a televised act of worship that featured speaking in tongues, they want to add a cautionary note: ‘Don’t try this at home.’ Therefore, I decided I would separate out the two strands of my thinking. I would develop the big themes for the sermon, and use my column in Topic to try to help people who are worried about the gift of tongues.

The New Testament presents ‘tongues’ as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and for that reason I think the first thing to say is this: a gift from God is always a good gift. Jesus said that if earthly parents knew how to give good gifts to their children, how much more does our heavenly Father (and especially with the gift of the Spirit). However, to some Christians, speaking in tongues doesn’t feel like a good gift. They may have seen or heard people using it, and thought the users were behaving unnaturally. Perhaps they seemed to have been ‘taken over’, or they appeared to have lost their self-control; they might even give the impression of being mentally unbalanced. But in my experience that is as much to do with the personality of the user as it is to do with the gift itself. I have also seen the gift of tongues used quietly and gently. Nevertheless, let us also not despise those who are more extravert in their personalities.

A second issue raised is whether people are speaking in a known or unknown language. At the first Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, members of the international crowd overhear the Galilean disciples speaking in their own languages. On the other hand, when Paul discusses spiritual gifts at length in 1 Corinthians 12-14, he speaks about ‘tongues of angels’. Some language analysis of tape-recorded tongues-speaking has suggested that most instances are not a recognisable human language – which might make you think that the examples witnessed since the Pentecostal revival that begun a hundred years ago brought this back to prominence in Christianity is not the gift spoken about in Acts 2. However, it might be Paul’s ‘tongues of angels’. On the other hand, there are many documented examples of anecdotal evidence where somebody heard a tongues-speaker use a language that the hearer knew, but the speaker didn’t. A minister of mine was one such witness: a member of another congregation received this gift and began using it, but was worried about it. She used it in the minister’s presence, and he was amazed: she had recited Philippians chapter 2 in New Testament Greek. He knew the Greek from his theological studies, but the woman had never learned it. So perhaps we should go for Paul’s fuller description of the gift: tongues are ‘tongues of men and angels’. The gift can be a known or an unknown language.

A third concern is whether this gift is irrational. We have to be careful before assuming that something, which doesn’t make sense to us, is irrational. Paul said that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. Is it possible that tongues falls into this way of seeing things? By way of developing this thought, let me suggest that tongues is like ‘the language of love’. People who are very close to each other sometimes have a private set of words that they only use between themselves. This is often the case between lovers, and can be true between twins, especially when they are young. If ‘tongues’ is like the language of love, then it can from our perspective be a form of worship. Just as couples express their private adoration of each other, so tongues can be adoration of God.

However, the worship element may be more than praise: it may also include intercession. I know Christians who have begun to pray in tongues when they faced a difficult situation, and they did not know how to pray about it. Perhaps it was also wise for them not to know what to ask for, in praying for someone: the needs might have been too private, yet the person needed prayer. For one person I know, this first happened when out of his depth praying for a convert who had deep problems stemming from mental illness and drug taking. That same friend had another experience years later when praying for a female friend who was ill: he did not know that his friend had cystitis (which she was too embarrassed to talk about with a male friend), but as he prayed in tongues, she was healed.

(Such a private use of tongues needs to be distinguished from the teaching Paul gives about its public use, where an interpretation must follow, since worship is meant to be edifying.)

Maybe, then, if we can see tongues this way, we can relax on the question of whether it is rational, and rejoice instead in seeing it as a gift of beauty. Yet this thing of beauty is also a challenge. God may remind us that some of our concern for being rational is a disguised attempt on our part to keep control of things, rather than submitting to his Lordship. Well has one preacher observed that God sometimes offends our minds to reveal our hearts. ‘Tongues’ can be a reminder of our humility and dependence upon God. What could be more beautiful than remembering our need to trust God?

Another question I have heard is this: do I have to speak in tongues? One friend of mine came across some people giving out religious tracts, who told him that unless he spoke in tongues he wasn’t a Christian. It’s easy enough to kick such nonsense into touch, because nowhere in the New Testament is it made a condition of salvation. However, other Christian groups have made tongues-speakers first-class Christians and others second-class, and that is a problem to address.

I would respond to this by going to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians. Different members of the Body of Christ have different gifts – not everyone has the same gift. Furthermore, he sees tongues as one of the minor gifts, and calls his hearers to aspire to the greater gifts, such as prophecy. Yet at the same time, he says he speaks in tongues more than any of the Corinthians do, and wishes everyone had the gift! On that basis, then, there is no compulsion to speak in tongues (but remember any gift of God is good), yet if it is a minor gift maybe it is the one that sets some people on the road into exploring the gifts of the Spirit. Moreover, if we do say it is only a lesser gift, then Scripture challenges us to seek the more substantial ones. William Davies, a former Principal of Cliff College, once said about tongues: ‘All may, but not all must.’

Perhaps after the length of this article you can see why I had to separate this out from my Pentecost sermon! I hope I have contributed to allaying fears on this subject, but I also hope this challenges you. Could each of us make this our Pentecost prayer? ‘Lord, fill me more with your Holy Spirit. I welcome whatever gifts you give me, that I may use them in your service.’

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