Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues

At the end of this essay I have appended all the biblical passages that deal with speaking in tongues. I include in that list a statement from Romans 8.  I don’t necessarily believe the Romans passage refers to speaking in tongues, although I would not be surprised if it does. I include the Romans statement because no less a scholar than Krister Stendahl—the late professor of New Testament and Dean of Harvard Divinity School (and Bishop of Stockholm)—indicated he thought Romans 8:26-27 does refer to speaking in tongues. And he didn’t even believe such a phenomenon was real.

I have spoken in tongues since October 1965. I pray constantly in tongues, either silently (when in public) or aloud (when I’m by myself).

My story

An hour or so after two friends laid hands on me to receive the empowering of the Holy Spirit, I found a private place to pray. I was confused, hopeful, depressed. My mind raced in many directions. Some strange words softly impinged on my thoughts—not in a forcible way such that I couldn’t ignore them, but in an inviting kind of way. I supposed that maybe this had something to do with speaking in tongues. Or maybe not. Probably not.

I questioned. I analyzed. I freaked out. I denied. I scrutinized every phrase that silently presented itself to me, comparing the sounds with those of languages I had formally studied—Latin and French—as well as with every word or phrase in any other foreign language to which I had ever been exposed (e.g., Du, du, liegst mir im hertzen, Cielito lindo los corazones, etc.). The strange “words” didn’t seem at all familiar. I eventually tried vocalizing them slowly, deliberately.

I came closer during that half hour or so than I had ever been to completely disbelieving in God and denying Jesus. It was all so weird. Why not just chuck it all? I know now that I was under serious spiritual attack, but at that time such a concept was foreign to me. Beginning that night I gradually began speaking aloud (when no one was around!) the strange sounds that more and more easily flowed through my mouth. I was in complete control. I could speak or not speak. I couldn’t tell that this activity had any effect on me, positive or negative, but I figured it was worth a try as long as I could keep it private.

Then came an occasion of deep trauma. I was in an evening service of a medium-sized independent Pentecostal/charismatic church when out of the blue I felt totally strange—as if I was being zapped by putting my finger in an electrical socket; and yet I also felt as if my entire body was shutting down. And somehow I knew—I simply knew—that the Holy Spirit wanted me to stand up and speak aloud in my “tongue.” That was up till then the single most embarrassing and humiliating moment in my life. But I couldn’t resist—well, I could resist, because the entire experience was unambiguously something I knew I could shut down and ignore if I wanted, but there was an extremely powerful moral imperative driving me to “just do it.”  So I did it. And when I finished, someone else immediately began to speak a prophetic word (see the discussion below of “interpretation of tongues” in I Corinthians 14).

Over the next few months, that happened quite a few times—both in that church and in the private home fellowship within which I was seeking God. Each succeeding time, the weird out-of-the-blue physical sensations grew less; but the moral imperative was the same. I know now that my experience was typical of the way the Holy Spirit works—he does something dramatic at first in order to get our attention, then gradually turns off the fireworks, helping us become increasingly sensitive to that subtle breeze of a voice within our minds/hearts without his needing to use an earthquake or a storm or a fire to get our attention.

I still had no idea whether it was from God. I thought it very well might be, but I also knew that it could be a quirky trick of my imagination, just as the supposed “interpretations” that inevitably came after I had embarrassed myself by speaking aloud in tongues could easily be self-delusion on the part of the interpreters. I never experienced any of the elation or the transport into higher spiritual planes that people have sometimes described in various books. It was all completely rational (which, I admit, was a bit disappointing).

Then came one evening like any other at the home of Harold and Veranne Graham, where our fellowship met on Saturday nights. There were perhaps fifty people present, including a couple of atheists who had come down from Abilene on a lark with a member of our group whom they had met in a laundromat. I got that weird feeling again, and simply had to obey, so I spoke aloud in tongues. And there was no interpretation. We waited a long time, but no interpretation. Alas! I figured I had mis-heard God; but I didn’t worry about it, because ours was a laid-back group steeped in grace and forgiveness.

I learned the next morning that one of the Abilene atheists had pulled Veranne Graham aside very late that night, after everyone had either gone home or had plopped down to sleep on the floor (as I had). He wanted to know why “that guy had started speaking Spanish.” Veranne had no clue what he was talking about. After a good deal of back-and-forth questioning, Veranne realized that this young man was referring to me—that I had spoken in clear Spanish. He had spent quite some time in his earlier years working in the Rio Grande Valley with Mexican laborers and had become fluent in their brand of Spanish. But he refused to reveal what I had said.

As the Holy Spirit (obviously) worked it out, the two guys from Abilene didn’t have a ride back home. And I was driving to Dallas that day to visit my parents. So I ended up giving the Abilene guys a ride to Dallas so that they could catch a bus back to Abilene—an extremely circuitous route, but the bus from Houston to Abilene apparently would have taken an ungodly amount of time. During the drive up to Dallas, I kept being pummeled with the same question: “Are you sure you don’t know Spanish? Have you ever studied Spanish? When you were very young did you ever live among Spanish-speaking people?” Negative on all accounts—I grew up (unfortunately) in all-white, all-Anglo suburban Dallas. It was frustrating to me that he refused to share what he had heard in the message I had spoken. When I asked, he would say only that “It was private” or “It was personal.” I regret I cannot report that he fell to his knees and confessed Jesus as Lord. Neither I nor any of my friends in Abilene saw him again. Yet I trust that God would not have engineered such an elaborate series of events if he didn’t expect his efforts to in some way be fruitful (cf. Isaiah 55:10-11).


Most rational people could look through various lists of spiritual gifts (e.g., I Corinthians 12, Romans 12) and say, “OK, that makes sense; yes, that’s good; that’s definitely useful. . . until they get to speaking in tongues, at which point they might say, “Whoa! What in the world?!” Yep. It’s not very intuitive.

The two stated purposes of tongues are as an (apparently rare) witness to nonbelievers who hear a Christian prophesying to them in their own language (I Corinthians 14:22—we’ll ignore the fact that Paul appears to directly contradict that statement in the very next verse; I’m not even going to try to deal with that here). That’s a cool trick, but it doesn’t seem to happen very often. Then there’s the personal blessing (see I Corinthians 14:2,4,14,28). That’s the primary focus of this essay. Somehow, and for some reason, the Holy Spirit manages to bypass our minds and enable us to pray or bless or worship directly, our spirit to God’s Spirit. I would be highly skeptical had I not witnessed unambiguous confirmation that my own prayers in tongues were inspired/enabled by the Holy Spirit. And with that confirmation, my reaction has been, “Let’s go for it!” If the Holy Spirit wants to pray through me, bypassing my peanut-sized mind, then I am more than willing to let him. I pray in tongues (under my breath) when I’m walking down the street, when I’m driving, when I’m cooking, when I’m doing laundry, etc. Of course, I pray with my mind also; but praying in the spirit is an incredible blessing—especially when my mind must be otherwise occupied.

Builds you up

I feel inordinately blessed because I am one of those rare believers whose gift of tongues has been unambiguously confirmed. Most people don’t have that privilege. In fact, on numerous occasions I have heard Christians speaking in tongues and I have felt very strongly that it was not of the Holy Spirit but that they were simply making it up. Whatever. No major harm done as long as they don’t speak it aloud in a group of believers—something that is rarely done these days, for whatever reason; and even if they do speak aloud, it probably doesn’t cause any major bad thing to happen. After all, in my opinion the majority of the prophetic words I have heard believers pronounce have not been from the Holy Spirit either. But such words are typically nice, bland assurances of God’s love and presence, and how bad is that?

Although my praying constantly in tongues is an entirely unemotional, rational choice, I nevertheless have learned over the decades that it turbocharges my spiritual life. I can’t prove it, anymore than I can prove that the Eucharist provides profound strength and healing and vitality to my life.

On every occasion when circumstances have prevented me from experiencing the Eucharist for several weeks or more, I have found myself desperately longing/thirsting for that experience with my Lord. We all have similar experiences in the more natural world: We go through unusual stresses in our lives and eventually find ourselves craving a particular “comfort food”; we are transplanted from home for a very long time, and think how radically our spirits would be healed if we could just walk for a few minutes in our back yard; we are unable to listen to music for a few months, and then find ourselves weeping when we finally hear a Mozart piano concerto (this happened to me)—that’s what it’s like for me when I can’t partake in the Eucharist. And that’s very much what it’s like to not pray in tongues for a significant period of time. Such prayer is a source of refreshing and healing communion with God. And although I in no way can prove it, I believe the depth of my relationship with God and the intensity of my love for him and my ability to hear his voice would have suffered unimaginably, possibly even catastrophically, had I not been able to exercise this gift day-in and day-out for over half a century.

Although I understand that the Holy Spirit parcels out gifts according to his own criteria, I nevertheless wish you could have this wonderful gift. No, it’s (presumably) not for everyone, but I am 100% convinced that scores of millions of Christians could be blessed by this gift if they were open to it and/or if they simply knew that it’s available.

Nota bene

I have heard many believers, including people who are closer to God than I and who have incomparably greater ministries than I and who are more loving and gracious and generally Christ-like than I, say something like the following:

“I’m not really interested in the gift of tongues; if I’m going to have a gift,

I’d much prefer that it be something that helps the body—prophecy or healing or. . .”

And for SO many of those people, this is no more than a flimsy excuse intended to conceal the real reason they don’t want the gift of tongues: their pride. Admit it—you’d be embarrassed to speak in tongues, especially if people found out about it! If the “wrong” people found out about it, you might even be less welcome in their social circle—that sophisticated group of people that you’ve tried so hard to cultivate (such sophisticated social circles can exist within the church as easily as outside it).

I understand that the large majority of nutritional supplements are unnecessary or even harmful. And there are certain social circles whose members look down on people who take supplements. But let’s imagine that someone discovers a nutritional supplement that is demonstrated unambiguously to improve your health, give you more energy, and extend your life. The data are unequivocal, but “sophisticated” people disparage those data as well as anyone who takes the supplement. That would leave you with this conundrum: Do you begin using this nutritional supplement because it really IS good for your health? Or do you choose not to take it because your “inner circle” frowns on it and they might start classifying you as one of “those” people? If you feel even slightly convicted by this parable, please ask God to show you his will as well as your own heart in this matter.

I encourage everyone to ask God for the gift of praying in tongues if it’s something God would want for you. I believe God wants it for many more people than those who already exercise the gift. It’s a wonderful turbocharger for a believer’s spiritual life.


Scriptures that mention speaking in tongues

RSV Acts 2 1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

5Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

12And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

13But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; 16but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

 17‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh. . .’  


RSV Acts 10  44While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

Then Peter declared, 47“Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 


RSV Acts 19 4And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”

5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. 7There were about twelve of them in all.


RSV 1 Corinthians 12 10. . . to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.


RSV 1 Corinthians 12 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. 


RSV 1 Corinthians 12 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?  


RSV 1 Corinthians 13 1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.


RSV 1 Corinthians 13 8Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.


RSV 1 Corinthians 14 1Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3On the other hand, he who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless some one interprets, so that the church may be edified. 6Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will any one know what is played? 8And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9So with yourselves; if you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will any one know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning; 11but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12So with yourselves; since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.

13Therefore, he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.

15What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.

16Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.

18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all; 19nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

20Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature. 21In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.

23If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

26What then, brethren? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. 28But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God.

29Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent. 31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; 32and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

As in all the churches of the saints, 34the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. 35If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? 37If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. 38If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

39So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; 40but all things should be done decently and in order.


RSV Romans 8 26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. 27And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.