“Though I Speak in Tongues”
by Jack Hayford
Pastor Jack Hayford shatters myths about “tongues”–one of the most misunderstood of charismatic experiences.
It only has to happen once, and you remember. I was at a national gathering of Christian leaders, one which by invitation included the whole spectrum of evangelicals: charismatics, Pentecostals, traditional evangelicals, and mainline Protestants. I was young in the ministry, still un-oriented to the nuances of interdenominational gatherings, so I wasn’t ready for what happened when I introduced myself to a well-known minister.
“Jack, it’s good to meet you,” he said. “Where do you minister?”
“I’m in youth ministry with the Foursquare Church.”
The hand gripping mine went limp as the eyes above a wan smile turned to find somewhere else in the room to go.
An abrupt “Excuse me,” and I was left standing alone – rejected because I was “one of those people” who speak in tongues.
The memory’s pain has long since been handled, and the unwitting injurer of my soul forgiven. The good news is that it’s far less likely to happen among the broad mix of Christ’s body today than when the icy moment slapped my face those many years ago. But the sobering fact is that a peculiar thing happens in some people’s minds when they learn that you speak in tongues.
Unfortunately, a few fanatics are all it takes to create ugly stereotypes. Because somewhere, sometime, someone “screamed in tongues at the concert” or “shouted praise to God in the middle of the wedding,” the caricature of a charismatic as being “a half-bubble off-center” lurks in the minds of many people.
Any number of things foster caricatures of charismatic believers. But like most caricatures, aside from the slightly comic exaggeration of features, significant factors are usually overlooked. When the apostle Paul said, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love” (1 Cor. 13:1), he was approaching the subject of charismatic gifts in a corrective, yet constructive way. Had we the opportunity to talk with him further about the blessing of spiritual language when we are loving, I cannot help but believe that he would have affirmed that people who speak in tongues are not merely tongue speakers. There is so much more about us–just as there was so much more about Paul, the self-announced all-time speaker with tongues (1 Cor. 14:18).
For my own part–and I think I represent millions of ordinary Christians who enjoy the blessing of a spiritual prayer language–I am more than just a tongue speaker. For the benefit of all who are open to the Holy Spirit’s fullness, I would like to list some traits that I share with other tongues-speaking believers and debunk a few underlying myths.
1. Though I speak with tongues, I am an intelligent person.
By intelligent, I mean reasonable, coherent, rational–as opposed to mindless, scatterbrained or gullible. I’m not appealing to the ability to explain the theory of relativity. I’m simply affirming that, though I speak with tongues, I haven’t taken leave of my mental faculties. Nor do I take leave of them when I speak with tongues.
It’s a mistake in nomenclature that some writers have described speaking with tongues as irrational speech. Worse yet, many have proposed it is not a language, but only gibberish. To pass such judgment is to presume the observer knows every one of the earth’s nearly 6,000 tongues–not to mention the possibility that beyond this planet a few heavenly languages may be spoken. To indict tongues with the charge of gibberish is also to acknowledge one’s ignorance of the innumerable times that tongues spoken by Spirit-filled people have been recognized by hearers.
The exercise of tongues is an intelligent act. Not that the language is known, but that the choice to speak is known (1 Cor. 14:15), the Person being spoken to is known (1 Cor. 14:2), and the content of what is spoken is sometimes perceived after the fact (1 Cor. 14:13).
Though spiritual language is not irrational speech, it may be described as supra-rational: It is not an aberrant or ignorant exercise, but it does exceed the limits of the mind’s unaided capacities.
2. Though I speak with tongues, I am a sensible person.
A sensible person is one who possesses practical good sense and the ability to resist the absurd or foolish. I wish that every person who has ever spoken with tongues realized that to do so was not an invitation to “la-la” land. God hasn’t ordained that our experiences in the supernatural are an exit pass from the realm of the natural, the mundane or the practical.
I’ve encountered only a few who supposed this, but it’s doubly painful each time. It’s painful because of the instances of raw inanity or outright stupidity that have masqueraded in the name of the Holy Spirit. It’s also painful because once such things take place, they seem to become indelibly etched in the memory of all who witness it or hear about it. Dumb things done by a charismatic are usually chalked up to his or her being a tongues speaker, rather than noting that the same person without tongues would probably have done the same dumb things!
3. Though I speak with tongues, I am a fallible person.
Perhaps few accusations are more unfounded than the oft-quoted criticism of people who claim a new experience of the Spirit’s fullness: “They think they’re better than everyone else!”
Within the circle of my associations, nothing could be further from the real feelings of charismatic believers: We do not feel we are better than other Christians, but we do feel we are better Christians that we were before.
A genuine work of the Holy Spirit at any dimension in a human soul will inevitably deepen our perspective on Christ’s character and Christian purity. This will bring a progressive humility with a heightened awareness of sin and a greater readiness to confess and renounce it.
The truly Spirit-filled experience will more than likely align with Christ’s experience: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). Spirit-fullness is a pathway to a more direct conflict with our adversary than before. So a person who chooses to move into the Spirit-filled exercise of spiritual language should be characterized by more dependence on the Lord–not less.
The realm of spiritual vitality is the realm of spiritual warfare. They’re the same arena. And any notion of infallibility needs to be dashed to the ground because it’s the surest way to fail: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
Perhaps the greatest battle of my spiritual life took place at a time I had made my deepest commitment to move in the realm of the Spirit’s fullness. Early in my ministry, though my marriage was strong and my commitment to Christ was solid, I slowly but definitely began to find myself in an emotional entrapment. My involvement with a woman of equal dedication evolved into an affinity that in time moved from friendship to a near- adulterous infatuation.
During those dark days of a temptation to which I never surrendered, I wrestled long in prayer against the emotional tentacles seeking to drag me into sin. I would often cry out to God, frequently with surges of the spiritual language gushing forth in intercession for my own helplessness. It is to the praise of God’s grace that I was spared the loss of my integrity, my marriage, my ministry–my life!
That experience clearly demonstrates two things: (1) Spirit-fullness is no guarantee of infallibility. (2) Spiritual language is a mighty resource when in warfare against sin.
4. Though I speak with tongues, I am a growing person.
Possibly nothing thwarts Christian growth more than the pretentiousness of supposed “attainment,” however piously manifest.
Jesus described our relationship with Him as vine-to-branch, and in doing so not only promised growth but demanded fruitfulness. The religious posturing He encountered in ancient Jerusalem was the embodiment of the nothing-but-leaves fig tree He cursed outside the city. Because His feelings about fruitlessness are clear, I need to keep available to His primary method of assuring growth and fruit: pruning.
I propose that every Spirit-filled believer welcome the ceaseless ministry of our Lord in this respect. Unfortunately, nothing is truer of our religious traditions than our tendency to become excess baggage rather than fruit-begetting disciplines.
The test of my growth will ultimately be measured by the regularity of my having been pruned–my “holy habits” scrutinized under God’s fiery gaze, my “convictions” subjected to His modifying mercifulness, and my “doctrines” kept shapeable by the Spirit’s work in enlarging my understanding of the Father and His Word.
A growing person will never become a bigot, for he or she knows there is much to learn. Nor can a growing person ever be satisfied with the status quo, for the “onward call” continually sounds from above where our Great Shepherd calls us to higher ground.
5. Though I speak with tongues, I am a dependable person.
A mild heresy among a few supposed charismatics claims that the fullness of the Spirit licenses a basic unpredictability in every facet in life. Some people believe that if they possess a “who knows where I’ll be next” attitude, then they are “tuned in to God.” Such an idea becomes an attempt at spiritualizing irresponsibility or undependability, allowing a person to explain any late arrival, any unpaid bill, any neglected duty or any overlooked obligation with the words “The Holy Spirit seemed to lead me to…”
The whole of the Scriptures breathe of a consistency between spirituality and dependability. Late payments are not necessarily unchristian, nor are late arrivals, but the dependable person deals with such eventualities in a responsible way that doesn’t blame God for mistakes. But praying in tongues can make a difference, however. Time and again when I am in prayer–praying “with the understanding” as well as “with the spirit” (1 Cor. 14:15)–reminders, clarifications or practical guidance comes to mind. Such Spirit-given direction enables me more dependably to fulfill relational expectations, vocational pursuits or spiritual goals.
6. Though I speak with tongues, I am a sinful person.
To acknowledge this is neither to build a case for future carnal intent nor to argue for a casual indifference toward sin. It’s simply to state what should be obvious: No spiritual experience renders any of us above the touch of sin or beyond its reach.
The Holy Spirit has been given to make us holy–it’s His first name! But His sanctifying presence, as powerful as it may be to assist me in resisting sin’s efforts at invading my life, is only as purifying as my will is to let Him have full sway. In writing a group of people he addresses as Spirit-filled (Gal. 3:2), the apostle Paul points out the way to ensure a walk of holiness: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things you wish” (Gal. 5:16-17, emphasis mine).
A few years before his death, Pentecostal leader David du Plessis was asked a very pointed question by a young man: “Dr. du Plessis, could you tell me about how old I’ll be when improper thoughts–especially about women–won’t tempt my mind any longer?” Dear David, whose fidelity to the truth was legendary, looked squarely into the eyes of the young man. “Son,” said the 80-year-old minister, “when I get that old I’ll let you know!”
There’s something about the honesty of that response that commends the greatness of a leader who felt no constraint to pretend piety.
Only in heaven, and ultimately in our resurrected bodies, will there be no potential handle for sin to manipulate us. Until then, “walking in the Spirit” is the pathway to purity, and it is certain that a daily walk of ceaseless prayer in the Spirit can only contribute to that sin-mastering way of life.
7. Though I speak with tongues, I am a biblical and Christ-centered person.
The charismatic Christian’s commitment to Christ and the Scriptures seems to be assailed with sufficient frequency that I feel a peculiar defensiveness.
Statistical evidence indicates that (1) Pentecostal/charismatic ministries total more converts than any other sector of Christianity today, (2) the number of Pentecostal/charismatic missionaries total far more than half of all Protestants today, (3) the central message of this group is “Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” and (4) the sole authority for our proclamation is the eternal Word of the Bible. Notwithstanding this objective evidence, carping critics suggest a lack of conviction regarding these priorities.
With regard to Christ and His Word, I’ve rarely met a person who entered the realm of exercising spiritual language but that these matters are soon brought up, usually in words like these:
“Since I opened to this dimension of the Holy Spirit’s work in my life, Jesus has become so much more precious to me: worshiping God has become so much more vital.” “I don’t know how to explain it, but since I received my spiritual language, the Bible has opened up with a new clarity and depth to my understanding. I can’t get enough of it–I love the Word of God.”
Exactly how speaking with other tongues enhances the matter of understanding the Scriptures or loving Jesus Christ is probably a matter of speculation. But it is clear that both the Bible and God’s Son are central to the Holy Spirit’s present program. He breathed the Bible into existence, and He glorifies Christ at every opportunity. So it’s not surprising that those who speak as the Spirit gives utterance are Bible-centered, Christ-centered people.
8. Though I speak with tongues, I am a happy person.
One of the things that seems to unsettle many observers of charismatic people comment is our exuberance and expressiveness. Some Christians find it less than sufficiently reverent if a person becomes genuinely happy about God, or worship, or church services–as though to be happy is to reduce the meaningfulness of these matters.
More than a few critics hint that such excitement can only be present if people are shallow. They suggest that the reason for happy charismatics is that we haven’t really captured the weightiness of true godliness, or that we don’t adequately sense the greatness and grandeur of the Almighty God.
I must admit that I am cautious myself. It makes me uncomfortable when people clap too much or laugh too readily in church settings. As a pastor whose approach is very positive and often flavored with humor, I still am watchful against the intrusion of either a silly or giddy attitude rising among those I lead. But the triumphant joy so frequently witnessed among most charismatics is not usually due to a reckless or shallow mind-set, though we all have observed such unfocused giddiness at times.
Of course, there are times for deeply sober moments as well, and no thinking person would deny the wisdom of making occasion for meditative worship. But silence is not a synonym for reverence, just as I am not proposing happiness as an equivalent of holiness. But both silence and happiness–reverence and joyfulness–deserve a place in our gatherings and in our lifestyle as believers. People who have lost their laughter have usually begun to take themselves too seriously and God’s grace not seriously enough.
9. Though I speak with tongues, I am an average person.
Salvation was never intended to breed a race of super-saints. Yet it has unfortunately not been uncommon for a few charismatic people to fall prey to the notion that “supernatural” means something other than “human.”
A generally unspoken but nonetheless present myth says: “If you get all God has for you, you’ll become a member of a super-race of Christians, whose mission is to move throughout the planet like extraterrestrials, stunning mankind with your accomplishments.”
However, redemption and spiritual enablement haven’t been designed to make us superhuman but to make us truly human–the kind of creatures God created us to be. The redeemed, Spirit-filled Christian is a marvelous dichotomy, a paradox in motion, where both the finite and the infinite meet.
It’s a thrilling thing to “taste of the powers of the world to come” (Heb. 6:5), for the incredibly mighty power of the living God courses through us at times, with waves of Holy Spirit power that are a foretaste of eternity. These momentary invasions of our ordinariness make for wonderfully extraordinary possibilities, and flashes of glory often distill in real miracles. Yet we also often find ourselves groaning amid present sufferings, longing for the moment at Christ’s coming when “this mortal shall put on immortality and this corruptible shall put on incorruption” (1 Cor. 15:51- 53).
To live in this holy tension between two worlds requires a rare balance, always contending for God’s supernatural grace to find a conduit through our frail vessel, while at the same time refusing to deny our fundamental humanity or to dabble in the vanity of self-exalting pretentiousness.
10. Though I speak with tongues, I am a hope-filled, trusting person.
Though charismatics and Pentecostals differ widely on how faith works, they agree that a person who prays with the Spirit is often directing that prayer toward impossible situations–convinced that “all things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23). It is the conviction that the Holy Spirit enables intercession that prompts readiness to face the impossible in faith: “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:26-28).
These verses present three great truths:
We all regularly face “things” we don’t know how to pray about (v. 26).
The Holy Spirit will dramatically assist in prayer at such times (v. 27).
By this means, God’s purpose and power are introduced into the situation (v. 28).
Things that otherwise wouldn’t have “worked together for good,” do now, because Spirit-inspired intercessory prayer has intervened. A different result has become realizable than would have been the case if the circumstance were merely surrendered to the course of this world, to human wisdom, to theologized passivity or to hell’s workings.
No sensible Christian, however convinced in the power of faith, is arrogant enough to claim to have “mastered” faith. There is no one who has a magic key or perfect insight, so the fruit of our faith-filled prayers is not always what the human mind would dictate. And that’s when the highest level of faith takes over–the faith that trusts God’s faithfulness even when it appears that our prayers haven’t won the day (at least not as we would have defined “victory.”).
There are no formula answers, nor are there any guaranteed results. But the record is very clear on one thing: A great many prayers for unusual or miraculous manifestation of God’s power are answered! They are far too many to be written off as coincidental.
As an infant I was the victim of a birth defect that the physician said would take my life before I was 2 years old. Yet I was healed after a prayer request was sent by a relative to a church near where my parents lived. Further, as a 3-year-old child, I was stricken with polio. After the medical community had done the best they could do and it wasn’t enough, again I was healed as a result of “the prayer of faith.”
In each of those cases, as with multiplied millions like them, many of the prayers involved praying both “with the spirit” and “with the understanding.” Can you see, then, why I perceive a special beauty in spiritual language?
Though I speak with tongues, I don’t always witness the miraculous or see the result I might have preferred, but I am a hope-filled and trusting person nonetheless. My hopes are founded in Christ and rooted in God’s Word of promise, and my trust is unshaken when answers seem unseen, for abiding assures me that my Father’s unchanging wisdom, love and mercy is in operation- -even when I don’t see it.
To open to the beauty of spiritual language does not require you to become a wild-eyed fanatic, a rigid proponent of faith, a drone preoccupied with health or wealth, or a giddy dupe running from one televised service to another. Charismatic isn’t a stereotyped lifestyle managed by a pop theology or a manipulative leader. It’s a biblical, Christ-centered, sensible, hope-filled, happy, trusting application of God’s promises for today. To be truly charismatic is to enter a dimension of Christian living available to people who sin, fail and suffer, yet seek God’s holiness, depend on His grace and believe for His presence and power in the middle of their tough times.
Speaking in tongues–or any other spiritual gift–is not unbiblical or outmoded, not a status symbol or a substitute for spiritual growth. Above all, spiritual language is not divisive. When the beauty of this exercise is scripturally understood and wisely employed, it is a pathway of blessing for the entire body of Christ.
About the Author: Jack Hayford is the senior pastor of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California. He also serves as senior editorial advisor for Ministries Today magazine.