The first time I heard someone speak in tongues, I thought he was speaking Greek. That’s because I took Greek in college and wasn’t good at it. And because of that, I didn’t know what Greek really sounded like. After I figured out it wasn’t Greek, I realized that maybe it was tongues. I would have preferred Greek.
But tongues are what it was. Up to that point the only experience I had with tongues was something I read somewhere, and in the corner of my memory, a distant corner folded down beneath gray matter, I remembered tongues had to be interpreted. Immediately I knew this to be fact because I was uncomfortable, and when you’re uncomfortable, it’s because something is wrong.
That’s what I thought, at least. (I was a lot younger then). But he was really on a roll and I wasn’t the type to interrupt sincerity, so I let him finish. And I never saw him again.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about tongues, and wish to debunk some popular myths. Had I known these things then, the guy and I might have become friends and had some laughs; he might even have taught me something.
1. There is only one kind of tongues—speaking in tongues.
Actually, there are three kinds of tongues, although often we incorrectly call them all “speaking in tongues.” One is the supernatural ability to speak in a foreign language that you have not previously learned. Usually the ability is temporary and limited. Another is receiving a message from God in tongues. This functions as prophecy. The third is a private prayer language that enables the person to connect with God beyond human language.
(Foreign language—Acts 2.1-13; Like prophecy with interpretation—1 Cor. 14.26; Prayer language—1 Cor. 14.14-15)
2. Tongues always have to be interpreted.
This is true if the tongues refer to delivering a message from God (like prophecy). Unless the tongues are interpreted in a language that people can understand, there is no point. The speaker might as well recite the tax code with marbles in his mouth. But on the other hand, if someone is praying in tongues and it happens to be overheard, no interpretation is necessary. This happens sometimes in corporate worship.
(With no interpretation, the speaker can pray to God in tongues—1 Cor. 14.28)
3. People who pray in tongues are crazy and handle snakes in the backwoods.
I used to think that people who prayed in tongues were uneducated hillbillies who played with snakes during their church services. That was before I met anyone who prayed in tongues. Since then I’ve come to know some pretty sophisticated and upstanding people who do. I still think there are tongues in the backwoods, but I’ve come to discover they’re in college classrooms as well.
(Paul spoke in tongues more than anyone, but was probably more educated than anyone—1 Cor. 14.18; Paul said not to forbid tongues—1 Cor. 14.39)
4. You have to wait for “the Spirit to move you” to pray in tongues.
The Bible says that spiritual gifts are given to us. This means that once we have them, they’re ours to use. So if we’ve been given the gift of tongues, we can pray in tongues whenever we want to—on an airplane, in the shower, while running. There are certain gifts we can just do, like practice hospitality, teach, and show mercy. Praying in tongues is one such gift. However, there are some gifts that are dependent upon God, like prophecy, words of knowledge, and delivering a message in tongues, but praying in tongues is not one of these.
(1 Cor. 12.7)
5. Human language is always adequate to communicate with God.
I think of tongues as spiritual poetry that expresses emotions when human words fail. God is spirit and we are citizens of heaven. Why would we expect our human language to cover all the fins and folds of our relationship with God? Sometimes our words just won’t do. This is the Almighty, after all, and we’ve been swept into the divine romance.
(1 Cor. 2.10-13)
6. When praying in tongues, you go into a trance and should be left in the corner to drool.
I’m sure this has happened in the course of human history. But so have dogs visiting the moon. Normally you have full control of your mind when you pray in tongues. You decide when to start and when to stop. You have regular function of communication skills. You might be surprised to learn that people around you were praying in tongues when you didn’t know it—that’s how normal they acted.
(1 Cor. 14.14-15)
7. There is no place for tongues today.
There is no place in the Bible that says tongues have ceased for today. Of all the spiritual gifts, tongues have probably met the most controversy. Some have misused them, either misunderstanding their application by accident, or using them to divide on purpose. But just because something brings controversy doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, the controversy might be because it’s right.
(Paul said not to forbid tongues—1 Cor. 14.39; In the same statement, Jesus said one sign of believers is that they preach and baptize, another is that they speak in tongues—Mark 16.15-17; we haven’t ceased to preach and baptize, so why should we cease to speak in tongues?)
8. If you don’t have the gift of tongues, you should stop asking God for it.
When it comes to asking for spiritual gifts, the Bible says to eagerly pursue them. There is no quotient for how much you’re allowed to ask for gifts. Instead, the biblical example is to be persistent. Often it’s the person who doesn’t give up who ends up receiving what she has asked for. However, it’s important to guard our hearts in asking and not become bitter or impatient.
(Paul says to eagerly desire spiritual gifts—1 Cor. 14.1)
9. People with the gift of tongues are always more spiritual than people without it.
This isn’t true. I’ve known very spiritually mature Christians who didn’t have the gift of tongues. They got along just fine in their faith. On the other hand, I’ve known some spiritually immature Christians who had the gift of tongues. Just because you pray in tongues doesn’t ensure character or maturity. With that said, I’m glad I pray in tongues for the impact it’s had on my walk.
(1 Peter 4.10)
10. Unless you speak in tongues, you’re not a Christian or Spirit-filled.
This is another controversy that has turned people off from tongues. This myth comes from a misinterpretation of biblical texts. Nowhere in the Bible does it say you’re not a Christian if you don’t pray in tongues. A Christian is one who has been forgiven through the blood of Jesus. There is no requirement for tongues. Nor does the Bible say you’re not Spirit-filled if you don’t pray in tongues. There are examples of people who began speaking in tongues after they received the Holy Spirit. But these are descriptive of what can happen, not what must happen.
(Incidents in which people were filled with the Holy Spirit and started speaking in tongues right away—Acts 2.4, 10.44-46, 19.6; Incidents in which people were filled with the Holy Spirit and did not start speaking in tongues right away—Luke 1.41, 67, Acts 4.31, 9.17-18, 13.52)