- Misuse and abuse of this gift from God
- Disappointment when some did not receive the gift of tongues immediately after asking God for it
- Reluctance or fear to give up control of our minds (and tongues)
- General unbelief that the Holy Spirit is the same supernaturally today as He was when Jesus walked the Earth
- Genuine fear of false signs and wonders that the Bible warns us about; Mark 13:22 ESV For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.
Much of the misunderstanding about tongues comes from a lack of biblical warnings and practical teaching. Let’s look at what the Bible says and some real life experiences here.
Q: Is the gift of tongues for every believer?
As we can see from Mark 16:17 above, Jesus said tongues will follow for those who believe.
1. Blocked by thinking too much
Many times, we are held back by fear, scepticism (unbelief) or simply by thinking too much. I know of several people who asked God for the gift of tongues but did not receive it immediately. Instead, when they were alone praising and worshipping God, their tongues started to move and utter an unknown language. They eventually received the gift of tongues when their hearts were focused on God and they were not thinking of anything or anyone else.
2. Blocked by sin
Sometimes, the gift is withheld because of unconfessed sin. I’ve watched some believers almost immediately start to speak in tongues after they repented of their own or their family’s involvement in fortune-telling, idol worship and occult practices.
See testimony: Jesus frees manager to receive full gift of tongues.
3. Released through worship and communal prayer
Other times, some people receive the gift as someone else prays for them in tongues. The disciples in Ephesus received the gift of tongues when the apostle Paul laid hands on and prayed for them. The Holy Spirit continues to work in this way today.
Acts 19:6 ESV And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
So for some people, the gift of tongues comes naturally while for some others, it may take more time. Each person has their own gifting that they are to bless others with, whether it is with the gift of tongues or other gifts.
1 Corinthians 12:30 NLT Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not!
Q: What is our responsibility?
The gift of tongues is not a sign of our Heavenly Father’s special favour. God gives every one of us spiritual gifts. The gift of tongues is just one of them. That is why it is called a “gift”, it is up to our Heavenly Father to decide what to give, and to whom.
1 Corinthians 12:8–11 ESV For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 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. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
Every gift we receive from God must be treated with great care and humility.
1. Never glorify the gift, ourselves or other people
God is Spirit and any work of the Holy Spirit is just ordinary for God. The trouble is that we human beings are so enslaved to our physical world, that anything “spiritual” is automatically “superior”, fascinating or dangerous.
John 4:24 ESV God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
We must be very careful not to idolise the gift or think that we are special just because we speak in tongues. It would grieve the Holy Spirit if we label someone more “spiritual” just because they speak in tongues. This is evidently not true; numerous people with the gift struggle with pride and sin. Some even like to “show off” their gift to glorify themselves.
It is helpful to remember that God looks at our hearts, not at what we do outwardly. When we pray in tongues, do we seek to glorify God alone? Anytime someone says that they have been given a “special” gift from God, we should find a way to gently remind them that God does not treat anyone differently. Only God is special. We are not.
1 Samuel 16:7 ESV … For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
I once came across a lady who often complained about the burden of serving others in the church, because she saw them as ungrateful. She positioned herself as someone who was superior to those she served, because she had the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including the gift of tongues. One day in a prayer meeting, she felt convicted to confess her pride to God. Yet instead of simply saying sorry from her heart in English, she prayed her “confession” in tongues. She had become so wrapped up in her spiritual gifts, that they had become a stumbling block to her being simply herself before God. Even after she was counselled on this, she still chose to use her spiritual gifts as a “spiritual tower” around herself.
From this example, we can also see that how we use (or misuse) the gift of tongues is under our control. In His sovereignty and wisdom, God always gives us freedom in the Spirit. He wants us to choose to honour Him in our spiritual worship out of our free will.
2 Corinthians 3:17 ESV Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
2. Use it to build others up, not distract.
Tongues is a gift we should share with God more than with people.
Just because we have the gift of tongues, it doesn’t mean that we need to “display” it to others. It can be very disconcerting when people raise their voices in tongues. It is distracting and draws attention away from being still before God. The Bible calls people who love to pray loudly in public and draw attention to themselves hypocrites. Besides, God is not deaf and He will not respond more quickly if we pray loudly.
Matthew 6:5 ESV “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
Love always considers others first. It is best to pray softly in tongues when praying with other people.
1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Whenever possible, we should speak in a language that people know, so that they can understand us. It is only when we feel “pushed” by the Holy Spirit to pray loudly in tongues that we obey and do so. This, however, should be the exception, rather than the rule.
1 Corinthians 14:18-19 ESV I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Q: What is the right use of tongues in a church setting?
In the 20 years that I have been a Christian, I have seen numerous examples of how the gift of tongues has been used and misused.
We should all be familiar with 1 Corinthians 14, which gives a full and thorough explanation on how tongues should be used within a church setting. In short, the key principle can be found in the last verse; 1 Corinthians 14:40 ESV But all things should be done decently and in order.
I remember visiting a youth fellowship with a non-believer. Neither of us had been to a charismatic youth meeting before, and I realised I had made the mistake of not checking them out before inviting my friend. All the young adults were waving their hands and speaking loudly in tongues. The meeting seemed chaotic and certainly was not done “decently and in order”. It was as Paul warned; 1 Corinthians 14:23 ESV If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? It would have been better if they obeyed the instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:27-28. My friend never wanted to go back to church again nor talk about Christianity. I can only pray that God will redeem that experience and reveal His gentle, faithful and majestic Self to her in other ways.
1 Corinthians 14:27-28 ESV If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
Q: What is the purpose of tongues?
Over time, I have observed different kinds of tongues that appear to serve different purposes. This is consistent with 1 Corinthians 12:28.
1 Corinthians 12:28 ESV And God has appointed in the church … gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
1. Personal time with God
There was a period of time where I was very confused about the gift of tongues and stopped praying with it. One day, I met a missionary who was passing through the city. It was clear to me that she was led by the Holy Spirit because she pinpointed out a fear that I was struggling with and encouraged me with a Bible verse that removed the fear at once. There was no other way she would have known about my struggles because I hadn’t mentioned anything to her. In addition to that, she told me that God really missed me praying in tongues whenever I worshipped Him. This startled me, not only because someone would know what I did in private, but that God would miss that time with me.
I realised that the gift of tongues is something that God values, when we use it to honour Him and speak to Him. It is a form of spiritual communication between our Heavenly Father and us. It doesn’t matter if the words make no sense to us. The most important thing is that it pleases God.
1 Corinthians 14:2 ESV For 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.
2. Praise and worship
I know several people who will sing in tongues when they are in a worship session. Whenever I praise God, I find my list of adjectives much too limited. Praying in tongues is a way to release ourselves from our own human limitations and allow the Holy Spirit to glorify the Father through our bodies.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
3. Ministering to someone
Sometimes I am at a loss as to how to encourage someone or speak meaningfully into their lives through prayer. But since one specific encounter, I have learnt to start by praying quietly in tongues first.
An acquaintance had been struggling with hopelessness and wouldn’t reveal much about herself. Somehow, I felt prompted to pray in tongues and as I did, she started to cry. Later, she told me that she had felt very comforted. Something had moved in her spirit and she knew that God was there for her. Only God could have done that through His spiritual language. This would not have happened if I prayed for her in English.
Romans 8:26 ESV Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
4. Spiritual warfare
Perhaps one of the most eye-opening examples of the ministries of tongues was a friend’s deliverance from a demonic presence. She was at a Bible study when the leader felt led to pray in tongues over the ladies in the group towards the end. This was when the friend started to feel chills and goosebumps, as the lady started to pray. When the Bible study leader laid hands on her, she experienced some presence leave her and immediately, she felt lighter and at peace. It was at this point that she realised that the enemy had a demonic foothold in her life. Eventually, she would ask for deliverance prayers.
This initial encounter of being prayed over in tongues led her to be set free from several spiritual bondages later on. The Holy Spirit worked for her good even when she did not recognise His language.
Matthew 12:28 ESV But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
5. Delivering a message for God’s people, with interpretation
My first encounter with this type of tongues was on a mission trip many years ago. The mission team was visiting a couple who ministered to families living in the city’s garbage dump. We gathered to pray for them and evidently, God had a word for them.
One of the trip members prayed in tongues, and it was so loud and clear that it was as if it was spoken over a loudspeaker. An interpretation followed and I still remember some of the words until today. They were similar to: “These are My people and this is My ground. I will make this My holy ground and call forth My holy people.”
It was so awe-inspiring. God provided them with a powerful message, which they badly needed at that time. None of us would have been able to encourage them in the same way if we prayed for them with our own minds.
1 Corinthians 14:27 ESV If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.
6. Delivering a message in a known language
I once heard a testimony of a man from Singapore who was travelling through Europe on the Eurorail. Suddenly, he felt prompted to speak in tongues. Initially, he tried to ignore it but the prompting got more intense. So he started to speak out loud in tongues.
Just as he was doing so, he caught the attention of the stranger sitting across from him on the train. The other man’s eyes grew bigger and bigger, and eventually, he stopped the Singaporean man to ask him how he knew the ancient language of his town back home, and who was this God whom he was praising so eloquently? Only the older people in his town spoke the language fluently and it was dying out. How did a young Chinese man know this language?
The Singaporean man was very surprised and had to explain that he, in fact, did not know what he was saying and that it was God’s Spirit who was speaking through him. This gave him the opportunity to share the gospel with the European man. What an amazing story. This is a modern day example of what happened at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came powerfully upon the disciples and they spoke in different tongues that foreigners around them could understand.
Acts 2:4-6 ESV All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.
Some language catalogues estimate that there are about 7,000 distinct languages in the world today. It would not be surprising that the tongues we pray today are simply existing or extinct languages.
Q: How do we identify a false or ungodly tongue?
Have you ever felt uneasy in the presence of someone who was praying in tongues? The fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy and peace – not chaos, fear, unease or envy. You will recognise a false or ungodly tongue if its “fruit” or result is not in line with Galatians 5:22-23. Often this will manifest itself as giddy, sensational, emotional and attention-seeking gibberish.
Galatians 5:22-23 ESV But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Because tongues are fully developed languages, they will be spoken in properly constructed sentences and sound fluid, not spoken in repetitive phrases.
Q: Can I ask for the gift of tongues?
Tongues is called a gift of the Holy Spirit that helps to build us up, and the Bible says that God gives us good gifts when we ask Him for them. So it is biblical to ask God for the gift of tongues, although we may not always receive the gift immediately. There could be things that may block the flow of this gift into our lives.
Acts 10:45-46 ESV … the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.
1 Corinthians 14:4 ESV The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself…
Matthew 7:11 ESV If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Q: How do I ask for the gift of tongues?
Here are some first steps we can take:
- Acknowledge that Jesus Christ as our saviour; that He died on the cross and resurrected after three days by the power of the Holy Spirit to redeem us from our sins. Thank the Father for His Son and the Holy Spirit.
- Confess and repent of any personal or family involvement in any unforgiveness, idol worship, fortune telling and other occult practices.
- Humbly invite the Holy Spirit to come and fill us.
- Then relax, clear our mind and praise God. Allow the Holy Spirit to inspire our words. (Don’t concentrate on releasing control or think, because then our mind will block the work of the Holy Spirit. Just relax, focus on God, be still and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work.)
- If the gift of tongues does not come immediately, do not be discouraged but continue to praise God. He has already received our request. Do not fall into the temptation to doubt Him or turn away. Keep pursuing God and we may find that it will come unexpectedly one day. His timing will be perfect.
Some people are worried when they hear words that sound like simple babble in their first experience with the gift of tongues, but this is only natural. Just as babies start to speak with only a few intelligible words, so it will be when we start to speak in tongues. We should not be discouraged and continue to practice the gift until we speak the language fluently.
Q: Can I speak in tongues if I previously didn’t believe?
We should be careful not to reject the gift of tongues purely because of the abuse we have seen. Otherwise, we would be basing our choices on people, rather than on God Himself. God will forgive our unbelief, doubt, scepticism, fear and lack of knowledge.
He will not, however, forgive us if we blaspheme the Holy Spirit. We must be careful not to insult, show contempt or lack reverence for the Holy Spirit and His gifts.
Matthew 12:31 ESV Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.
Just before Jesus gave His disciples the Great Commission, he rebuked them for their unbelief and hard hearts – but later poured out the Holy Spirit on them.
Mark 16:14 ESV Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.
Thank God that He does not withhold His spiritual gifts even though we may sometimes struggle with our faith. He always forgives us readily when we repent and turn to Him with all our hearts!