by Fr Jim Scully

 
 

The gift of tongues may strike you as something exotic, ecstatic and utterly mysterious. Yet millions of modern Christians could tell you about their own personal experience of it.

Just what is the gift of tongues? What is the purpose anyway? Didn't it occur one and for all when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles

Bring up the charism of tongues, and questions fly thick and fast. The first and best place to look for the answers is God's Word. Luckily, we can hardly class tongues as a rare topic in the Scriptures, since there are at least 23 verses which undisputedly mention it.  Moreover, another dozen or so probably refer to this under different names, such as 'praying in the Spirit'.

By carefully studying these passages, we can learn so much more about this gift of the Spirit. One conclusion stands out clearly: there exist at least three different dimensions to tongues.

Sign of the Spirit's Coming

In its Pentecost account, the Acts of the Apostles describes the first of these: "All were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to express themselves in foreign tongues and make bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them" (Acts 2:4). The people in the crowd were puzzled, "because each on heard these men speaking in his own language" (Acts 2:6). 

Here we see the Holy Spirit empowering the apostles to speak in intelligible languages they had never learned. It was a miracle designed to alert the chosen people to the stupendous arrival of the Paraclete and to make them eager to listen to Peter's explanation. It was also a symbol of the world-wide destiny of the Gospel and the brotherhood of all races and nations in Jesus.

A Form of Prayer

Tongue-speaking can also be a prayer: "A man who speaks in a tongue is talking not to men, but to God. No one understands him because he utters mysteries in the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 14:2). "Talking to God" defines prayer pretty accurately. Notice that in this case the language does not appear to be an intelligible one.

St. Paul tells us some of the characteristics of this type of prayer. Even though the one praying does not understand the words he utters (1 Corinthians 14:2,13), nevertheless this activity does him good (1 Corinthians 14:4). It is a kind of prayer that leaves the intellect in neutral, so to speak (1 Corinthians 14:4), allowing scope for the deeper levels of the human spirit to express praise of God and yearning for His presence. 

Since it is true prayer that strengthens the individual, Paul is thankful that he speaks in tongues, and he wants everyone to have the gift (1 Corinthians 14:5,18,39). He carefully warns, however, that it confers no badge of privilege. It has value only in relation to love, without which the tongues of men and angels are mere jangling cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1).

A Form of Prophecy

But a third dimension to the gift of tongues remains to be explored. Again, St. Paul is our guide. He intimates that the Spirit may use the gift of tongues as a vehicle for delivering a message to a congregation of believers. Since tongues are normally undecipherable, however, he insists that this is permissible only when someone in the congregation "interprets," (that is, is inspired by the Spirit with the meaning of the tongue speaker's message). "If any are going to talk in tongues let it be at most two or three, each in turn, with another to interpret what they are saying. But if there is no one to interpret, there should be silence in the assembly each one speaking only to himself and to God" (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).

So it is plain from the New Testament that the charism of tongues is a multi-purpose instrument utilized by the Holy Spirit to communicate with men and to enable believers to find a new level of communication with God.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it even hint that this manifestation of the Spirit was intended only for the first years of the church's existence. Nevertheless, the gift, which was common in the days of the apostles, seems bafflingly to have dwindled within the next couple of centuries.

Tongues, however, did not entirely die out. From time to time the phenomenon re-emerged in individuals or groups, only to vanish again. That is, until 1901. In the year was born the movement which is termed PentecostalismChristians studying the Acts of the Apostles perceived the close link between the coming of the Holy Spirit in power and speaking in tongues. With expectant faith, they prayed for the gift.

Their prayers were answered. Not only did many receive tongues, but they discovered that this gift was a doorway into a charismatic realm that included many other works of the Spirit, such as prophecy, healing and miracles. A new current gathered momentum in Christendom, starting as a trickle around the turn of the century and swelling to a torrent in recent years.

Present-Day Experience

Drawing upon the experience of these Christians over the past 70 years, let's round out our information on the gift of tongues.

Even today there are reports from reliable witnesses of people speaking Greek or Norwegian or some language they had never heard or studied. But, as in the Bible, these seem to be rare occurrences. Due to the immense number of languages (over 3000) and the impossibility of having scientifically controlled conditions for one of these unforeseeable happenings, we cannot claim that they are "laboratory-proven".

Praying in tongues is by far the most common manifestation. The first time a person does it, he may feel exhilarated and drenched in the peaceful joy of conscious union with God. As he becomes more used tot the gift, the emotional intensity normally decreases. He can pray in tongues as easily as he prays in his native language. He can stop when he wills to. He is under no compulsion and is not in a trance. 

For many Christians, praying in tongues opens up a who new sphere of communication with God. If their prayers previously consisted almost exclusively of petition, it may be their introduction to true praise, the wondrous overflow of a hear dipped into infinite Goodness. 

Christians who have received the gift testify that this helps them when their own words seem cheap or inadequate, when they do not know exactly what to pray for (cf. Romans 8:26), when their mind is in turmoil or their will tempted, when they are depressed, anxious or weary.

Many Benefits

Basically, then, the gift of tongues enlarges and enriches the individual's prayer life. It gives him a cherished experience of the Holy Spirit working in and through him. This, in turn, encourages him to pray and strengthens the hope that he will be heard. Through prayers he becomes more aware of Jesus as his Lord and Master and more inclined to follow the Gospel and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Millions of Christians today use the gift of tongues regularly in their private prayer. Like St. Paul they normally alternate it with more traditional forms of prayer that engage the mind (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15).

They also pray in tongues during prayer meetings and (if the congregation approves of the practice) during church services. In such gatherings, also, the third or prophetical dimension of tongue frequently comes into play. Someone who believes that the Spirit is urging him will speak aloud for several seconds in tongues. A hush descends upon the group as they then pray and wait for the interpretation, which usually follows within a few minutes.

Such messages are considered to be from God only after the community exercised discernment or spiritual judgement on them. In any case, they are strictly subordinated to the inspired Scriptures, with which they must always agree. They do not bring new revelations not found in the Bible but are more in the line of words of correction, consolation, encouragement and exhortation for the group.

Is it for Everybody?

Does God want to give every Christian the gift of tongues? St. Paul wrong, "I should like it if all of you spoke in tongues..." (1 Corinthians 14:5). On the other hand, he implies a negative response to his question, "Do all speaking tongues..." (1 Corinthians 12:30).

Personally, I don't believe we can determine this point with certainty. I do know this: the gift of tongues is the most common to the charisms among Pentecostals. The vast majority o those who seek tongues, receive tongues. It is the rather rare exception who does not.

It is vital to realize, though, that it would be an aberration to ask God for the gift of tongues merely out of curiosity or for the sake of novel thrill. Nor should we insolate tongues from the rest of the Christ-life or exaggerate its functions and importance.

Our intention, like that of the disciples in the upper room, should always be God's will. God's kingdom in us, a more complete yielding to the Holy Spirit who reform us in the image of Jesus so that we can be pleasing to the father and glorify Him among men. Seeking the gift of tongues has profound meaning when it is an expression of our desire to turn over words (symbols of our thoughts, our hearts) to the Spirit of Jesus.

God has bigger plans for us than we can imagine. The experience of praying in tongues is intimately connected with a much wider experiences of God's presence and love and power. It is consequently not an ending but a beginning, the opening of a door, an invitation to the Spirit to penetrate our being more deeply, a pledge to listen to Him more attentively and to live the Gospel more intensely.

The tongues and the baptism in the Spirit are not experiences to rush into. Neither should we desire them purely on our own initiative. The decision should be our response to the Holy Spirit's light and guidance. 

It would be wise, as preparation, first to ponder the Scriptures on the promise and plan of God, especially the role of the Paraclete and His charismatic gifts. Punctuate the reading with prayer and periods of meditation listening, to allow the Spirit the chance to reveal His will. 

When you are sure that you understand sufficiently what is involved (nobody ever understands completely) and that God is leading you in this direction, then pray for the Holy Spirit to manifest Himself within you in a new way.

Our intention, like that of the disciples in the upper room, should always be God's will. God's kingdom in us, a more complete yielding to the Holy Spirit who reform us in the image of Jesus so that we can be pleasing to the father and glorify Him among men. Seeking the gift of tongues has profound meaning when it is an expression of our desire to turn over words (symbols of our thoughts, our hearts) to the Spirit of Jesus.

God has bigger plans for us than we can imagine. The experience of praying in tongues is intimately connected with a much wider experiences of God's presence and love and power. It is consequently not an ending but a beginning, the opening of a door, an invitation to the Spirit to penetrate our being more deeply, a pledge to listen to Him more attentively and to live the Gospel more intensely.

The tongues and the baptism in the Spirit are not experiences to rush into. Neither should we desire them purely on our own initiative. The decision should be our response to the Holy Spirit's light and guidance. 

It would be wise, as preparation, first to ponder the Scriptures on the promise and plan of God, especially the role of the Paraclete and His charismatic gifts. Punctuate the reading with prayer and periods of meditation listening, to allow the Spirit the chance to reveal His will. 

When you are sure that you understand sufficiently what is involved (nobody ever understands completely) and that God is leading you in this direction, then pray for the Holy Spirit to manifest Himself within you in a new way.

Let your prayer be from any anxiety and brimming with expectant confidence. God comes to us precisely because we are unworthy and need Him. Remember His promise: "If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (Luke 11:13).

Many people have found it helpful to have others pray with them ("...if tow of you join your voices on earth to pray for anything whatever, it shall be granted to you..." (Matthew 18:10)). In case, it would be good to affiliate with a prayer group or community where the charismatic dimension of the Christian life is appreciated and sound teaching is available.

Speaking in tongues is a joint effort between you and the Holy Spirit. He will supply the new languages, but He will not force you to speak. If you hear words in your imagination or feel an impulse to speak in your throat or lips, give voice to whatever is there. Don't be afraid to look foolish; anyone trying a new language for the first time feels a little embarrassment.

Usually it is necessary that you put your vocal apparatus into gear, not by speaking your native language, but merely by making sounds. Believe that the Holy Spirit will form them into the gift of tongues (because you requested Him to), and He will. Don't analyze. Concentrate on God and express your worship on Him by means of the sounds you are making.

Once you have received the gift of tongues, use it in your daily prayers. Experiment to discover how it can aid you to praise and love the Father and to reinforce your loyalty to Jesus Christ and His Gospel. 

"But you, beloved, grow strong in your holy faith through prayer in the Holy Spirit. Persevere in God's love, and welcome the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ which leads to life eternal" (Jude 20:21).

 

For more information:

DOVE BOOKS

  • Baptized in the Spirit and Spiritual Gifts
  • The Age of the Spirit
  • Explore the Gift of Prophecy

DOVE LEAFLETS

1. Baptized in the Holy Spirit

4. Charismatic Renewal

9. Frank Answers on Charismatic Renewal

43. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

46. Statement on Catholic Charismatic Renewal

51. Pope Paul Addresses Charismatics in St. Peters