Paul instructed the church to “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). Praying in the Spirit is not limited to, but certainly includes, praying in tongues. In the last blog we talked about what speaking in tongues is, and some of its purposes. Today, we’ll explore more of what scripture says about praying in tongues and how this is a mighty tool for equipping believers. I personally believe it is a gift of the Spirit available for all believers. If you do not already pray in tongues, I can tell you that doing so will powerfully enrich your life.
James wrote to the church, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3 – NASB). I like how the KJV says this: “Ye ask and ye receive not because ye ask amiss.” Don’t you just get a picture in that of a prayer like a trajectory missile teetering off course? Praying amiss can be more subtle than asking for pleasure or power or status or materialism. We can think we’re praying the will of God and yet our very zeal can trip us up. Jesus’ disciples made this mistake when a certain village did not welcome them. They asked Jesus if they should command fire from heaven to consume the village. Look how Jesus responded, “But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of” (Luke 9:55 – NASB, emphasis added).
Praying in the Spirit is praying according to the perfect will of God. Therefore, we pray with the right motives, and we pray with authority. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:15 – NIV). Did you see that? What a promise!
Paul said “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). You see, the weakness of our flesh is that we don’t even know how to pray the right way. Sometimes it’s not even what we pray, but how short we pray! We give up before the answer manifests because the opposition is too strong and we suppose our prayers have been useless. But Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit is faithful in helping us pray.
“God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” Jesus told the woman from Samaria (John 4:24 – NASB). Praying in tongues is direct, spirit-to-Spirit communication with Heaven (1 Cor. 14:2). What we are praying – every word that comes out of our mouths – is righteous.
Paul tells the church in Corinth, “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 14:1 – NASB, italics added). The Greek word used here that’s translated “desire earnestly” means to “burn with zeal.” How many people are boiling over with desire for spiritual gifts? If they’re even mentioned in certain churches, it is often with a cautious caveat that we’re not to get too excited about them or give them much attention. My experience has been that as the church ministers in the gifts – with love and in their proper order – Christ is glorified that much more.
“Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues” Paul goes on (1 Cor. 14:5a – NASB). This tells us that tongues is indeed a benefit for every believer, and highly desirable. He then says “I thank God I speak in tongues more than you all” (1 Cor. 14:18 – NASB). This statement almost seems arrogant. However, if you read the verse that comes after it, it is clear from the context that Paul is instructing the church in the proper use and order of tongues when gathered together so as to benefit the rest of the church. It is possible that those that were speaking in tongues were doing it in a way as to “show off” how spiritual they were. Paul’s statement is a forceful assertion rather that tongues is a gift for which he himself is immeasurably grateful.
Articles have appeared in the New York Times as well as by individual psychiatrists that find praying in tongues has proven health benefits. This finding testifies to what scripture states, for 1 Corinthians 14:4 says, “One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” The word “edify” here means to build, restore, or repair. When you speak in tongues, you are opening a direct channel in your spirit to Jehovah Rapha, the God that heals.
Not long ago I went through several weeks of intense spiritual oppression. From the moment I got up in the morning, I had to fight through it with declarations over myself of victory and joy, of scriptures proclaiming my destiny, and with praying in tongues. There were times when I felt too tired and even intimidated to speak; these were times when the Spirit whispered to me “Pray in tongues.” It worked. If you struggle with anxiety or have trouble focusing your thoughts, praying in tongues will be a great help to you.
Speaking in tongues builds up your faith. Jude says, “Beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 1:20 – NASB). If you are heavy-hearted over a circumstance or person and lack the faith necessary to pray with boldness (see Hebrews 4:16), it is very effective to begin first in tongues. You will find that this strengthens your faith and then leads you to righteous and effective “mental” prayers as well. Particularly if you are an intercessor – someone who regularly lifts up others before God – praying in tongues is a vital resource. There have been times when I have been so heavy-hearted for the suffering of someone I’ve been interceding for that I could do nothing for twenty or thirty minutes at a time except pour out my heart in tongues.
I heard a story of how a preschooler was having an asthma attack and his mother began to pray for him. She was praying in English and the little boy gasped, “No, Mommy – that other way you pray!” The mother began praying in tongues and his breathing instantly grew easier.
We are also instructed to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). I used to think that that verse meant “pray a lot.” But if we’re praying in the spirit, even though our mind is occupied with a task, our spirit is engaged with Heaven. You will find as you progress in this gift that it becomes automatic to communicate this way, just like breathing.
Were you ever moved with so much sorrow – or joy – that you simply couldn’t express it? Tongues is a means to express what is stirring in our spirits when we have no words.
“For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries” (1 Cor. 14:2). When we pray in tongues, in our prayer closet or in the car driving or washing dishes, we don’t know what we’re saying. However, we can ask God for the interpretation and often He will give it.
There are times I have no idea how to pray for someone or how to begin to bring an enormously difficult situation before the throne of grace. My mind is already despairing over the impossible nature of it. Tongues is vital because what happens is that when I begin praying “in mysteries” in the spirit, I find that the answer for how to pray then comes cognitively.
Paul says “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:13-14 – ESV). What is Paul’s conclusion? “What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” (v. 15 – ESV). Here he is talking in the context of praying in tongues with a gathering of believers. However, I believe this can be true for us individually. That we can ask for the interpretation of our own tongues; that we should pray in tongues but also with our minds (words we understand); that we should sing in tongues but also sing words we understand. (Singing in the spirit Paul mentions elsewhere is a means to encourage the Body of Christ [see Eph. 5:19, Colossians 3:16]).
If you earnestly desire to speak in tongues – great! No good thing does God withhold from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11). In the Bible, speaking in tongues was always followed by receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit, especially by the laying on of hands. (I grew up in a church in which I’d never even heard of the baptism of the Holy Spirit – I found out later that the denomination believed in it and that previous generations used to hear it preached on often. However, for a span of about twenty years it never crossed the radar in any preaching or teaching that I heard. Among the older generation it was called “a furthering work of grace” and sometimes “the second blessing” or even simply “sanctification”). If you have never received baptism of the Holy Spirit, I would ask a trusted Christian to pray this over you while laying on hands, particularly your pastor or an elder.
For some people, tongues seem to flow effortlessly; however, the Holy Spirit doesn’t force our tongues to move – we have free will. If you have prayed for more of the Holy Spirit, believe in faith you have received. Start talking. It may sound like babble at first. You will think you are simply making this up. You might hear the same phrase come out over and over. Don’t doubt. Keep speaking.
It took months from the first time someone prayed over me to receive more of the Spirit until I finally spoke in tongues. I definitely received something initially, but when I attempted to speak in the spirit nothing came out. It was on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a number of years ago that I was driving home from somewhere, praying in desperation over a situation, and I simply didn’t have the words. I had to grapple for tongues. I began speaking what sounded to me like gibberish. For several days after that I assumed I was just making up nonsense. I asked God for reassurance that it was really of Him. Later, I went to a service at a local church, and when one of the pastors prayed over me, the tongues began pouring out effortlessly from my mouth.
If you’ve desired this gift for a while but it just hasn’t happened, do not give up. Receive more of the Holy Spirit and start speaking!
Tongues is a practical gift for believers, a threat to the kingdom of darkness, and a glory to God. Paul says to the church “Do not forbid to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39). I encourage you to study and meditate on the scriptures for yourself and pursue this gift. God will teach you and lead you even further in it. Tongues can be your personal prayer language, and perhaps it will become a regular part of your church experience as well.