Speaking in Tongues: A Good Gift from the Father of Lights1
My new book, The Language of Heaven: Crucial Questions about Speaking in Tongues, is available at Amazon for pre-purchase and will be released on June 4. What follows below is the introduction to the book that I hope will give you a sense for why I wrote it.
Like many, if not most of you, I grew up loving Christmas. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning when my sister and I would tear into the many gifts that our parents had worked so hard to purchase for us. Even more enjoyable was when I became a parent of two daughters and experienced the satisfaction of blessing them with gifts they so passionately desired.
My sister and I were, as best I remember, always appreciative of what our parents gave us. And my own daughters were likewise grateful. If they ever felt disappointment, they never let on to me or to Ann. But I can easily envision how I would have felt if they had. If, after opening a particular gift that I personally picked out for them, they responded by frowning at it, expressing virtual contempt for what I thought was in their best interests, only then to cast it aside and never take it up again, I confess that I would have been heartbroken. Perhaps those of you who are parents have experienced precisely this scenario and you know the awkward feeling that comes with watching your children treat your best efforts at blessing them with utter disregard and disdain.
I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to suggest that this is what a large portion of the body of Christ has done with the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. Our heavenly Father, with our best interests in view, because he loves us and in order to bless us beyond anything that we ever deserved, carefully conceived, crafted, and then lovingly bestowed on his children this gracious gift. Yes, it’s a gift. Yes, it was God’s idea, not that of any human being. And yes, God thought up and generously poured out on his children a gift that sadly so many of us have frowned upon, made fun of, tried to explain away, and largely ignored.
Try to imagine how that makes our heavenly Father feel. How would it make you feel if, out of love, you conceived of a special gift for your children only to have them laugh at it, mock it, and then cast it aside? Speaking in tongues, or what I call heavenly language, was God’s idea. He thought it up. He invented it. He graciously bestowed it upon the church. And how have so many responded? Some, with utter contempt. With statements like: “But it’s so weird.” Or perhaps something like: “It’s actually useless. It doesn’t make much sense to me. I have no desire to receive this gift and I’ll do whatever I can to discourage others from making it an object of their prayer requests to God.”
The gift of tongues, and in particular those who regularly practice praying in the Spirit, do not have a good reputation among many outside the charismatic movement. Those who practice this gift are thought by many to be mushy-minded and spiritually uncoordinated. They are perceived as incapable of chewing their theological gum and walking in a straight line at the same time. I’ve been told on several occasions that someone who prays words that he/she does not understand is probably an intellectual lightweight who prefers feeling to thinking. Such a Christian is likely averse to deep and rigorous engagement with the Scriptures and avoids theological argumentation at all costs.
Of course, I can only speak for myself, but I have found the gift of tongues to be a tremendous boost to my spiritual zeal and an immensely effective way for deepening my relationship with Jesus. Contrary to the caricatures that many have of this gift, I can still tie my shoelaces, balance my checkbook, drive a car, hold down a job, and I rarely ever drool!
So why is it that speaking in tongues is not what one might call polite dinner conversation, especially in more conservative, Bible-church evangelical circles? Speaking in tongues is considered only a notch or two above snake-handling (or in the opinion of some, below it) and the drinking of deadly poison! Be courageous enough to admit you speak in tongues and you’ll likely be met with scrunched-up faces and looks of incredulity. “What did you say? You speak in tongues? You? But you always struck me as being normal, and you always appeared to love studying the Bible and engaging in rigorous theological debates. But tongues? Ah, you must be kidding, right?”
The gift of tongues is often treated like the proverbial “red-haired step-child” in the family of God. We can’t completely dismiss its presence, but we regard it as something regularly found only among doctrinally weak-minded Christians who are emotionally unstable, at best. What accounts for this reputation in the Bible-believing world?
Some of you may be tempted to think I’m being overly negative in even asking this question. You may think that no one really cares much about the issue these days, especially since the spiritual gift of prophecy has usurped tongues as the most controversial of all spiritual gifts. But I assure you that the prejudice against tongues is alive and well. Whereas prophecy is looked on as a potential threat to the sufficiency of Scripture, tongues is just plain weird. It’s only people who lack self-control and have little regard for their public image who admit to possessing and making use of this spiritual gift.
So, why is it that so many of you, right now, are nervously twitching and sweating profusely at the thought of someone speaking in tongues? Why is it that you carefully hide the cover of this book lest someone sitting close by takes a quick glance at the title? After all, some of you do make certain that when you pause your reading you place the book face down! As you’ll discover later in the book, there are numerous ways to answer this question, but here I want to focus on only two.
First, the disdain many have toward tongues is primarily the result of a misunderstanding of what is likely the most famous of all biblical texts on tongues. I’m sure you know it well:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
And who wants to be a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”? No one, obviously. But the image (or sound) of tongues in this passage has often served to lodge in the hearts of many a deep dislike of tongues, or at least a healthy fear of it.
But Paul isn’t denouncing or denigrating tongues. Far less is he making fun of the gift. His criticism is aimed at tongues devoid of love. He’s talking about tongues pursued and practiced selfishly, without regard for others. He’s talking about tongues being sinfully used to promote oneself or to draw attention to one’s spirituality, as over against others who are “lesser” Christians because they haven’t been blessed with the gift. The same would apply equally to every other spiritual gift. Any and all of the charismata that are exercised in the absence of love for others and a commitment to their spiritual welfare could easily become a noisy and offensive intrusion into the life of the local church. The only reason Paul mentions tongues in particular is that this is the gift more abused by the Corinthian church than any other.
So what do you think Paul would say if our speaking in tongues was motivated by love and thoroughly characterized by humility, consideration for others, and for the praise and glory of God? I think Paul would have said something like this:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, and do so in a loving and gentle and merciful way, I am a glorious and melodious sound, a virtual symphony of sweet music that is pleasing and satisfying to all who might hear me. If I never make use of my gift to put others down but only to serve them and build them up in their faith, what a marvelous and beautiful blessing this would be for everyone!”
So let’s be sure that we don’t take what Paul says about the selfish abuse of tongues and apply it to the loving and other-oriented use of tongues.
A second reason many maintain a deep-seated prejudice against tongues is the careless and unbiblical way in which tongues is flaunted in corporate gatherings without the benefit of interpretation. We’ve all seen it. And we’ve all cringed as the speaker appears to flaunt his/her “anointing” by delivering what we are told to believe is a crucial message from God. The only problem is that this “message” is never interpreted for the benefit of those who hear it. It grieves me to say it, but some charismatics give every appearance of simply not caring what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 about how tongues are to be exercised when God’s people are gathered in corporate assembly. Perhaps they are thinking that we’ve moved beyond the need or relevance for such guidelines. What may have been important for first-century church life simply doesn’t obtain in the 21st century. Or they may think that there are times when the Spirit comes in such power and the prompting one feels within is so overwhelming that to insist on interpretation would be to quench the Spirit or to grieve him.
It really matters little what justification they may provide for violating Paul’s instructions. There is no excuse, at any time, for intentionally violating the guidelines set for in Scripture for the exercise of spiritual gifts. The conclusion of some on the cessationist side of the debate is that any alleged spiritual gift that is subject to such obvious abuse and mishandling cannot be of any value or hold any validity in the life of the church today.
So, let me be clear about something in this book before we get started. I will do my very best to stay rooted in and tethered to the inspired and infallible Word of God. I will strive to justify my conclusions based on what Scripture says. I realize that some in the professing Christian community believe that this is too restrictive, that it puts limitations on what God might choose to do in our day that the church so desperately needs. I do not share that fear. My fear, in fact, is that once we step outside the governing rule of the Bible we are subject to all manner of deception and abuse. God doesn’t speak out of both sides of his mouth. He didn’t say something about the nature and operation of tongues in the first century, only then to reverse himself and render those guidelines superfluous for us in the present day. The Bible is our functional authority when it comes to the gift of tongues (or any other gift, for that matter). I am governed by and submissive to its teaching. Its guidelines and the boundaries that it articulates are no less applicable and essential in the contemporary church than they were in the early days of church life in the middle of the first century. I trust that my commitment to the functional authority of Scripture will be evident on every page of what follows.
I hope and pray you enjoy and are edified by this book.