Why, When, and How did the Apostle Paul Speak in Tongues?1
Read closely Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 14:14-19.
“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 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. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 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” (1 Corinthians 14:14-19).
In describing his own gift of speaking in tongues, Paul wrote, “my spirit prays” (1 Cor. 14:14). This may be a reference to the Holy Spirit, or perhaps his own human spirit, or even a co-working of the two, which in effect constitutes the essence of a spiritual gift. (A spiritual gift is when the Holy Spirit energizes and enables my spirit to do what otherwise I couldn’t do.) The important point, however, is that when Paul prays in tongues his mind is “unfruitful.” By this he means either, “I don’t understand what I am saying,” or, “Other people don’t understand what I’m saying.” The former is more likely.
This is crucial. Many insist that if one’s mind is unfruitful, that is to say, if one’s mind is not engaged in such a way that the believer can rationally and cognitively grasp what is occurring, the experience, whatever its nature may be, is useless. The apostle Paul strongly disagreed. Since Paul asserted that his mind was unfruitful when he prayed in tongues, many would think his next step would be to repudiate the use of tongues altogether. After all, what possible benefit can there be in a spiritual experience that one’s mind can’t comprehend? At the very least one would expect Paul to say something to minimize its importance so as to render it trite, at least in comparison with other gifts. But he does no such thing.
Look closely at Paul’s conclusion. He even introduced his conclusion by asking the question, in view of what has just been said in verse 14, “What is the outcome then?” (v. 15a). In other words, what am I to do? His answer may come as a shock to you.
He was determined to do both! “I shall pray with the spirit [i.e., I will pray in tongues], and I will pray with the mind [i.e., I will pray in Greek so that others who speak and understand Greek can profit from what I say].” Clearly, Paul believed that a spiritual experience that was beyond the grasp of his mind was yet profoundly profitable. Paul believed that it wasn’t absolutely necessary for an experience to be rationally cognitive for it to be spiritually beneficial and glorifying to God.
This isn’t in any way to denigrate or impugn the crucial importance of one’s mind in the Christian life. In Romans 12:1 Paul commanded that we experience renewal in our minds. All I’m saying—what I believe Paul is saying—is that praying in tongues is eminently beneficial and glorifying to God even though it is trans-rational in nature.
Furthermore, since Paul was determined to pray with the spirit (i.e., pray in uninterpreted tongues), where and when would he do it? Since he ruled out doing it in the public meeting, he must have been referring to his private, devotional prayer life. To “sing in or with the spirit” is to sing in tongues, a more melodious, musical form of tongues-speech, a practice which also, no doubt, characterized Paul’s private prayer experience.
The reference (vv. 16-17) to the “outsider” (ESV) or “ungifted” (NASB) or “those who do not understand” (NIV) probably points to anyone who does not have the gift of interpretation. It is obviously another Christian, for such a person is capable of being edified and is expected to say amen. Paul also clearly asserted that tongues-speech, among other things, blesses and gives thanks and is thus a form of prayer and praise. However, unless such prayer or praise is understood by others present, God may enjoy it but no one else does.
It is hard to imagine Paul saying anything more explosive than what we now read in verses 18-19. Clearly, Paul’s devotional life was characterized by praying and singing and praising in tongues, and he was profoundly grateful to God for this gift. His point in verse 19 is simple: the crucial issue is not whether one speaks in tongues, but what is appropriate in the public assembly of the church.
Paul had said that tongues-speech in the public gathering of the church is prohibited without an interpretation. Since the purpose of church meetings is the edification of other believers, Paul preferred to speak in a language all could understand. Consequently, he rarely spoke in tongues in a public setting. Now note well: if Paul spoke in tongues more frequently and fervently than anyone else, yet in church he almost never did (preferring there to speak in a way all can understand), where did he speak in tongues? The only possible answer is that Paul exercised his remarkable gift in private, in the context of his personal, devotional intimacy with God.
Remember, this is the man who wrote Romans. This is the man whose incomparable mind and power of logical argumentation rendered helpless his theological opponents. This is the man who is known to history as the greatest theologian outside of Jesus himself. This is the man who took on and took out the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17)! Yes, logical, reasonable, highly-educated Paul prayed in tongues more than anyone!