Does the Holy Spirit slip people the tongues?

I recently got in this email:


I’ve been following your writing for a while, and was wondering what your opinion is on speaking in tongues. I am a recovering Pentecostal from a fairly modern church, where women could wear pants and preach, but speaking in tongues was greatly encouraged. Now that I have left that church, I have begun to reconsider the value of such a thing. I myself was never able to do it, and was told that I wasn’t trying hard enough, or giving enough of myself. This made me ashamed for a long time.

There are two kinds of tongues that I was taught about: individuals who speak in tongues when they worship and pray and whose words do not need interpretation, and those who speak in tongues to prophesy. Both kinds were in my church. The woman who usually used them to prophesize was generally interpreted by her husband. I was told that doubting her words (which were generally nothing unusual, about God coming back soon, the general apocalyptical stuff) was the same as blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Therefore, no one tended to argue with her.

I know that this “gift” appears in Acts and in a few other places in the New Testament, but do you think it has value in the current church? I have only seen it used as a tool of repression, and I am inclined to say no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask other knowledgable seekers after God. Thanks for reading!

You’re welcome. Thanks for writing!

As much as I love harboring a shamelessly wide-ranging panoply of opinions, when it comes to speaking in tongues I’ve nothing to say. I’m not very comfortable passing judgment on the validity of the spiritual experiences of others. If in what they’re experiencing as the throes of possession by the Holy Spirit, a person starts “speaking in tongues,” then … okay.

I mean, obviously, right on the surface of it, speaking in tongues seems a tad … odd. Why would God think it a great idea to inspire people to say stuff that virtually no one can understand? Does the Alpha and Omega of all that ever is or will be have nothing better to do than possess simple mortals to talk funny? It’d be like driving a brand-new car backwards down the freeway. Sure, you could do it. But why would you?

Now, if the Holy Spirit made a person who had never in their life spoken a single word of English suddenly start spouting passages of Hamlet, I’d fall into full gaga mode. But if a person is so apparently filled with the Holy Spirit that all they can do is talk spontaneously generated gibberish?

Pffft. For that we have Sarah Palin.

(Kidding! Joke! Not really but I don’t want to get bombarded by messages from her insane fan club!)

So here’s what I think about speaking in tongues (I knew I had an opinion on it!): It could be legitimate. It could be as nonsensical as the sounds it makes people make. God works in strange and mysterious ways, right? Why couldn’t one of those ways be to make people speak in a language that’s exclusively between him and them?

Maybe it’s like the secret language of twins: God connects with the Holy Spirit inside someone, and the two of them start talking so exuberantly that the host person can’t do anything but bubble over with the no-time-to-translate extra.

That totally makes sense.

I’ll tell you what I know is nonesense, gentle writer: that business from your pastor about you failing to speak in tongues because you’re not “trying hard enough.” What a callous, caustic cretin of a crustacean that clergyman clown is. I’m so glad you got away from that insidious sinkhole. I mean … not to be too harsh. I’m sure Pastor Battery Acid has many good qualities. But that’s a profoundly caustic thing to tell one of your parishioners. I’m sorry you had to hear that ridiculousness.

And this deal with the husband being the appointed Holy Translator of his wife’s tongue speaking? You know, I’m just going to go out on a limb here, and guess that Ms. Spiritsaywhat? and her husband were regular donors to the church whose pastor decreed that doubting her translated “words” was tantamount to blasphemy.

Anyway, you’re now out of that church, right? So no worries for you personally on this, yeah? If people want to speak in tongues—or roll around on the floor, or flail about while the Holy Spirit tries to teach them how to Watusi, or any of that sort of thing—who’s it hurt? As long as the answer to that is virtually no one—as long as no one’s going, “Hey, d’ya hear that?! The Holy Spirit just told us to string up some darkies!” or, “Praise the Lord! The Holy Spirit just told Bea here he wants us to go drown some fags!”—then … then it’s like two countries being in a squirmish. It means nothing.

"If you accept the Torah and New Testament of the Bible as true you can ..."

The rational genius of Christianity
"The whole thing about wives submitting to husbands opens the door for these kind of ..."

Why Pastors Struggle With Confronting Domestic ..."
"I have a stupid question for you:If you are asking someone else what to say ..."

What should I tell my child ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Christina

    After traveling thru numerous faith traditions, from growing up Roman Catholic to being Pagan, I gave my heart to Christ in an Assemblies of God church. At first, it was a wonderful thing. I felt very welcomed and loved. But being a “bleeding heart liberal” I just could never fit in, and was constantly being told that I wasn’t “in the Word” enough. How did anyone know that ? Because I was still a liberal and I wasn’t speaking in tongues. My politics weren’t going to change, but I read every book about the Holy Spirit, prayed for the gift of tongues, had people pray over me – you name it, and still was not blessed with that gift. I finally gave up when I realized I wasn’t going to be going anywhere in this church anyway… and then I did start speaking in tongues.

    I’ve heard what I believed to be people honestly having a conversation with God in some other language. I am positive one of our elders exchanged jokes with God as he makes such a joyful noise. I know that I have felt like I am able to express things in my heart that mortal words can’t express. But I have also heard what is obviously someone with an agenda, using this “gift” to influence vulnerable people. And that is very, very wrong.

    I now attend an UCC church where the gift of tongues is not practiced. Since it was always a private prayer language for me, I don’t have a problem with it. And having seen it abused, I don’t miss it during congregational gatherings.

  • Michael

    Hi John,

    I now attend and Episcopal church, but ws formerly part of an Assemblies of god church. I did, and still do speak in tongues. The reason I was given for why it is still used (the tongue, then the interpretation) is because that is the Biblical model. I have had my languages understood by others who were Christians, and who told me the language and the translation. They had no reason to back up my beliefs in the practise, being atheists. It really does give me a closeness to God, as scripture says, the person who prays in the Spirit as for things which he/she has need of, but maybe isn’t aware of. It really adds a depth to my walk with God.

    Thanks for speaking on this issue, which in some circles, is still considered controversial.

    Michael 🙂

  • Wow! How interesting is that? So what’s the last thing you said when you were “speaking in tongues”?

  • cat rennolds

    the miracle of the first pentecost was that in a market full of people from all over, the apostle’s words were understood by everyone.

    today, it more often happens that one of us is given the right Word at just the moment someone needs to hear it.

    the ecstasy of being filled with Spirit is real, but it’s not the Gift of Tongues.

  • cat rennolds

    that’s wonderful. I had not seen it yet in the present day.

  • DR


    I’m a pretty tried and true Liberal and have a prayer language so while I’m pretty sure I’d burst into flames if I walked into an AoG church? I’m with you, sister.

  • Jeannie

    I grew up in the Assemblies of God. I began speaking in tongues when I was 11 years old. It was a part of my daily prayer time. I prayed in tongues every day as part of my private worship. I prayed in tongues when I didn’t know what to pray in English. I prayed in tongues in a general worship service when I belived God wanted me to “prophesy” and then I prayed for the interpretation. Sometimes I “interpreted” my own tongues, sometimes someone else did. I prayed in tongues daily until my middle 30s both privately and publically.

    I stopped praying in tongues for the most part when I went through a period of questioning everything I had ever believed in and became a relunctant agnostic for a time. Is it real? If “real” means that it is some kind of a spiritual language that the Holy Spirit uses to pray to God in an unknown language for me, I no longer beleive that. There are many reasons for me to come to that conclusion, but the most common one I cite is that I have never heard someone who does not speak English praying in an English spirit tongue. Even though I am not sure what it is, and most likely think it is some kind of psychological phenomenom that was common in my culture, sometimes I still do it privately. It is my own unique spiritual comfort food. It is something I am familiar with and harkens back to a simpler, more innocent era for me. I am not hurting anyone with it, and it makes me feel better sometimes.

  • Wow! Again, just fascinating. Thank you for sharing this, Jeannie. It’s really helpful.

  • Pam Suggs

    Having come from the dark side of the world with prostitution, drugs, and an atheist attitude, at 40 I found myself crying out to God. I hadn’t been raised in church, however my extended family was Church of God who had the most influence on me. (grandmother) The first church I was involved in was Pentecostal where the gifts of the spirit were important and anyone “speaking in tongues” was more spiritual. I couldn’t speak in tongues. However, one day while praising the Lord something happened inside of me that caused me to release words I never knew existed. Of course I used this new found gift with pride, being counted as one of the “spiritual people.” It was a prayer language to me that was exalted for all the wrong reasons. Eventually I moved and started going to a Southern Baptist church which a year ago I went up against because there was no grace. Most everyone turned on me. Can I still pray in tongues, yes. Do I ever do it. No. However I can if I want to, and I know it is real, something to be used in the right context at the right time. I have learned Jesus has different relationships with all of us. What he is doing with you may not be what he is doing with me. If we are glorifying God by demonstrating His love, compassion, mercy, grace and forgiveness, then speak in tongues or don’t speak in tongues. In the end it is all about Jesus, not us. Thank you for letting me share. God bless you.

  • This is just been so … well, enlightening. Thank you, Pam, for this touchingly honest and open letter.

  • Whoa. What a wonderful testimony about this dynamic in your life. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this, Christina. Fascinating. Touching.

  • Jeannie

    Pam, I love what you said about glorifying God by demonstrating His love, compassion, mercy, grace and forgiveness. That for me is the bottom line as well. I never felt the whole pride or humiliation thing about speaking in tongues or not speaking in tongues. Perhaps because for me, it was something that occurred in childhood. I just began to quietly speak in tongues when I was saying my night time prayers.

    I used to feel so close to God when I prayed that way, like we were sharing some kind of secret together or smething. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that innocence. But regarless of how complicated and paradoxal my spiritual life may be these days, in the end it is all about love and compassion.

  • I have experienced “tongues” firsthand commonly for decades, and no I have never been a part of a rant-n-rave-holy-roll group; I just took a very commonsense approach. You can’t approach anything in Scripture based on what “other people” do with it, for bet…ter or worse; fugeddaboutem, and go to God about it.

    As for “gibberish”, as a student of languages and linguistics as well for some decades, it ought to be obvious that any language is “gibberish” to anyone who isn’t familiar with it (our words “babble” and “gibberish” themselves, as well as Greek “babaroi” [which gave us “barbarians], are imitative words meant to mock foreign languages that sounded to the locaols like, well, gibberish). With around 6,000 living languages in the world today, and a conservative estimate of around 50,000 languages that have existed in the at least 50,000 years of human history, it would be remarkable if anyone could recognize more than a smattering of languages as “language”.

    But of course all that misses the point a little: the entire point of “tongues” is merely to enable one to communicae with God from the heart (spirit), without the mental clutter that our cognitive faculties are so good at getting in the way. Anyone who might think that they would never have such clutter to get past is being very generous about themselves!

    Like any genuine prayer from the heart, “tongues” centers on a personal encounter with the Divine, not some “experience”. If you have never encountered “speaking in tongues” (whether firsthand, or hearing someone else) as softly and non-“hyper” as a conversation between close friends, then I would suggest you haven’t encountered much of it yet.

    Oh as a PS to all this — of course there’s nothing elitist about that or any gift from God: in fact, anyone who supposes themselves somehow spiritually “better than thou” for any reason is missing the point drastically. The point of any gift — whether …a spiritual maifestation of some kind, or the innate kind we call talents — is to highlight the creativity of the Giver, not how special the “givee” is.

    As for “spiritual gifts”, again the point is never that anyone should “seek gifts” in themselves, but simply seek to draw closer to God in any and every way that he makes available, ignoring anyone else’s opinions about what is de rigueur on that (whether it’s “you HAVE TO have ‘tongues’!” or “tongues, eww, freaks!”). The goal there is always the Giver, never the gifts.

  • Incidentally, for anyone who’s interested in reading up a fascinating investigation into “tongues”, by an author who, while a Christian, was originally skeptical of anything that might be categorized “miraculous”, here is a readable book, first published in 1964, “They Speak With Other Tongues”, by John Sherrill:

    Sherrill included some observations by linguists, who found that, while in some cases some people’s utterances did indeed seem to be gibberish (that is, with no discernible linguistic mechanics or features), in other cases they did show signs of linguistic structure and mechanics. I’ve personally known of a few cases where recognizable languages were heard, though again none of this is the point: rather it’s heart-to-heart communication with God, as I mentioned in my earlier comment.

  • Don Rappe

    I am glad to learn a little about this gift of the Spirit. I have not encountered it personally, but, in my later years I have encountered the gift of healing and also seen someone pray and praise God in song so vigorously that they became unconscious. Enough healing to realize it is not all fake (some is). I think many of the early Christians came from a dark place like Pam did. An illiterate slave may have had a very limited vocabulary and little occasion to speak in his/her daily life. But the Spirit can provide the words. For myself, I think I get a little extra from making my singing in church (too?) loud.

  • I’ve seen people pray in tongues, and it seems to me to be authentic. I am certain I have seen copycats too, where people think they are supposed to do likewise so learn the wordings by listening to others. I’ve heard similar phrases in different settings, so I have to wonder how much is is direct from God and how much is learned by hearing others.

    I am of the mind that it probably does have validity and value for that individual, but not necessarily for anyone else. Therefore not having that ability to speak or interpret is not at all a failure to be spiritual enough, any more then not being able to sing a not out of the hymnal because one is completely tone deaf. They can sing, and the pleasure is all theirs…and hopefully God’s. No one else seems to benefit.

    I do have a question however. When one is speaking or praying in tongues, do they know what they are saying or understand the meanings of the words?

  • I love the title and closing remarks. I guess I’m a beginning and end kinda guy.

    I have a couple of friends who swear I prayed in tongues once. I think I was just tired and mumbled. Another friend there said he heard me fine and didn’t know what they were talking about. Maybe he was tired, too? I think the two friends who thought I spoke in tongues were tired.

    Anywho, if it does happen, as long as it is nothing like your closing remarks … well, cool.

  • Elizabeth Niederer

    I spent over thirty years in Pentecostal/AoG circles, went to Bible college/seminary in that denomination, held ministerial credentials, etc. I’m now a recovering Pentecostal :-). It’s a very long and still excruciatingly painful story, so I won’t “go there.”

    I am convinced that speaking/praying in tongues is for real–except when it isn’t, of course, and that happens often enough. People feel pressured into making something up, or participants in a service use the tongues/interpretation gig as a way to….well, to do any number of things that are not Christlike. I could tell many stories about how “spiritual gifts” are used in manipulative and downright abusive ways.

    But back to the real stuff. For me the question became how to define “real.” My current thoughts on tongues and other ecstatic expressions of worship center around the idea of the trance experience. There are many trance-inducing elements in the Pentecostal worship style, and IMO speaking in tongues fits nicely into that type of experience.

    Lots of people would take umbrage at that assertion. On one side we might have the Pentecostal worshipper who protests that trance is a fleshly thing and speaking in tongues is a spiritual thing. On another side people who do not believe in that worship style (or in God at all, or anywhere along a continuum of “not believing”) might use this concept to further denigrate the whole experience as nothing but gobbledygook, the product of a weak or disturbed mind.

    I see it differently. Trance is a natural, normal state of human consciousness. Some people “trance out” easier than others, and some people really enjoy a state of trance. They are unlikely to name it as such, but no matter. I’ve come to believe that what I see in a Pentecostal worship service is a bunch of people who find something spiritually valid and fulfilling in a communal trance experience.

  • I remember what I was taught (at Baptist church)…

    If I recall the passage correctly, there was a place in Acts where the Holy Spirit had just come upon the Diciples and the Good News was at hand and everything was exciting…. they were in amongst a crowd of people who spoke many different languages and wouldn’t have known preaching if they’d spoken what they’d known – therefore, it was the right time for God to pull a holy Rosetta Stone so they could hear the Gospel in the languages they knew.

    Otherwise, my old church saw it – if you had it as a gift – as one of the lesser-gifts. If it’s just an angelic-language that no one understands, that’s pretty much between you and God and there’s not much practical purpose unless you need to suddenly preach to somene in Chinese never having studied a word of it.

    A gift like teaching or like mercy may be more practical for most believers.

  • Tammy Lubbers

    Is it agreed then, that not all have the Gift of Tongues? And those without the Gift, are not less “Christian” than those who do?

    What about the verse that says: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

    Doesn’t that mean all of us should have all the gifts – and more?

    I’d love to hear some feedback, please.

  • Michael

    The last time it was understood, the woman said that I prayed for strength, in spanish, in which I do not have any background.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I thought the point (if to speak of a scripturally Pentecostal practice, relating to receipt of the Spirit of truth) was to enable the apostles to fulfill their commission to make disciples of every nation. Heart-to-heart communication with God wouldn’t pass through one’s mouth. (That’s not to say that sounds from the mouth can’t be a side effect of it. But from which side—whether it is God or man speaking—I can’t say. Only God, though, could speak an existing tongue that the man/woman doesn’t him-/her-self know. Yet in that case He would speak it, presumably, without error and without fail, meaning that such a phenomenon should be well documented and faith in God would no longer be a matter of faith. So I suppose, then, it could very well be neither God nor man speaking but some sort of demon. Many false prophets have gone out into the world; so it is incumbent upon us to test every spirit to see if it is of the Lord, looking for fruits such as bearing witness to the truth to peoples of foreign lands, or making verifiable prophecies, or, while being no more than pseudo-linguistic noise, yet bringing comfort to men’s/women’s souls.)

  • Matthew Tweedell

    That which one purchases for oneself, as by sufficient faith or effort, would not be a gift. Neither is that which it does not profit one to receive.

    1 Cor. 12.27 – 13.3 (NKJV):

    “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.

    “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”

    So as to the question of whether we all should have all the gifts: collectively, yes, and we do; individually, no, not in a fallen world at least—perhaps in the world to come.

  • Lili C

    In my earlier Christian years i went through many phases, including one where I really, really, really, wanted to speak in toungues, and later growing out of that phase and not particularly needing it. When someone asks me nowadays whether I have a “prayer language” (i.e. speak in toungues) I answer sweetly yes, it’s English. Like John, I have no strong opinions one way or the other as to the “rightness” of seeking the gift of tongues. My only relevant comment is this – In virtually every case where an individual or church I personally have had contact with were strong proponents of seeking the gift of tongues, people are far more focused on whether or not one has received that gift, (or if not whom to blame), than they are in whether one’s actions and attitudes reflect the love of Christ in one’s everyday life. Therefore for me, I tend to see the whole subject as a convenient distraction for those who don’t really want to deal honestly with those more important aspects of their lives. In addition to John’s suggestin of her being a large donor to the church, I’m guessing “Mrs. Spiritsaywhat ” also spends very little time thinking about how she treats poeple or whether her behavoir is likely to draw more hurting people to Christ’s side than it drives away.

  • Lili C

    Dang it, I even checked this post for typo’s and misspellings and still didin’t see them until after I hit submit. Spellcheck has ruined me!

  • Richard Lubbers

    A prayer language between a believer and God is a beautiful thing. But every experience this woman mentioned is very sad. It is important to remember that we can speak in the tongues of men and angels, but if we don’t have love, we are nothing.

    Thankfully, she is out of that church.

  • Elizabeth Niederer

    Tammy, where does it say in Scripture that Jesus spoke in tongues? If we look at the life of Jesus and use that as the measuring stick for the “greater things than these,” tongues doesn’t enter into the picture at all. Social justice sure ranks pretty high, though.

  • Heather

    Thanks for considering my email and writing such a thoughtful reply! I hope that it can help others too. I think that you’re right: in the end, I don’t have to worry about it, because I’m gone from there. It’s really interesting to read the responses to this post and see people who do enjoy this gift in their daily lives. For some reason, I’m more inclined to believe *them* than the people I used to know. God bless, all.

  • Tammy Lubbers

    Well said Elizabeth. Thank you! What better way to measure our hearts and lives than the Rod of Jesse?

  • Julia

    This thread has given life to so many rich and deeply personal comments, and I’ve appreciated reading all of them. Like others who have commented, I’ve experienced what I’ll call spiritual abuse, and it was from that perspective that I approached the original question. For me, any type of spiritual litmus test is a red flag, including the concept that one must speak in tongues to be fully spiritual. Do my politics or clothing choices or orientation or hair style or spiritual gifts make me — or anyone — less fully a child of God? On the contrary, those differences allow each of us to play the unique role given us in the large, extended, messy, imperfect family of God.

  • Ninetailedfox

    I went to a Pentecostal church once or twice. They acted as though I would know the music and they put me up on stage. I dont remember much, other than it was a very awkward experience. The only one that comes close is when I became a Jew for Jesus for 6 months. Man those were weird times.

  • Ninetailedfox

    Dont you mean we have nothing? because by saying we are nothing, you might be giving the wrong impression.

  • Glynis

    I have asked for the gift of tongues twice in my life. Once in high school, when our little Baptist youth group was teaching about it, and once in college.

    The other highschoolers loved me – I had grown up with them. They weren’t trying to prove something to me, and they wouldn’t have been able to anyway, since we were such a small group and – I grew up with them.

    There were 3 Christian groups on our college campus. One was Catholic and attended almost exclusively by Catholics – if for no other reason than the rule of needed to receive the Eucharist, and our other 2 groups didn’t have that. The second group was at least 75% Protestant, with about 2/3 of that being mainstream sects like Methodist, Baptist, etc. You know… those places with steeples. We had a few “holy rollers” come in or stay in, but no one spoke in tongues at the meetings and in 4 years of attendance, not much was taught about tongues as we made coleslaw out of our NIVs studying the Bible. The third group was the smallest, and didn’t really advertise on campus much, and didn’t have a priest or pastor, or even a teacher present as an adult. That group were the charismatics, the handraisers, the tongue-speakers, the laying on of healing hands folks. I visited that group a few times, as well as the Catholic group. I had extra time in my evenings and I thought, “If one worship group/bible study was good for me, why not two?” They weren’t unwelcoming, but they pushed those tongues really hard ! Then they committed an error as a group. They tried to teach me that, since I claimed to be saved but had never spoken in tongues, that the Holy Spirit was not in my heart at all….. ergo – I was not actually saved. Something like halfway, I guess. I tried to argue that it says GIFT, not RIGHT TO DEMAND tongues, but they didn’t buy it.

    Both times that I asked for this spiritual gift, I had worked really hard inwardly to be in a place where I was earnestly desiring the gift, and ready to use it ONLY in the strict manner that the Bible dictated for this gift. (As in, never blabbering willy nilly in large churches full of people – for the last two minutes of EVERY praise song – and in the presence of people who were unsaved. It’s the only gift that has rules attached, other than to be really careful if you are a teacher, since you will be held more accountable if you lead someone astray. There are no “strings attached” or rules to Hospitality or “helps” or service, for example. Have at it at will !

    But no matter how much I dealt with verses and concepts like James 1:5-8

    ( 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.) about doubting, and firmly believed I had mastered not doubting, I still did not receive the gift of tongues.

    (Yes, I KNOW that passage says “If any of you lacks WISDOM”, and not tongues. But I believe it to be perfectly reasonable to expand all the rest of the gist of it to be for more than asking for that one item. No?)

    I’m now 25 years out of college, and have spent most of that time worshipping in places that don’t speak in tongues – more from my penchant for loving traditional hymn music than a conscious effort to avoid the package deal that are charismatics. I have, however, quite enjoyed visits to other flavors of worship, and made sure my 2 sons were exposed to virtually all types of Christian groups – with the glaring exception of those snake-handling type of Baptists.

    I still don’t speak in tongues, and at this time (never say never) I am set on never asking for that gift again. I can’t say it didn’t sting that I didn’t receive from the Lord this good thing that I earnestly desired, which was supposed to help bring me closer to Him in worship.

    I do, or did (until snoring took over), have one gift many others didn’t have. Not a “bona fide”, capital S Spiritual gift from either of the gift lists, but I used it to worship God and to reach His sheep just the same. I was a voice major back in college, and a Baptist. We know us some hymns. And we’re raised to believe that when the congregation is asked to sing, well…. the congregation is SUPPOSED to sing. Not slip in 8 minutes late, sipping our flavored Starbucks crappaccinos that they serve out in the other room and are now allowed into what used to be call the Sanctuary. (Don’t get me started on how stupid it is to stack all the 14 minutes of dumbed-down “Praise” music right at the beginning of the service, thereby allowing people to regularly be late and the others bored, and some with their backs and feet screaming to sit DOWN. Too much pain tends to drive out any chance at “worship” after that 10th minute or so.)

    Anyway, rant-ble on. So I used this legacy of a few hundred years of Christian music really well when I got a job at an assisted living place – in the Alzheimer’s/Dementia section actually. Did you know that their new memories (like lunch) may be long gone, and even their kids’ names, but the oldest, longest memories usually stay? And music is one of those things like Smells, I think, where it triggers something really deep. More than once when I was singing what I KNEW were the old standards and most loved hymns of THEIR era, some of the lowest functioning ones of them really paid attention, held my hand, started to cry, etc. (Maybe I was off-key, haha.) There was one lady who had deteriorated below speech level and couldn’t even choose plate A or B in front of her for lunch choices. But I brought in my trusty old hymnbook from my little home church of my youth and started with the old favorites. She came over and started singing WITH me! An aged but clear, on pitch soprano, with confidence. And she even knew more than one verse ! She consulted the book once or twice at the beginning of phrases – she was READING !! We didn’t believe she could speak (and she couldn’t) much less read ! Her face was the most beatific thing I will ever see on this side of the clouds !!! Immediately upon finishing a hymn, she would revert to that annoying little snippet of song I will hear to my dying say – which she sang with every breath of every hour of every shift of mine. Argh !! No words, just dum de dum de’s. Then if I started another hymn, she snapped back into “intelligent” participation again.

    I have also sung one or two off to death. (Yeah, maybe I was really off-key, yathink?) My voice being the last thing they ever heard. And I “brought one back” from unresponsive once – long enough (a few hours) to say goodbye to his son who was there distraught because he was “too late”. No one had revived this old guy for over a full day, and he wasn’t even swallowing dripped water, so dying also of dehydration and the fever that brings. But my first hymn had him blinking and the second one he held my hand.

    Conclusion: Maybe I’ll never speak in tongues in that “traditional” way. And I don’t know if this is WHY God chose not to bless me with that. But the music really reaches people deeply, and I’ll settle for that. (Now if I could just fix that snoring.)

  • Cathy Fisher

    I have spoken in tongues for many years, as a prayer language. often when I am not sure what to say, or just to have connection God unimpeeded by my busy mind. I am not a fundy, though at the time the gift was receiced, I was in a church where most spoke in tongues. never out of control babbling or anything disruptive. for me it is simply connection language, and it calms me and centers me. for me the lesson is to be open about the potential, but dont let someone force their views on how it must be for you. You may or may not need the gift!

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    I am a long time tongues speaker, although i don’t intrude on others, or act nutty about it. Most people don’t know that I practise this. I think for me it works much the same way centering prayer works for others. Is it “real”? It is for me. What else matters? It makes my spiritual life better.

    Here is the long version of my experiences:

  • charlesmaynes

    excellent post John!

  • Leone

    I am a former fundamentalist and I speak in tongues. It has always been remarkable for me. Sometimes calming, sometimes not. I have always believed that it is a way for my spirit to commune directly with God without my own consciousness getting in the way. When I pray in tongues I feel like I am saying what needs to be said rather than what I think needs to be said. Does that make sense? It does to me anyway. 🙂

  • JenellYB

    From a combination of having spent a couple years attending AOG churches and a couple Pentecostal, my observations and experiences there, curious about tongues as so foreign to my baptist background, followed by some years of formal education in psychology, including cognition and states of altered conciouness, my opinion is that most of the tongue phenomenon can be explained as one of several very normal and natural occurances. No doubt a lot is faked, encourage by the social pressures to conform to that religious culture. But there seems also some that are not consciously faking, but as others here mention, are responding to suggestion under a trance state. But I had three experiences not so easily explained, that I still have no way to explain, and a few others have shared with me what seemed sincere experiences not easily dismissed. Two were experiencing hearing audibly, in that persons voice, both what they were actually saying, and in perfectly matched cadence, ‘other’ words. These first during an AoG service, a man blurted out a short spiel in tongues, but I also heard the words, “worthy is the lamb that was slain.” The second was at work, a customer chatting while I worked, lasted much longer. She was talking about ordinary stuff, and suddenly I was hearing also ‘other words.’ Those words were her describing some of her very personal hurts about difficulties in her life, and actually how it related to some of my own inner feelings and gave me insights into a matter of difficulty for me in a life situation at the time. She seemed unaare she was ‘saying’ anything other than the ordinary stuff. The 3rd experience was at a baptist church, as I was singing in a strange way that happened a few times around that time. Usually I cannot sing well, and sound awful if I try. But a few times, I felt very spiritually ecstatic I guess it would be described, and would just open up and sing beautifully and powerfully. Once after that had happened, I noticed a woman near me crying and looking at me in emotional amazement. She told me she had heard ‘other words’ in my voice as I sang, words she said were as if personally said to her. She seemed either embarrassed or afraid of me after that, we hadn’t known each other at the time, but she actively avoided me after that. Ironically, these were both churches I was not long after driven out of with the most vile filthy slanderous gossip one could even imagine. I still don’t feel I can say what the actual nature of those experiences was.

  • John Masters

    You know, as I was reading some comments above, Leone said, ” It has always been remarkable for me. Sometimes calming, sometimes
    not. I have always believed that it is a way for my spirit to commune
    directly with God without my own consciousness getting in the way…” That strikes me as sounding remarkably like meditation, and the chanting that can help facilitate that. I don’t know if one is communicating with God during these experiences, but it seems entirely reasonable to me that a person might achieve an enhanced sense of being or connection. Speaking on tongues is not an experience I’ve had, and I admit that these big public displays of it, which happen on cue, strike me as contrived…but I agree there are probably legitimate experiences, where a person can feel a greater sense of connectedness and peace from the practice.

  • Kagi Soracia

    In my view, and this is especially informed by my perspective as a linguist, speaking in tongues in personal prayer, either privately or in company, is a way that we can express aloud those unutterable things that we have no words for – feelings, thoughts, desires, joys and sorrows and fears and questions, grief and anger and hope that we cannot put into words, but nevertheless feel deeply and wish to express to and communicate about with our heavenly father. But I also love your idea about it being an overflow of divine-to-divine communication within us. It could be both at different times. Regardless, I do think it serves a specific purpose linguistically, enabling us to communicate things to God that we never could otherwise (he can understand it no matter how much gibberish it sounds like to us), and can greatly enrich our prayer life, but I would never consider it necessary to faith or think less of someone who never could for whatever reason.

  • Kagi Soracia

    Yes! exactly, tho I went about describing it from a linguistic point of view, but this too. 🙂

  • lol This is great.

  • t3rr4r1um

    The church I’ve attended all my life is very big on speaking in tongues – of the loud, clamoring variety where everybody flails their hands in the air and yells at once and the whole team of musicians plays a rocking guitar/drum/piano/singing in tongues/anything solo. They all speak the same handful of syllables with different frequencies. That’s about it. Speaking in tongues is definitive evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit, according to the leadership, and every Christian who’s a Christian should be able to do it.

    This creates a tremendous pressure to speak in tongues. Everybody wants to do it because they know they’re not a Christian, for the pastors tell them so, which probably links back to that first point above where everybody picks up the same handful of syllables off each other. Then they lord it over the others who can’t or won’t. That I’m unable to speak in tongues is a sign that I’m either “not right with God” or that I’ve been letting my rational mind get in the way of the Spirit and I should learn to submit to God, taking every though captive in obedience to the whatever-it-was. Then again, I was always a failure as a Christian. On the other hand… they’re all speaking the same handful of syllables.

    Do I believe speaking in tongues is a thing? I haven’t, for a while. I’d like to imagine it could be real. Maybe.

    Have I ever seen a real example where a person with no prior training abruptly spoke in the language of another, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it led to someone’s salvation?

    Ha! Ha ha! Ha! Ha!

  • Dave

    That’s exactly how I experience it.

  • Dave

    I pray in tongues. It took my a long time to do so cuz I was trying too hard. I don’t get emotional, roll around on the floor or act a fool. I say a prayer then start praying in an unknown language. I hope this encourages someone who wants to do this but have been told the crap about not trying, being a bad Christian, etc is getting in the way.

  • Jan S Yoder

    I started speaking in tongues back in ’09 sometime, when those around me were doing so as well. When I began it seemed very forced and unnatural, but from time to time it would come out, in whatever setting it was, to the point that it began to feel like a real language, perhaps a native American one from a past life, that I just didn’t understand, yet. This past year i had an experience with someone I will call an high-angelic. The two of us were having this long, very profound conversation in more than one language I did not understand with my ‘language’ center, but some part of me was fully in it. Later I asked about the one statement that I have been making for years, always beginning the same, phonetically “Ish ta ka niha to koshonao…”; it was translated as I thought – “I love you beloved one…”. The high-angelic told me that “it was wonderful to hear the mother tongue” (paraphrased from memory). Not all of us here at this time are originally from this planet, this star system, or even this galaxy. Star languages and more are coming out. Weird, I know, and more is to come, and soon I hope. We are far more than we ‘think’ we are, being ‘created in the image of God’. The question to ask ourselves is “How small is our God?” Or, “How large is our God, and how large are we capable of BEing?”

    I agree with those who have posted favoring allowing all forms of prayer, praise and worship that do not violate another’s choices. Another’s choice to find this the very height of blasphemy is fine with me as well, as long as they do not impose their belief of this on me.

  • Melinda Hailey

    I am laughing hysterically right now! (At the John’s humor, not the subject matter!)

  • Eric Weiss

    They Speak With Other Tongues is a good book. One I like even better is Tongue Speaking: An Experiment in Spiritual Experience, by Morton T. Kelsey, with a Foreword by Upton Sinclair (1964). It apparently now has a revised subtitle:

    FWIW, I’ve been speaking in tongues for over 35 years, almost exclusively as a private prayer language. I read Face Up With A Miracle by Don Basham, and did what he said in the back of the book about stepping out in faith and speaking in tongues. So when I later found out that many Christians think it’s wrong to speak in tongues, or that it’s “not for today,” all I could say was: “Well, you got to me too late!”

    I would say that almost all instances of public speaking in tongues in church services I’ve observed (though I’ve largely dropped out of the charismatic movement in recent years) have been unremarkable, and the “interpretations” given for those words seemed to me to be bogus or wishful thinking on the part of the interpreter. I sometimes have questions if my and most persons’ tongues-speaking is or is always a genuine activity of the Holy Spirit or is some other psychological behavior. On the other hand, I once prayed for a person to receive the Holy Spirit and when I prayed in tongues while doing so, the person said I was saying the Spanish words for love, heart and mind. The person I prayed for does NOT look Spanish or Mexican at all, and I had no idea that he knew Spanish, and I myself didn’t and still don’t know Spanish. And another time when we were praying for a person to receive the Holy Spirit, his sister who was praying with us passed out yet continued speaking in tongues softly, and when we were done praying, she came to and asked what had happened. Her brother was so overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit that he said, “What a rush!” and then went to his car and got his bag of marijuana and threw it away.

  • Leone

    Good to be validated! Thanks

  • Leone

    I didn’t see your earlier post, but yeah; it can get kind of lonely when you leave the fundy churches behind and the mainstream churches, while having better theology, are not as good at asking the Holy Spirit in and letting him have control. I am now a liberal, left-wing Christian and I have a hard time explaining to people close to me why I find praying in tongues so vital.

  • Susan Parker Keller

    When I was a Christian I could speak in tongues with ease. Now that I’m an Atheist I can still speak in tongues with ease. Nothing has changed but my lack of faith. Speaking in tongues is an exercise where you shut off part of your brain. I believe the voice lessons for singing I had when I was younger made this mental practice easier for me. In singing you have to allow sound to go up into your sinuses. This isn’t as easy as it sounds (excuse the pun). It takes an odd mental practice that is too difficult to explain in a short post. The practice used for singing isn’t that much different from the one needed for speaking in tongues. There is a thread of similarity. This is hard to explain. Finally, the University of Pennsylvania did some research on speaking in tongues a few years ago. Here’s a link to their findings.

  • Gretchen

    It is by grace we have been saved. It is this grace that God says “you don’t have to try hard”, but we have a wonderful potential for many things, and I’ll tell you, speaking in tongues isn’t one of mine, either.

  • Kagi Soracia

    I agree completely – it’s a weird place to be. “it’s not easy, being a bridge, especially a bridge with visions.” You have to learn to accept both halves of your world, and the fact that they merge in you and possibly never will for anyone else. If it feels right to you, all you can do is go forward and trust in your own heart and the truth it speaks to you. But it can be hard and feel lonely, even when you have others close that do share other beliefs with you – which I envy you by the way, I have no one close to me just now that I can talk to about spiritual things. It’s a comforting thing to find unexpected confirmation on the internet that someone else feels the same way. 🙂

  • Kagi Soracia

    I have heard testimony from quite a number of missionaries that witnessed or experienced incidents of someone speaking in tongues in a meeting on the mission field somewhere, only to find later that they were speaking perfectly in a language or dialect they did not know, but which someone there did speak, and was in fact led to salvation or other revelation by it. I’ve heard it enough times including from people I knew well enough to believe their credibility that I’m inclined to grant that it actually has happened, at least occasionally. But I’ve never witnessed it personally, so make of it what you will.

  • Kagi Soracia

    it does not match my personal beliefs, but I find it a fascinating theory and report nonethless. if you wrote a novel based on it i would read the sh…heck out of that. (can we swear here?) I do believe that there is some linguistic meaning to some ‘tongues’, that they are not just meaningless sounds, in some cases. in others, more likely so, but there have been times i’ve seen or experienced what felt, to my linguist instincts, a true language, and it makes me burn with curiosity and frustration. on the other side of eternity the first thing I am going to do is learn ALLLLLL the languages, ever. both angelic and natural, especially the lost ones. extinct languages hurt me like a sword through the chest.

  • Patrick Holt

    I share your wish to avoid passing hasty judgement on what might be activity of the Holy Spirit. I certainly don’t write off the Holy Spirit as an abstraction of trinitarian theology which doesn’t happen in personal reality, which some traditional doctrinaire, scripture-only versions of protestantism have, of the kind which prompted Hegel’s heresies. However, I have no trust in glossolalia as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit nor as a measure of anyone’s faith. It seems to me that in leaping upon St. Paul’s discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12-14, that glaring reading-out-of-context and against the grain of St. Paul’s position has taken place. As to the idea that speech in tongues is what every genuine believer in good standing with God can and should expect to recieve, this is a basic failure of grammer, let alone exigesis. A gift, by definition, is not a right. It is the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5) which all believers may expect to see develop in their character, not the gifts of the spirit. Again, it is up to the giver who gets what, if anything. It has nothing to do with their own efforts, sincerity, zeal or willingness to submit. Gifts, indeed may be allocated to those who do not want them and do not expect them at all. No believer then has any right to expect to be granted any particular gift of the Spirit, let alone one universal, generic, and somewhat useless one, no matter how hard you pray for it. The fact that so many do exhibit, or perform, glossolalia is actually strong evidence that it is not a Gift. Further, it is reading against St. Paul’s message about speech in tongues, that the tongues spoken are real languages of men in daily use somewhere around the world. There is no “speaking in tongues”, which is not speech in a language recognizable and known to someone, even if no member of the given congregation. Again, alongside speech in foreign human tongues and prophesy there is the gift of discernment of spirits, without which all alleged prophesy, whether in a strange tongue or otherwise, and all “words of insight”, fail. The gift of discernment of spirits enables the congregation, through those who have recieved it, to determine whether what is being said is indeed coming from the Holy Spirit, which cannot, and must not be glibbly assumed, or is instead either of demonic inspiration, or comes merely from that individual’s own feelings, imagination and prejudices. Unless someone has the guts to be wary, and test each exclamation and proclamation, there is every reason to assume that the congregation is being led astray, or simply tuning in to itself rather than the Father. Ultimately St. Paul points out that speech in tongues is far inferior to the gift of prophesy in plain speech, by which all can be edified, and far less to be desired or prayed for, or honoured, and that ultimately, all such gifts are of little significance compared with the three central gifts of God, which are universal, and unique in being so, which are faith itself, hope, and love. You know the rest. What takes place in charismatic congragations, in which a two-tier hierarchy of authority and honour is set up between those who praise in tongues and those who don’t is clearly wrong and unloving, because God himself allows no such hierarchy in his estimation of us, who are all unworthy and yet loved utterly. If I am sounding arrogant, or complacent please test what I have said against scripture, and by the gift of discernment of spirits, which is what all charismatics and pentecostals should be praying for first, last and always, well before considering speech in an unknown language.

  • Bones

    Paul was well studied in Greek philosophy and heavily influenced by it. Which is interesting when you consider Christianity’s obsession with anything pagan. According to Polhill, “Strabo wrote that Tarsus ‘surpassed’ Athens and Alexandria in its love for Philosophy”.

    Much of Paul’s theology is influenced by the Platonism and Stoicism of the day.

    One of the practices of which was glossolalia.

    Socrates explains in Phaedrus, “The greatest blessings come by way of madness, indeed of madness that is heaven-sent.” Plato reiterates this concept in the Timaeus. In sound and reason, if the speaker was understood by his audience, it was proof he did not possess this gift of the gods.

    Also in the Timaeus, Plato gives these directions (echoing Paul re interpreters)

    “But, while [the enthralled one] continues demented, he cannot judge of the visions which he sees or the words which he utters; … And for this reason it is customary to appoint interpreters to be judges of the true inspiration.”

    Here are Paul’s instructions:

    “To sum up, my friends: when you meet to worship, each of you contributes a hymn, some instruction, a revelation, an ecstatic utterance, or the interpretation of such utterance.” After unintelligible sounds were produced by a human voice, another person was called on to explain them to an audience of believers who had faith that God was using these noises to communicate with them.

    The question is of course whether glossolalia was a carry over for expagan Christians of their pagan past in Greek centres such as Corinth.

    In another example, Paul repeatedly warns his followers about the unbearable evil living in their lower natures. This idea also belongs to Plato, who in the Timaeus, opines, “The authors of our race” understood how little self-discipline human beings exercise, and placed the appetitive drives in the “lower belly.” Plato explains his sundered humanity this way: “Wherefore, fearing to pollute the divine any more than was absolutely unavoidable, they (the gods), gave to the mortal nature a separate habitation in another part of the body, placing the neck between them to be the isthmus and boundary, which they constructed between the head and breast to keep them apart.”

    The appetites of the lower nature, according to both Plato and Paul, are elements neither the gods nor God can possibly view as beneficial to human beings. Paul seems to disagree with God about mankind; when speaking of His creation in Genesis, including Adam and Eve, God described “all that he had made as very good.”

  • As to your (kind) question, “Can we swear here?” :

  • Jan S Yoder

    If I could write that sort of novel, I would. Hmmm, perhaps I should take a whack at it. Thanks for the feedback Kagi! Your other thoughts around this were fascinating as well.

  • Kagi Soracia

    you are my new hero, again. for about the thousandth time. you and Fred over at slacktivist trade off pretty regularly, and are together nearly singlehandedly responsible for saving the tiny shred of faith I had left after being raised a conservative evangelical fundamentalist homeschooler & nearly going insane trying to choose between faith and being gay. you guys were the first I ever heard holding out any hope that I didn’t have to rip my soul in half just to go on living. thank you so much, for everything, and as a linguist I think you are absolutely on target when it comes to cursing. I find people who try to deny that it is a specific and essential part of human language and communication to be rather hilariously hypocritical. they make up their own words to mask it but that is just putting a false face on the fact that sometimes strong language is necessary to get a particular emotional and semantic point across. it has a purpose, and I don’t think God really cares if I curse like a sailor as long as my actions show I am living by the law of love.

  • Kagi Soracia

    You’re welcome! do give it a try, I would love to see what you come up with. 🙂

  • Jan S Yoder

    14 pages into it. Thanks for the prompting. Email me at if you are serious about reading what I have.