It was one of those nearly perfect mornings. Lavina and I were having breakfast at the Tuhona Chul Garden with a couple who are dear friends of ours. The summer heat had abated some and the cooler weather was refreshing. Seated on the outdoor patio surround by dense local and exotic vegetation, it didn’t seem like being in the middle of the Sonoran desert.
Consistent with the occasion, we were sharing pleasantries of recent trips, church visits and mundane chit chat. For some reason the conversation migrated to a serious lament. We compared our sadness about the decline of the emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the churches we know and others we observe. We noted the gradual change is hardly perceptible at the time.
Our friends both grew up in classical Pentecostalism and have also pastored churches during their earlier ministry. In contrast, we joined the Spirit-filled community during the Charismatic Movement in the 70’s. Nevertheless, we share the same observation with some dismay. It is not a nostalgic regret wishing for the “good ole days.” It is a Godly desire for the power and benefits of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit to be manifested once again as it was during the early church as recorded in the Book of Acts. Rather than being on the decline, it should be ascending. At this stage of the world’s condition it is surely required by the Church to be affective. As the song says, “Lord, it is worse now than then.”
Having thought more about that breakfast conversation, I have written down my belief regarding only one of the graces of the Holy Spirit. It is one of the graces that empowers me to grow during the maturing process of being more like Jesus. How much farther I would like to be on that path! There is so much more to be. But without this gift, I know what I desire would be even farther away—much farther—than it is. It is the grace of “speaking in unknown tongues.” To me this precious gift is increasing in value and practice. Due to the value of this experience, I cannot participate in any attempts or explanations to diminish its role in the life of a Believer. On the contrary, here is my witness to what I believe.
Since most of my professional career was financial management and strategic planning, a unique approach to thinking through issues has developed. As flawed as it may be, it has provided structure and discipline. So, to make sense of the following comments and conclusions, here is a beginning and oversimplified paradigm that is essential.
Consider this paradigm. We humans are a triangle of capacities. They are body, soul and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Those capacities are overlaid with another triangle of functions which are nature (flesh), mind and heart. All of these are interactive in complexity only understood by our Creator.
Please reference Romans 8 where the narrative comments on all of these components except for the soul. Jesus singled out the soul with this emphasis, “For what wll it proft a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Inherently, none of the components have synonymous labels as some believe. The Bible is too precise for that. All of these are abundantly referenced in scripture as distinct components.
If you care to visualize this, think about the Star of David. It is a combination of 2 interlocked triangles with 6 points. Title each point with the appropriate capacity or function just mentioned. Label one triangle with capacities and the other triangle with functions. This presents an interesting interactive system. The emphasis of this commentary is on the capacity of the human spirit. But always keeping in mind how the spirit-capacity interacts with the other components.
With this paradigm in place, now consider an essential principle: Spoken words are creative to shape experienced reality. The best example is God Himself who spoke the universe and humanity into existence (Genesis 1 & 2). Likewise, human beings created in the image of God have the same ability. This is generally neither understood nor believed.
However the Bible says, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” At another place it says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life. Put away from you a deceitful mouth and put devious speech far from you.”
In this principle you see the interaction of the heart-function and the body-capacity. As an illustration, listen to the words of any person and then take a measure of their heart-function. Observe the essence of their life and you will see what their words have created.
With the system paradigm and creative principle operating in the background, let’s establish a working definition of speaking in unknown tongues.
There are preconditions for exercising this grace. Within the unregenerate human exists a dormant (dead) spirit-capacity because their system is governed by a corrupted nature-function. In essence therefore, the entire system is “spiritually dead.” It is written, “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” Sadly, the outcome of their words eventually creates evil things such as loss, destruction and death which are inconsistent with the purpose of speaking in unknown tongues in love.
However at the point of regeneration, the human spirit-capacity becomes “spiritually alive.” This system transformation happens like this: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” It also says, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” That God has now become resident within the system is one way of appreciating this event. Being “born from above” is one precondition.
First to experience this transformation were the disciples of Jesus in a meeting after His resurrection from death. Jesus creatively spoke this to them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Unlike any prophet before him, John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus as a human to live among us. He was an expert in water baptizing which was a significant aspect of his ministry. Today, we call him, John, The Baptist. Even he heard a voice speaking words from heaven saying, “The man (Jesus) on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is He who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
Just previous to the ascension of Jesus, His final meeting with followers is described as this: “Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, He said, ‘Which you heard of from Me, for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ ” Soon thereafter on the day of Pentecost, the record reports, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.”
First ones to experience this empowerment were the disciples and other followers with them. The evidence was speaking creative words in languages they did not know. In this event, many people also heard them speaking in their respective native languages. The result was the new birth from above and baptism with the Holy Spirit for a multitude and the beginning of a new era. Now God not only can become “resident” but “president” of the human system. This is another precondition.
Ideally, the preconditions are experienced nearly simultaneously. Since that is not generally the perception or the expectation, the events are then sequential.
So, what is speaking in unknown tongues?
Several decades later when the Gentile churches were flourishing, Apostle Paul wrote a letter of instruction to the church at Corinth regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The context of his instructions at one point was the superiority of prophesy during a group meeting as compared to speaking in unknown tongues. However within that message, Paul makes constructive comments about speaking in unknown tongues. These quotes from his letter are helpful for definition even though the context is more comprehensive:
“For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speak mysteries.”
“One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.”
“Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues.”
“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”
“I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.”
“I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all.”
“So then tongues are for a sign.”
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret: but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.”
“Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy and do no forbid to speak in tongues.”
Here is my working definition: Speaking in an unknown tongue in love is a voluntary personal verbalization of a creative, authentic, unfamiliar language totally inspired by the Holy Spirit generated in union with the human spirit for the purpose of praise and edification.
Before leaving the matter of a definition, it should be helpful to discuss what speaking in an unknown tongue is not.
There are many forms of denial regarding this grace. The most aggressive is attributing this expression to the work of the devil instead of the Holy Spirit. Not only is this position antichrist and non-Biblical but could have dangerous eternal blasphemic consequences for those who espouse it.
It has been described as an “ecstatic utterance” which is a clue to the inexperience of the ones who believe that. The implication being that it is primarily based in emotion and consequently is not trustworthy at best or erroneous at worst.
Common in certain denominations of the church is the teaching that certain graces active in the early church have been withdrawn for the present. Among the list is speaking in unknown tongues. One explanation is these gifts disappeared at the death of the last disciple who was the Apostle John. And, until then they needed these empowerments to “jump-start” the church. And, now with the availability of the Bible as the Word of God, progressive revelation, church organization and modern technology, we have all the necessary tools to accomplish the Lord’s commission. Without specific Biblical acknowledgement or prediction of this being a reality, it does not make strategic sense that any of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit would be withdrawn or replaced before the time Jesus sets up His earthly kingdom and all things have been made new. The gift of speaking in an unknown tongues has not been extinguished.
Remember the disappointment discussed at our breakfast mentioned earlier. This is it. A more charitable view is the “menu” approach. It is a subtle diversion and extremely harmful to the health of the Believer and the church as a whole. It exists among Pentecostal, Charismatic, Word of Faith, Jesus Movement, Evangelical and other churches in varying degrees. Speaking in unknown tongues is presented as an option. It is considered like ordering pie a-la-mode. Ice cream may make the desert better but it is a matter of taste. They say perhaps one only wants a plain piece of pie. That is not the way it is. Actually, at the most fundamental level, speaking in unknown tongues is an option. So is accepting Jesus as the Lord of one’s life. So is prayer and Christian fellowship.
The issue is how will a Believer strategically fulfill the “calling” of God during their lifetime. All of the “power” gifts are required for ultimate success. Examples of the menu approach are the limited instructions on the necessity of speaking in unknown tongues from the pulpit, frequent invitations for “accepting the Lord” in services with seldom-to-no opportunities for being baptized with the Holy Spirit, and a general lack of knowledge among parishioners. As mentioned before, the Apostle Paul wanted every Believer to speak in unknown tongues and be fully equipped for their respective ministry. In that sense it does not seem to be a strategic option.
Some believe that receiving this grace of speaking in unknown tongues is involuntary and a predetermined gift from God. They say some do and some don’t. Some need it and some don’t. Wrong!
Some of the more modernistic views seem to attempt redefining Christianity to match contemporary experience. In other words, since many Belivers do not speak in tongue, that must be the standard of Christian behavior. The standard is well defined in scripture. Rather, the effort should be to elevate the experience of all Belivers to the standard stated by the Apostle Paul.
Now to conclude on a positive, let us consider the following.
Worshipers will certainly agree that gratitude and joy can erupt into a praise language. At these times of intimate communication as children of the Lord God Most High, the Lord Jesus and The Holy Spirit, a love language prevails.
Mostly it is a prayer language useful throughout every day or night and at any time during the mundane process of living with the intent of praying without ceasing. Then during episodes of fear, pain, concern or despair, it is a language of intercession or crying out to God for help.
Since it by-passes the mind-function, one can multi-task by praying and driving a car, for example, with great success without any distraction. After years of participation, one may discover themself praying quietly under their breath while doing intense computer work at the office. Again, speaking in an unknown language is voluntary as an intellectual choice of the soul-capacity.
Finally, here are some personal summary thoughts hopefully to provoke and encourage Spirit-driven consideration. Let me phrase it as one speaking to you personally.
In one sense I have never heard God speak to me audibly. In another sense I audibly hear Him speak often. It is a good practice to listen to yourself speak. It will tell you much about yourself.
When speaking in tongues in love, you are verbalizing the speech of The Holy Spirit in an unknown language. Since it is the Holy Spirit speaking, the prayer or message is perfectly phrased, complete in content and exclusively focused on the will of God. Within the manifold will of God, it may be praising our Heavenly Father or worshiping King Jesus. It may be intercession for the salvation of family, friends or enemies. It may be asking for wisdom or protection. It may be symultanously joining many others worldwide in the creative spoken current word of God for the local or universal Church. Who knows what is being said unless there is an interpretation? Interpretation is another subject. The primary point in this essay is the importance is the original speech of the Holy Spirit.
As important as it is, I understand my thoughts and prayers in my known language are filtered. Every language has limited power. So it is with the American version of English. Perhaps, Hebrew or Greek would be better. Furthermore, vocabulary and phrasing are other limitations. Worst of all, is the influence of my nature (flesh). Speaking in unknown tongues is one element of crucifying my nature. The writer of the Epistle of James tells us how powerful is the tongue. My nature is reluctant to give up control of the tongue. Speaking in an unknown tongue surrenders that capacity of the body to the control of the Holy Spirit.
Even this essay is subject to all these limitations of a known language and my understanding. To fully understand what I am trying to communicate will need to be corrected, amplified and taught by the Holy Spirit as you read it. I fully understand and readily accept that. However, I have the confidence the Holy Spirit is teaching me the truth of the matter exceedingly beyond my ability to communicate in writing.
Surely Jesus did not speak in tongues. He only said what He heard the Father saying to Him. His nature was not corrupted like ours. All those nights He fellowshipped with Our Heavenly Father were pure communication. All those days of ministry were no different. Nevertheless, He knows our needs and condition. He also fully knows the power and necessity of our communication with God. How amazing and wonderful is our God! In His mercy we are given the privilege and responsibility to creatively speak His will on this earth in a pure language.
One day–more precisely in one second–speaking in tongues will be obsolete. As wonderful as that grace is now, our glorified being with it’s new capacities and functions will then know the language of God and be able to speak in that known language only. Until that day, the Holy Spirit keep us on the track of becoming like our Lord Jesus! And convinces us to make ourselves available to His grace of speaking in unknown tongues in love by His power and ability.
After Lavina and I have spoken our praise and petitions in English at our evening time of devotion, we typically close our session with a duet in crescendo of pure praying in the Holy Spirit. We understand this is the perfect will of our Heavenly Father being spoken and is the highlight of our communication with Him.
Dear Lord Jesus, thank You for Your love and graces! Amen and Amen!
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