It’s one of (if not the) fastest growing forms of Christianity in the world, and it’s the movement I came from when I converted to Orthodoxy so many years ago. I’m talking about the Pentecostal movement. And one of the most distinctive aspects of Pentecostalism is something called “speaking in tongues.” Every month I get some question or comment or inquiry about my attitude about this supernatural phenomenon so I thought I’d take this opportunity of today’s lesson to talk about it.
First, “speaking in tongues” or glossolalia as it is known, is a common religious phenomenon in practically every religion from paganism to even Islam. The ecstatic utterance inspired by some spirit is as old as humanity itself. So, it isn’t surprising to have some form of this spiritual; manifestation present in Christian history. But, how are Orthodox Christians suppose to “be the bee” and find that which is edifying and good in this while avoiding the bad?
Look at our lesson today in 1 Corinthians 14:6-19:
BRETHREN, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning; but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. Therefore, he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
St. Paul is still trying to get those lovable, but unruly Corinthians to be sober in their faith. And it seems like there were a lot of folks who spoke in tongues there. But their lack of discipline, sobriety, and love for one another had reduced their gatherings to shameful displays.
First Paul insists that when the Church gathers, it be about “us” not “me.” One of my own challenges as I was moving away from Pentecostalism was the very self-centered nature of m y spiritual experiences. It was all about making me feel better. I was using faith like a drug to numb my pain and to change my mood. But the timeless faith is about the real spiritual struggle of becoming like Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, most experiences of speaking in tongues today is motivated by that very self-centered spirit. This is the first clue that this spiritual manifestation needs to be examined closely before we Orthodox say this is healthy!
Next, St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to desire being understood more than being emotionally satisfied. This goes to the heart of my own suspicion about the modern manifestation of speaking in tongues. I know some will say “But, father, this is my prayer language in my private prayer closet.” I understand that but we do not live for ourselves in the Orthodox faith. We live for others. And my desire should always be to be understood and to teach and communicate the mysteries of the Faith well for my hearers and not some attempt to wow them with my spiritual manifestations. Of course, being understood in our worship services has many more implications as well!
Finally, my own experience with speaking in tongues ceased when I was chrismated into the Church. Perhaps this was a particular discipline for me to move me away from the habit-forming emotional religious experiences of my past, but I no longer speak in tongues, and I’m happy with that. All religious experiences have to be placed under the loving and wise scrutiny of a loving community, the Church. We have to avoid the “me” mentality of religious experiences and learn the power of living with the wisdom of the timeless faith.
Today, are your religious experiences under the tutelage of the timeless Church? Or are you insisting that your faith medicate you into avoiding the true remedy of your soul? It’s not easy being Orthodox on Purpose.