Speaking In Tongues

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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.

20 comments:

  1. I was raised Pentecostal church of God and am now an orthodox inquirer. Several years ago I watched a video about the kundalini spirit and it shocked me. I cant say that every manifestation is false but will say that I feel it is not as common as full gospel charismatic churches exhibit. And the current culture of todd bently bethel and jesusculture is nothing short of demonic.

    1. I would avoid calling any manifestation demonic without overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For me, most of the tongue speaking I was raised with was more of a subculture experience based on both repetitive hearing of it (you can actually “learn” how to do it if you hear it enough) and peer pressure.

      I can say with absolute assurance that none of this was motivated by evil, but a genuine desire for the spiritual joy the experience brought to many who encouraged me to speak in tongues. It was well intentioned and motivated by a deep commitment to the experiences we read about in the Bible.

      But, as with all spiritual manifestations that are not informed by a consistent and clear continuity with the experience of the Church through the centuries, we were left to our own devices as to discerning the true nature of our practice. This necessarily impoverishes the depth of spiritual health possible. One of m y most profound discoveries as an Orthodox was to read how many of the Fathers considered the “prayer of the heart” or the spirituality of hesychasm to be comparable with the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues as the spirit praying within me.

      This is why I’ve found this “kindergarten” approach to be less than helpful when discerning the value and the motivation for the modern phenomenon of speaking in tongues. This isn’t meant to be an insult (though I know it is taken as such) but an attempt to understand my own experiences as a former Pentecostal.

      I thank God for my upbringing in the Pentecostal world since it was precisely that culture that enabled me to appreciate the whole nature of “mystery” and to put in perspective my (and all human’s ) natural desire for an intimacy with God that transcended intellect.

  2. Fr., does this negate the validity and practice of speaking in tongues privately in one’s prayers and meditations? It seems Paul was not forbidding the practice (it is a gift of the Spirit) but only restricting its use in public worship.

    1. Robert, I would never suggest that the practice is forbidden, or whether the gift is “valid” or “invalid.” What I do caution against is assuming one or the other in a vacuum. We were meant to depend on the discernment of the whole Church before we call any practice helpful or unhelpful. We Orthodox don’t do things in isolation. So, I would counsel any Orthodox Christian to submit their regular prayer practice to their confessor for discernment. For me, my experience of speaking in tongues ceased when I entered the Church. It simply hasn’t happened since my chrismation. But, if it did, I would submit this experience to my father confessor so that I would not assume my own internal wisdom is enough to bring me to spiritual health.

      And I agree, St. Paul was not forbidding the practice, but I would caution in assuming the modern expression of “speaking in tongues” was what St. Paul was talking about. Ecstatic utterances are a common religious manifestation in many religions and should not be assumed to be wise or spiritually healthy in and of themselves. We Orthodox are in communion with each other and God uses that communion to both protect us from “prelest” (Spiritual pride) and delusion.

      Hope that helps, Robert

  3. Thank you for this. My own church encourages tongues and my daughter who is 15 has just begun the practice. I have ‘spoken in tongues’ in the past and agree very much that it can be a learned practice, it certainly was in my experience. I appreciate the balance of the Orthodox view.

    1. Dear Kay,

      It is such an honor to have you here with us. Thank you for your note.

      My own experience with the wisdom of the timeless faith has taught me much trouble and foolishness can be avoided by humbly learning this wisdom.

      As a former Pentecostal, myself, I remember telling my dad that I was converting to the Orthodox Church and explaining to him that it was like discovering a fireplace for my fire.

      Anyone who knows me or has heard me preach can tell I have been heavily shaped by my Pentecostal upbringing. And I am grateful to God for such a heritage.

      But I am also grateful to God that I now have a wonderful “fireplace for my fire” so that zeal is coupled with wisdom.

      May God bless you and your family, and thank you for being a part of our online community. If you ever have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

  4. I think, tongues is one of the most misused gifts to show faith. And for that reason, it is also one of the most mocked.

    They’re are people who believe babies are talking in tongues, that you can learn and practice and gain this gift. Some people think, you just have to babble and overtime you will get this gift. I think all these are false.

    My Ethiopian friend who is an devout Orthodox Christian and was a even a prisoner of conscience for his faith at one time was quite insistently invited to a pentecostal church which indoctrinated in the members that true faith and presence of God and coming down of the Holy Spirit manifested itself in speaking in tongues and their interpretation by members of the congregation.

    He was then repeatedly told to open his heart and will to God so that the Spirit might act on him and he might speak in tongues. Finally, he gave up and though he felt a fraud, knew he had to do something to be let off the hook. So, he decided and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Amharic, his mother tongue. The congregation went into a frenzy, and a woman jumped up screaming she had been given the gift of interpretation. She had not.

    On the other side of the spectrum, a friend who attended a Christian service in Papua New Guinea on a mission trip suddenly was able to join in the Praise and Worship there fully though she had previously not known or been exposed to the language before.

    1. I have heard such stories before. There is no way for us to know the hearts of those around us well enough to judge their true intentions and motivations. We must leave that to God.

      But the wisdom of the Church in the lives of the saints have been left to us so that we can humbly learn and avoid the pitfalls set for us by the evil one.

      Committing one’s life to repentance and prayer is the path to spiritual maturity.

  5. Father

    I also grew up in a Pentecostal Church and witnessed speaking in tongues followed by interpretation by the same individual and at other times a different individual. Prophesy was another witnessed event. These were elders of the Church. I never felt this was done for admiration or edification. I still struggle with understanding the mysteries of the Holy Spirit but I also have faith and accept some things are beyond understanding. I am thankful for your ministry and this blog. God grant you many years.

    1. Thanks for the note, Jason. I remember many times growing up hearing both messages in tongues and prophecies.

      I, frankly, never doubted the sincerity of the people doing this. But I’ve come to be cautious and submissive to the wisdom of the Church to discern the wisdom of such practices.

  6. More than 30 years ago a Pentecostal fellow-student told me about a woman at her church who “spoke in tongues” just about every Sunday, but — my friend said — “She says the same thing every time.” “Does somebody interpret?” I asked. “Yes,” my friend answered. “And is the interpretation the same every time?” I asked. “No,” she replied.

  7. The patristic understanding of Paul’s teaching about tongues has to do with the prayer of the heart, or the Jesus Prayer. Praying in tongues is a silent phenomenon, biblically speaking.

    In the Greek, Paul says that tongues don’t benefit the whole not because no one “understands” them, but because “no one hears” them (οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἀκούει). It’s not that this prayer is unintelligible—it’s inaudible.

    Charismatics likewise misunderstand the accusations of drunkenness. They think this means that praying in tongues must have some kind of ecstatic, raucous, bawdy appearance. But the biblical look of tongues is less like loud, belligerent college tailgating and more like the lonely drunk contemplating all that he’s lost while hovering above an empty glass.

    Look at the first instance of being thought drunk while praying in tongues:

    ‘As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”’ 1 Sam 1:12-14

    That’s not to say there might not be a more audible form of tongues. There’s definitely the understanding foreign tongues of Pentecost, for one thing. But overall Orthodoxy praises intelligibility in its communal prayers. This is amplified by the word-painting of Byzantine chant. Because praying in tongues, i.e. The prayer of the heart is a private and often inaudible form of prayer (μυστικώς), it’s reserved for one’s prayer rule rather than communal worship.

  8. Dear Father Barnabus,
    Thank you for your blog on praying/speaking in tongues. It’s something I’ve noticed most Orthodox leadership stays away from. (or am I just not properly plugged in? Dunno…!)

    But I’ve been rather dismayed over my years as an Orthodox convert by the generally negative and dismissive attitude of many Orthodox toward praying or speaking in tongues. Obviously Paul addresses it as an important topic, and puts it in proper perspective. At no time does he say it’s something false, nor something to be avoided as “not good enough” in any way. Rather, he urges people to regard it as a possible part of private prayer, or to be done only with interpretation, if public. He has seen it used in ways that are disruptive and not edifying to the body as a whole (in a congregational setting). Yet he himself has found it profoundly powerful and useful in prayer. So he is talking about something real, something good, and something to be used appropriately. He addressed the Corinthians in particular, which says that THEY had some issues with this gift; not that the gift is a problem in itself.

    I think we should keep in mind that not everyone is “a Corinthian.” We’re not all rowdy, unruly and looking for histrionics in our worship and prayer lives. Praying in tongues is a totally Godly gift, used to great avail if used properly, which Paul describes clearly for us…as we lean in and hear what he says to his chosen audience. After all, it’s a good admonition to anyone who wants to be sure they’re doing things properly.

    So over the past 40 plus years I have been amazingly blessed by praying in tongues, when led by the Holy Spirit to do so.

    In one case, God used this “gift” when my newborn son’s life was in danger. He was less than two hours old, and was in the premature infants intensive care unit. I had just fallen asleep on another floor and wing of the hospital, when I was suddenly awakened with the intense urge to pray, with no idea what to pray about, and then found myself sort of gushing into praying in the unknown language I had come to know as the gift of tongues. As I prayed, I felt great power rushing through me, as if something huge were happening. (I had just given birth; believe me, there was no power of my own!)

    To cut the story short, I prayed in tongues for a good 7-8 minutes, and then found myself praying the same prayer in English – (I could tell this was the interpretation), which was very specific and detailed, concerning a breathing crisis which was ensuing at that moment with my son, far from me in the hospital.
    After praying in English, which included very detailed requests for God to open the eyes of the doctors and show them what the problem was and what to do about it – which didn’t really make sense to me – they were experts in neonatal preemie care, after all – I was soon dozing off again in complete peace.

    But just then a doctor came into my room, and told me that at the exact time I had begun praying in tongues (there was a clock staring me in the face on the wall in front of me, and I noticed that it was about 1 a.m and wondered why I was suddenly praying instead of sleeping)…there had been a crisis with my baby.

    He described everything I had prayed, first in tongues and then in English, including a perplexing inability of the entire team of nine to see what the problem was, and then, suddenly, a clear understanding of what was wrong and what to do about it.

    He said, “It was the strangest thing we had every experienced – the team and I – it was as if we were blind, unable to see what the problem was, and then, suddenly we could see, and we just knew what to do. And your baby is fine now.”

    I didn’t even know there WAS a problem until the Spirit woke me up and just started praying through me (I think that’s an okay way to describe it). The doctor astounded me by telling me exactly what I had prayed would happen. They were literally blinded by the enemy (this was part of the prayer) from seeing the simple problem and the medical solution (a minor surgical procedure).

    Today my son is 35 and in perfect health.

    I’ve been Orthodox for over 20 years now, and there are still times when the Holy Spirit urges me to “give utterance” – to allow Him to pray through me – in words and sentences I totally do not recognize, and certainly did not learn from someone else. I’m imitating no one. There is a certain feeling, as of a mighty wind rushing through my entire being when this happens, and it exits my mouth with what I sense as great prayer power. I don’t usually get an interpretation: I just know that God has allowed me to contribute in prayer to someone or something in ways that are beyond my own puny ability to imagine what is most needed. It is truly a gift, as Paul calls it, as it blesses me – I feel so alive, so one with Christ, and so “well used” – for God’s purposes. This occurs when I am alone, usually during regular prayer times, but also at other times. I can be cooking dinner, and suddenly know I need to pray – and I find myself praying in tongues. (turn off the stove, please!)

    I have also been present, just once about 35 years ago, when a group of pseudo Christians, a cult called The Way International had a gathering. I went only because a friend was being sucked into this cult, and I thought that maybe if I attended, she would then attend one of my Bible study-prayer groups, and perhaps be saved. As this “prayer” group got started, someone said, “Brother Tim will give the message in tongues, and Sister Sue will give the interpretation. Then I will close in prayer.” I thought this was odd, as my experience had been that the Holy Spirit would move in this way when HE wanted to – not on command!

    The next instant, Tim started uttering all sorts of odd syllables. I had heard plenty of genuine tongues by Christian friends, which was always a real blessing – the presence of the Lord was always palpable. This was not that. My skin crawled, the sounds were indisputably ugly, and I felt the presence of evil…anyone who has felt this knows what I mean. As soon as this introductory part of the evening ended, I excused myself to use the bathroom, and then just quietly slipped out the door and left all together. My friend stayed, and was later totally devastated by them, including being convinced to sign her house and savings over to them. I mention this just to show that there are “tongues” that are not at all what Paul was talking about – they are counterfeit, to put a polite spin on it.

    Praying in tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit, along with so many others. Paul took time to explain this. It is not given to everyone, nor should everyone assume it’s for them. God knows to whom He wants to give what. But it is a great personal blessing, especially when interceding for others…I have often thought it is to help in my weakness as a pray-er. I’m weak, and God provides this added strength in prayer. I so often don’t know what’s going on in various people’s lives (those on my prayer list, or others I hear about) but as I yield my being to Him, He prays through me. I get peace that something good will result from such pure prayer.

    To end, I’ll just say that I don’t see this as the same thing as the Jesus Prayer, as some have mentioned here. That prayer is utterly unique in itself, and of course has potential to do great good. But it’s not praying in unknown tongues. We know the words of the Jesus prayer. It functions differently, at least in my life.

    I understand that someone who has never experienced the Holy Spirit flowing through them and coming out in what to me is a beautiful but totally unknown language, complete with sentences, paragraphs, and emotion…sometimes tears, often with deep compassion, sometimes with joy, etc., would have no way of relating to the idea. And that is perfectly fine. It is a very humbling experience, and a very blessed one, but so are other ways of praying. We should not compare ourselves to others, and should also not think that because we haven’t experienced something from God, it is not real or legitimate or good.

    I pray that this offering is edifying, as intended. Thank you and bless your ministry.

    1. Dear Felicity, thank you for your note.

      Your note hit several points that I resonate with in my own experience. As for tongues in my life, they have ceased. Perhaps this is a particular discipline for my own salvation. I would never suggest that this is the across the board wisdom for all people.

      However, I also read and experience the wisdom of the Fathers in warning me against my own self-delusion when it comes to such experiences. This is why I always counsel my spiritual children to submit their experiences to a trusted spiritual father that can and should provide an extra layer of accountability for these precious spiritual children of mine.

      It is in personal and accountable communion that a spiritual father can observe the spiritual fruit in his children’s lives, and can best offer humble guidance when asked.

      The power to delude ourselves is great, and this is why St. Paul offered such spiritual wisdom to the Corinthians and us for our spiritual health and maturity.

      Thank you for your interaction and God bless you.

      1. Fr Barnabus, thanks so much for your reply.

        During my time as a catechumen, I discussed this with my priest. He was a convert too, from Lutheranism. He was fully supportive of it, which was a real blessing to me. I think if he had been condemning of the idea, I would have been suspicious of the church itself, as a newcomer, due to what the Bible does have to say about it. Fortunately, this didn’t happen.

        He came to know me as a sober, serious Christian, and never seemed worried about me over the years I was in his parish (then we moved far away). He was always very encouraging to me every step of the way, both before and after Chrismation. I’ll always be grateful to him.

        The next priest in my life was a convert too, from much the same sort of background I had – so this was nothing shocking to him. It wasn’t a big issue in any way. As you said, the priest can evaluate our spiritual growth and maturity, which is a blessed safeguard which I treasure.

        It was only the advent of the internet that showed me that some Orthodox see it as a negative thing. I was so surprised to learn of this outlook! It’s not something I talk about with people – I realize it’s a touchy subject for many – but I wanted you to know that I enjoyed seeing what you had to say about it – more balanced than some of what I’d heard to date. Again, thank you!

  9. Thank you all for your comments. Apparently, this subject generated quite a bit of interest. Would you like to see me write more about this subject?

    God bless you all for your partnership with Faith Encouraged Ministries.

  10. 1. I would like to see a direct statement on the overall Orthodox teaching of the gift.

    2. I was raised Jewish and entered into Christianity as a bapticostal. In so much as my first church experiences were a Baptist church for awana and a charasmatic church for services. I left the a few years ago excommunicated for varient beliefs, long long story, and am now looking into Orthodoxy but, due to experiences, simply can not believe the gifts have ceased. I do believe they are often abused but..I remember hitting a dark point in my life but telling no one at all it was a struggle I went through alone as I begged God to help me through it. Well, one day the youth pastor at the church messaged me and said something like: “God spoke to a member of the congregation, he told her what you are going through and she told us. (My note:Mind you I didnt really know this person at all) We are praying for you, but be strong the ememy wants to shut you up, he wants you to cease believing and cease confessing your faith.”

    What was I to make of words that addressed my exact mind set when I had told no one of the inner conflict? There were other things they taught that I didnt think were in line with Scripture, why I left, but that’s beside the point.

    Id just like, if you don’t mind, an article that addresses what the Orthodox fathers taught on this subject? If any were cessationists? And if tounges could, as I mostly understand it, best relate to world languages. Surely our faith is largely coprate but not exclusively.

    Blessings

    1. Dear Jordan,

      Thank you for your note and your comments/questions.

      Let me say this right off the bat: Orthodoxy is going to frustrate you. Period. Your desire for a “direct statement” is a problem since each person created in God’s image to be made into His likeness is free, unique, and unrepeatable. So, Orthodoxy is more about observing the actions of the Holy Spirit than describing them.

      Next, there is no way the Orthodox would ever say any of the gifts of the Spirit have ceased since the gifts of the Spirit aren’t “things” in themselves, but God’s grace given to persons who need that grace. So, Orthodoxy focuses on the Giver, not the gifts. This is decidedly different than the Western theological model of dissection and “systematic” theology. But, it’s also very frustrating to those of us formed with such a “scientific” method of understanding our world.

      Finally, look at some of the other comments in the comm box and learn how the Orthodox think about “the Prayer of the Heart” or noetic prayer. Here you will begin to explore the spirituality that both celebrates the grace of God given to us and the wise discernment that means I don’t live my Christian life or learn the faith by myself, but in communion with the Church.

      This is a serious spiritual journey, Jordan, that you will not be able to appreciate alone. If there is an Orthodox Church near you, go and stand for 4 months every Sunday in the Church during liturgies and prayer times. Listen. Observe. Ask questions. But if you try to simply “learn” about the faith without this proactive participation, you are guaranteed to misunderstand some very important points. I wish you well and ask God’s blessings on you.

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