Praying With Understanding in Worship Services (Thurs. August 4)

The word of the day is “understanding.”  Some equate the mystical with the esoteric.  They believe that the more incomprehensible the utterance, the more sacred the speech is.  This claim is like the boast of those who “spoke in tongues” in the congregation at Corinth.  These troublemakers who could utter strange sounds boasted that they had superior spiritual knowledge.  Their speech may have been ecstatic, but it had no message that could be communicated to others.

In response to this bragging, in today’s reading of 1 Corinthians 14:6-9, the apostle minimizes the importance of unintelligible speech.  The ecstasy of those who boasted about being carried away into a higher mystical state, did not do anyone else any good he said.  Instead, he recommended praying with “understanding” (v. 5) so that all would be edified.

Praying with the Understanding of the Mind

Paul’s rule was that all that is said and done in the church must be understood.  The word that The Orthodox Study Bible translates as “understanding” here is the Greek term for “mind.,”   the  faculty of reasoning and knowing (Strong’s #3563, 173).  Thus, the term refers to the mind’s comprehension.  It especially denotes the mind’s ability to grasp the will and ways of God.  Accordingly,  Paul says that the “mind”  should not be despised.  Accordingly he proclaims, “I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with understanding” (1 Cor. 14:15).  Thus, the apostle teaches that spirit and understanding, as well as soul and mind, are not opposed to each other.

To Respond to the Word Hearers Must Understand It

Yet, the latter is greater than the former.  The truth of God cannot be communicated except through the mind’s understanding.  This is true whether revelation, knowledge, or proclamation expresses the message (vs. 6).  If the hearers of the divine truth are to respond to the proclamation of the Word of God, they must first comprehend it. Therefore, Paul rules that everything said in the church must be plain so that it will speak to others, edify them, and build them up in their spirit” (vs. 12).

Finally, the underscore his teaching,, Paul writes that he has more ability to “speak in tongues” than everyone in his flock.  Yet, he declares, “In the church, I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (OSB 1 Cor. 14:19).  St. John Chrysostom explains, “For the one hath but display only; the other, great utility: this being what he everywhere seeks, I mean the common profit” (NfPf1:12, 212).  He adds that he does not “speak in tongues” for his own “vain-glory” but that he might “render the hearers better” (NfPf1:12, 212).

Once again, our reading urges a change in our focus and aspirations.  Before he has taught that all we do should be for the benefit of others.  No we instructs that all we say should be for the good of others, especially our fellow members of the Body of Christ.

For Reflection

In “Speaking in Tongues: An Orthodox Perspective, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website teaches: “Many Christian writers, certainly the mystics, wrote about states of ecstasy during praise and worship, of seeing visions of God’s heavenly kingdom, of what they perceived eternal life with Christ to be, of how the Holy Spirit spoke to them and through them, to others.  But theirs was always understood, intelligible, comprehensible communication.  Perhaps they could not describe in earthly and material frames of reference, what they saw and experienced, but they were conscious and fully aware of what was happening.  They were not in some state of senselessness.  Even the monks on Mount Athos, who experience divine communication and have reached a plateau of holiness, do not speak in tongues.  They speak in words that are intelligible and utter clear words in hymn and praise of God and His truth” (2005).

Works Cited

  1. “Speaking in Tongues: An Orthodox Perspective.” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.


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