He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. (1 Corinthians 14:2)
Recently, a friend from my Bible college days (back in the 70s) asked about my experience of praying in tongues, how I first entered into it, whether it was something that happened unexpectedly or something I worked to attain.
It’s been so long now that I needed to take a little time to remember how it came about. It was not some sort of frenzy, or some big emotional experience. Quite the opposite. I had for a long time believed in the validity of speaking in tongues and that God was still doing today what He had done in the early days of the Church. Speaking in tongues was part of the heritage of the church I had grown up in (Christian and Missionary Alliance), and having been convinced of the biblical legitimacy of the gift, I was open to it. I didn’t do anything about it for many years, but I was open to it.
It was back in the late 80s, when I began learning to pray the Psalms, that things began to change. Up until then, I had always only prayed spontaneously, but now I was learning to pray words that were not my own extemporaneous ones. They were other people’s words — the words of David and the psalm writers. Holy Spirit inspired words, no doubt, but still the words that were not my own (not yet my own, anyway).
As I continued, I began to see the value of praying the words of the psalm writers and the prayers of others who had gone before me in the faith. My own words were so limited, and so also my prayers. But now my prayers began to be enlarged and my prayer life expanded in new directions.
After a while, it began to occur to me that praying in tongues was, likewise, not about my own words but words that somehow come from the Holy Spirit, who dwells in everyone who has been born again of the Spirit. And I started to understand some of the benefits of praying in tongues (see below). So now I was not just open to it, I began to desire it, and I started talking to the Lord about it. “Lord, if You’re willing, I’m willing.”
And I believed He indeed was willing — but I had no idea how to begin. After a while, it occurred to me to just start praying out some syllables and giving those to the Lord. I’m reminded of the story of the little girl whose mother came into her room one night and found her kneeling beside her bed, reciting the alphabet. The mother asked what she was doing and the little girl answered that she did not know how to pray, so she was giving all the letters to God for Him to make a prayer with. Well, I want God to be Lord not just over all the words of mouth and the meditations of my heart, but over all my syllables, too. So I started praying some out and giving them to God to do with whatever He wanted.
Was that just me, “priming the pump”? Perhaps. But I kept coming back to that every few days and, after a while, there began to be something of a flow to those syllables/words that was not coming from my conscious mind. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. For a while I would ask, “Is that You, Lord, or is that me?” I went on for months like that, wondering, but after a while I began to relax about it — whatever it was, I was giving it to God.
So I was praying in tongues. As I continued, I began to experience some wonderful benefits. For one thing, it is a way of speaking to God. The apostle Paul said, “He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God” (1 Corinthians 14:2). So it is a way of prayer and/or praise.
Paul also said that, in that same verse, that a person who speaks in tongues “speaks mysteries.” When I pray in tongues, I often have no idea of what I am praying about. But sometimes I do, especially when I have asked the Holy Spirit to help me pray about some person or situation. And sometimes I have a sense of what I am praying about because of what comes to my understanding as or afterwards. Praying in tongues is then, in a sense, something like “downloading” in the Spirit.
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. (1 Corinthians 14:14-15)Like Paul, I am happy to pray with the Spirit, and also to pray with the understanding. Sometimes there is an overlap between the two that I can discern. Sometimes not. If I have no understanding or particular sense about what I am praying, I do not let that bother me; I expect that God is speaking mysteries to me at a level of my spirit that goes beyond my understanding. And I expect that it will eventually trickle down to my understanding as needed.
My belief is that the Holy Spirit is always active in believers, working in us in ways that we do not necessarily understand. So I often pray and/or sing in tongues as a way of focusing on the Lord and welcoming the Spirit to do His work in me, whatever that work may be and whether or not I understand what He is doing at that moment.
I also correlate my experience of praying in tongues to Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:26. Not so much the “groanings that cannot be uttered” part, although I believe tongues can well be a part of that. But more in that the Holy Spirit “helps” us when we pray — because we do not know what or how we should pray! Sometimes I am moved to pray for some person or situation, but I have no idea how to approach it in prayer, and I find praying in tongues to be of particular benefit. I start praying in tongues, and then out of that I usually begin to know how to pray the matter with my understanding. What a coincidence!
(See also How Praying in the Spirit Helps Me)