I remember the day I began to pray in tongues. I was at a conference with Darlene Zshech of Hillsong Worship teaching about worship and prayer. The entire assembly of 10,000 people began praying in tongues together. I did not. I was not raised in a church environment that encouraged praying in tongues, and I had been quite content to dwell in the disdain expressed towards this sort of expressive “stuff”.
But my life had shifted. I had left my childhood religion for atheism… then I left atheism and agreed to and committed to a new life of Jesus-following. And here I stood in an auditorium surrounded by one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard in my life. It was like an Appalachian waterfall, full of mystery, joy, peace and energy unlike I had audibly heard… big and boisterous, soft and fluid… all at the same time. It was Holy. I was a witness to an other-worldly holiness. I was receiving the outpouring voice of the Spirit. I was glimpsing Heaven. My senses were shocked and overwhelmed; it took my breath away.
In a flash, I saw a vision of myself rejecting God’s invitation to travel forward in faith. So I checked my ego and fear and opened my mouth and put air across my vocal chords with timidity and the tiniest (and biggest) trust I could muster. For the last 15 years since, I have prayed in tongues privately and with others when appropriate / agreed upon in order to access this holy power and edify my self and others.
The Holy Spirit is not defined by praying in tongues - oh no. To indicate such a thing is nothing less than blasphemy. The Holy Spirit is the FULLNESS of the incarnation of the Father AND the Son, right HERE and NOW in this ever-fleeting and present moment. As Jesus prepared the Disciples to be left behind his holy journey through death and into eternity, He reassured them of a presence he was sending that would NEVER leave them alone. An Ever-Present Counselor was to come - so holy, so worthy of reverence was this Companion, that Jesus warned to never dare deride the Spirit or speak against it. God in the HERE and NOW must be revered and honored for the present and supernatural work of guiding us messy human beings forward into holiness.
From the beginning, God’s holiness existed outside of the flow of time, creating and resting, largely unseen and unapproachable because we chose at the Fall to seek our own divinity - to be like God rather than walk WITH God... Except for the wild prophets and Holy ones who were able to transcend the human experience of their day to access God in His holiness by rejecting their own claim of being it. But they were few and special, prophets and a couple kings, written and venerated for generations as humanity stumbled through its existence violating every commitment to God’s Way. Then Emmanuel! Jesus enters, God is incarnate, walking side by side with the ones who were alive during his 33 year life on earth. From manger to grave, He taught them, healed them, ministered to them and railed against their unholy, unbelieving habits. Then He submitted to the cross, was laid in the tomb, and 3 days later blew the lid off of the bindings of mortality itself, redeeming forever the Fall into Glory.
With life and death rearranged, the Holy Spirit, the ever-present Counselor began His reign on earth. Not one thing that has occurred to further the Gospel of Jesus has happened outside of the reign and realm of the Holy Spirit. Every prayer, every healing, every tear wiped, every hopeful word spoken, every Biblical word studied, is the act of the Holy Spirit. Every person cultivated through trial and grace into surrender to Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit. You and I have never chosen a single good thing that was not teased forth from us by the Holy Spirit’s guidance, nudges, orchestration of circumstance, and ever-present leadership. And how many times when we choose a lesser or even horrid choice, do we feel that presence within cautioning, warning, beseeching us to reconsider? Truth, goodness, kindness, selflessness, and servanthood are all us bearing witness to the presence of the invisible Holy God Here and Now.
Humans like to think we are the top of the pyramid. We grip tightly to false narratives of normalcy, achievement, health and even holiness itself, patting ourselves on the back when we get a little bit more of anything. Yet we are not even aware enough to recognize the baseness of the elements we elevate. We love flesh, good-feeling chemistry, evidence of wealth, things the Good Word describes as not just vapid, but vaporous. (We have even tried to insist certain versions of English throughout the history of that one, very recent language are more worthy than others to carry the message of Christ!)
How silly we are. We can no more contain God within our words and acquisitions than we can capture the roaring force of creation itself in a bottle. The human mind is created in the image of the Holy God… an echo of His nature, yet we insist reality is the inversion! No wonder, no mystery, no circumventing of natural law is outside the purview of God; we certainly can NOT claim the same within our humanity. The capacity of our minds and hearts and spirits is limited only by what God already orchestrated as we were knitted together within our mother’s wombs. Yet the Holy Spirit flows through us, eliminating these limitations and invading the world through our willingness to submit and offer. There is no element of nature that God can not recreate, heal, and speak life into HERE and NOW. We are simply the participating (and limiting) hosts of His Holy Power.
So briefly - back to praying in tongues. I have leaned into the Holy Spirit with the heart of an artist and the mind of a Jesus follower - who admittedly trained up in the sciences. I accept the exceptional and mysterious and still ask and investigate the mystery. So here is my take on praying in tongues:
Praying in tongues is an example of how human capacity limits the divinely unlimited God. Language is one of the hardest filters the activity of the human brain must pass through. Neurologically, speech is a complex process of distilling ideas into known and quantified bundles of words, sound, and expressions. Anyone who struggles with writing, speaking, public speaking, articulating their ideas KNOWS this personally. But what if you simply bypassed the entire paradigm? Could you not express yourself honestly and concisely in groans too deep for words? As a parent of a non-verbal child, I assure you, the essentials of the human experience come through with a rawness words minimize and limit!
And the truth is the ideas we articulate are often far different than what the hearer hears and internalizes! The relationship of interpreter to speaker is complex, social, and fraught with mis-understanding. Imagine landing on the shore of a new country in which your eloquence meant nothing because no one could receive or understand your speech?
This is the experience of God with humanity. God, the Ever-Present Counselor is always speaking - yet who can and will fully interpret the Holy One? Who is listening and feeling and able to filter to the “sounds” of God’s own never-ceasing voice into such a petty thing as an earthly language or human understanding?
Speaking in tongues submits to God’s use of the creation of sound waves into, through and over His creation. And then once those sound waves leave the vocal chords of the prayer, the interpreter of spoken tongues enters that same holy sound space. The sound bypass the hearer’s rational diagnosis of language patterns, again submitting to God’s use of ears and Spirit to interpret. It is the Holy Spirit using the speaker to communicate with the Holy Spirit through the interpreter! Without the encumbrances of the human language filters within the brain, both humans must release self power, and submit to know they only serve as a host to part of the communication that is not OF THEM. It is holy and mystery. It is communication entirely orchestrated by God yet breathed by our own breath.
And when alone, prayer in tongues is a holy communication of deep self yielding both speaking and hearing/ interpreting. No prayer word is ever wasted but is full of power! Each sound already offered by the Holy Spirit, when I pray in tongues I receive the blessing of being prayed over by God Himself. And I can testify to my own experience - no English word holds the emotional and spiritual power of the briefest utterance of my time in prayers in tongues. Because it is the Lord speaking through my body, mind, and spirit to the Lord. And it is POWER.
People often ask, is it an actual language? Well you would have to be quite a student of human lingual expression to know the answer to that! If it was needed by God to clearly speak to those with other languages, as it was after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts, I have no doubt God could and would and has done many times. I have uses the same sounds and “words” since the very first moment I prayed at that conference - and I hear other people who pray in tongues with a distinctive “dialect”. I assume that means something. No, I haven’t a clue WHICH human language it might be - and frankly that is hardly the point because both the creation of sound, and receiving of the sound is entirely dwelling in the moment with the Holy Spirit… so who knows what the natural / atheistic world would see and hear? Possibly nothing at all. But isn’t that the way this entire experience of faith works? Even that with great power appears as folly to those who will not partake of the goodness.
Praying in tongues is nothing to fear, rather a great gift of time and presence and power by, with, and in the Holy Spirit.