If you are a Pentecostal, an Apostolic, or an evangelical Christian who believes in glossolalia, the spiritual phenomenon referred to as “speaking in tongues,” this little essay may be of interest to you, but if you are a nonbeliever in the concept of spiritual edification through an experience such as glossolalia, don’t waste your time. Even if you read it you probably wouldn’t believe it…which, of course, is your inalienable right. Actually, the idea of “believing” in speaking in tongues is somewhat misleading. Those who do not believe are those who have never experienced the phenomenon and as a result will never have to worry about the experience. Interestingly however, for those who aspire to experience speaking in tongues, belief in the possibility is a prerequisite to the experience. Finally, to those who have experienced the sensation, it becomes no longer a matter of belief but a matter of fact. The “believer” becomes a “knower.” “Receiving the Holy Ghost” becomes as much an incontrovertible fact as the daily rising and setting of the sun.
This essay has not been written to convince anyone via biblical scriptures of the validity of “speaking in tongues as the spirit gives the utterance” (to quote a famous verse.) It is assumed that the reader has already read the many scriptures referring to the experience and understands that receiving the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues was one of the foundations of the early church and is still evident in the 21st century. What I would like to talk about for a few sentences are my own experiences with the phenomenon over the past many years. First let me discuss my general observations of how speaking in tongues works in most church congregations…that is to say, those congregations which in fact do “believe.”
The date/time that a believer speaks in tongues for the first time…and concurrently changes from a “believer” to a “knower”...is the moment that the believer is said to have “received the Holy Ghost.” That date is celebrated as a spiritual birthday for when he/she is “born again” of the spirit. That moment fulfills and repeats the experience mentioned many times in the New Testament concerning believers being “filled with the Holy Ghost, with the evidence of speaking in tongues.” So the first time a believer experiences speaking in tongues is with the initial infilling of the Holy Ghost.
In addition, throughout a believer’s life there will be moments of close spiritual relationship with God…usually moments of intense praise or worship…when the phenomenon of speaking in tongues will reappear. Both scriptures and ministers refer to these moments as times of “refreshing” or “blessing.” Whatever the reason or God’s purpose, the result is generally a strengthening of the resolve of the recipient to continue to attempt to live a life which is pleasing to God. These moments of speaking in tongues may be during very personal prayer time and done in a quiet emotional manner or loudly in a church during a noisy emotional group worship and praise service. Unlike the initial receiving of the Holy Ghost, which signifies a spiritual rebirth of a person, these moments of praise and speaking in tongues reflect simply instances of intense blessing and refreshing. They are memorable moments of a more personal spiritual communication with our God.
The frequency of these special blessing moments varies with each person. There are some persons who, after the initial receiving of the Holy Ghost, seldom if ever speak in tongues again for the rest of their lives; there are others, however, who seem to have the ability (or spirituality) to speak in tongues practically on a daily basis. After all, even the great Apostle Paul stated that he was happy he “spoke in tongues more than you all.” I have neither the scriptural knowledge nor personal wisdom to judge a person on the frequency of his/her speaking in tongues, but I do not believe that the frequency of tongues is evidence of a person’s spirituality. In fact, I suspect that the measure of value of the frequency of tongues may be closely related to a law of economics, namely the law of supply, which states the greater the supply of a commodity, the lower the value. A person who cannot walk into a church house without speaking in tongues cheapens the value of the experience. As in the economic law of supply, there is a point of equilibrium where the frequency of supply represents the true value.
The third use of tongues in scripture is described in the book of Isaiah when the prophet wrote, “With stammering lips and an unknown tongue will He speak to his people.” There are moments in a church service, usually moments of quiet and intense prayer, when a minister or even a member of the congregation will begin to speak in tongues. Inevitably during these moments a quiet hush will engulf the audience and a deep, reverential spirit will sweep the room. If the moment is right, a few seconds later, another audience member or minister will begin to repeat the spiritual message, but this time in English (or the home language of the congregation) so that all can understand what instruction or edification God may have for the listeners. It is a time of intense personal self-evaluation, and many times the message is one of encouragement and personal reconsecration.
There is another aspect to all three types of speaking in tongues I have described…that of the accompanying spirit that complements each evidence of speaking in tongues. Because speaking in tongues is a physical manifestation of a spiritual move of God, it can be duplicated easily by persons who wish to misrepresent their spirituality. I have a close friend who, when he was seeking God in his earlier years, was taken into an office by a Pentecostal minister and told he would “teach him how to speak in tongues.” My good friend, although young in his spiritual walk, knew there was more to speaking in tongues than learning a few syllables of unintelligible gibberish. He received his own Holy Ghost experience later.
Shirley and I have, over our many years of church attendance, been in countless services in which there was speaking in tongues. In the vast majority of cases, the accompanying spirit verified the validity of the worship we felt. But because humans will be, well, human, in every church there are occasions when the speaking in tongues is suspect. I am not a professional linguist, although I was Russian interpreter in the military years ago. When listening to a foreign language, however, I have learned to listen for repeated or common syllables or phrases, and even though I may not understand the meanings, I can recognize the repeated terms. Occasionally I can hear someone who begins to speak in tongues, and I can predict what they are going to say because they say the same phrases over and over again, service after service. I do not judge them; perhaps they have their own pet phrases in their communication with God. But the economic law of supply pops into my mind each time I hear them.
On June 4, 1958, about 11:00 p.m. on a Wednesday night at a Texas UPC Youth Camp, I received my personal Holy Ghost. Even though I was just a teenager, it was a euphoric, life changing experience, and I changed from a “believer” to a “knower.” Scoffers and doubters can discount the experience, but not to one who has truly felt the moment. Throughout the years during times of personal worship and instances of high praise in church services, I have spoken in tongues, but I would not describe myself as one who is quick to speak. I have always been somewhat of a realist who needed concrete proof of a concept before accepting it as fact. Even today during moments when I feel the spirit of God about me, I have a tendency to ask myself whether I am just feeling the emotion of the moment or whether it is in fact God’s spirit touching me. That probably explains why, even though I grew up in church, it took me until I was fifteen years old to receive the Holy Ghost…long after all my peers had enjoyed their own baptisms. The whole idea of speaking in tongues seemed far-fetched and unreachable for me…until it actually happened.
A few Sunday nights ago, I experienced a sensation that I have never felt in a church service in my 65 years of church attendance. We had a visiting minister who delivered a wonderful sermon, but to be totally honest I don’t remember what it was about, I guess because of the experience I had toward the end of the service.. At the end of his sermon the minister and the church began to pray and within a matter of minutes a spirit of deep, profound worship spread over the entire audience. There was no shouting, no noise…just a sort of cross between a moan and a sound of many voices fervently, yet quietly praying. The minister, with his sensitive and guiding spirit, told us to pray more fervently because “God is wanting to speak to us.”
I mentioned earlier the phenomenon of “tongues and interpretation” occurring during a church service. In most situation, those who speak in tongues during these times are said to have the “gift of tongues.” It is one of the gifts of the spirit that was given to the early church along with the gifts of faith, healing, discerning of spirits, and others. I have never considered myself as having any special gift (and still don’t), but when the minister instructed us to pray and “wait on the Lord,” I, in a matter of seconds, felt an overwhelming flood of spirit which prompted me to stand and raise my hands in intense worship. I began to weep and quietly praise Him under my breath. I wept, not with sadness, but an intense feeling of gratitude and humility, and the more I worshipped, the more I felt I needed to say something out loud. I began to speak in a low voice, and I was speaking in tongues, yet I could not bring myself to speak loudly as if to the church because, even as I spoke quietly, I felt unworthy and unqualified to be in such an esteemed situation. I was afraid that I would say something wrong or would stop the other unknown person in the audience who had the true message from delivering to the church what it needed to hear.
The church waited in hushed anticipation for what seemed like an eternity while I struggled with the spirit which I felt…a spiritual pressure to speak but a fear to do so. When it seemed like the moment of communication had nearly passed, a woman across the audience, a precious soul who has delivered messages in tongues before, began to speak. She spoke in tongues for just a short while, but then delivered the interpretation which struck me like a freight train. She said in her interpretation, “Fear not!…Fear not to desire and enjoy the manifestations of the spirit!” God was talking to the church, I’m sure, but the message was also telling me to not be afraid of being used by the spirit. I began to worship Him even more earnestly, grateful for His touch, and somewhat amazed that He would send a message I felt directly intended for me.
Days have passed since that moment, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I have dreamed about it and contemplated it, and also wondered, since I failed to follow His guiding spirit in that singular instance, will He ever touch me like that again. At the following Thursday night prayer meeting, I prayed with an earnestness I haven’t felt for a long time. It is not the phenomenon of speaking in tongues I desire, it is the feeling of the closeness of His spirit that so affected me that I will never forget it. It left me with a determination to reach more fervently for Him and to be sensitive to His spirit.