Ten Myths About Speaking In Tongues

Chris Heinz —  September 13, 2011 — 18 Comments

hillbillyThe first time I heard someone speak in tongues, I thought he was speaking Greek. That’s because I took Greek in college and wasn’t good at it. And because of that, I didn’t know what Greek really sounded like. After I figured out it wasn’t Greek, I realized that maybe it was tongues. I would have preferred Greek.

But tongues are what it was. Up to that point the only experience I had with tongues was something I read somewhere, and in the corner of my memory, a distant corner folded down beneath gray matter, I remembered tongues had to be interpreted. Immediately I knew this to be fact because I was uncomfortable, and when you’re uncomfortable, it’s because something is wrong.

That’s what I thought, at least. (I was a lot younger then). But he was really on a roll and I wasn’t the type to interrupt sincerity, so I let him finish. And I never saw him again.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about tongues, and wish to debunk some popular myths. Had I known these things then, the guy and I might have become friends and had some laughs; he might even have taught me something.

1. There is only one kind of tongues—speaking in tongues.
Actually, there are three kinds of tongues, although often we incorrectly call them all “speaking in tongues.” One is the supernatural ability to speak in a foreign language that you have not previously learned. Usually the ability is temporary and limited. Another is receiving a message from God in tongues. This functions as prophecy. The third is a private prayer language that enables the person to connect with God beyond human language.
(Foreign language—Acts 2.1-13; Like prophecy with interpretation—1 Cor. 14.26; Prayer language—1 Cor. 14.14-15)

2. Tongues always have to be interpreted.
This is true if the tongues refer to delivering a message from God (like prophecy). Unless the tongues are interpreted in a language that people can understand, there is no point. The speaker might as well recite the tax code with marbles in his mouth. But on the other hand, if someone is praying in tongues and it happens to be overheard, no interpretation is necessary. This happens sometimes in corporate worship.
(With no interpretation, the speaker can pray to God in tongues—1 Cor. 14.28)

3. People who pray in tongues are crazy and handle snakes in the backwoods.
I used to think that people who prayed in tongues were uneducated hillbillies who played with snakes during their church services. That was before I met anyone who prayed in tongues. Since then I’ve come to know some pretty sophisticated and upstanding people who do. I still think there are tongues in the backwoods, but I’ve come to discover they’re in college classrooms as well.
(Paul spoke in tongues more than anyone, but was probably more educated than anyone—1 Cor. 14.18; Paul said not to forbid tongues—1 Cor. 14.39)

4. You have to wait for “the Spirit to move you” to pray in tongues.
The Bible says that spiritual gifts are given to us. This means that once we have them, they’re ours to use. So if we’ve been given the gift of tongues, we can pray in tongues whenever we want to—on an airplane, in the shower, while running. There are certain gifts we can just do, like practice hospitality, teach, and show mercy. Praying in tongues is one such gift. However, there are some gifts that are dependent upon God, like prophecy, words of knowledge, and delivering a message in tongues, but praying in tongues is not one of these.
(1 Cor. 12.7)

5. Human language is always adequate to communicate with God.
I think of tongues as spiritual poetry that expresses emotions when human words fail. God is spirit and we are citizens of heaven. Why would we expect our human language to cover all the fins and folds of our relationship with God? Sometimes our words just won’t do. This is the Almighty, after all, and we’ve been swept into the divine romance.
(1 Cor. 2.10-13)

6. When praying in tongues, you go into a trance and should be left in the corner to drool.
I’m sure this has happened in the course of human history. But so have dogs visiting the moon. Normally you have full control of your mind when you pray in tongues. You decide when to start and when to stop. You have regular function of communication skills. You might be surprised to learn that people around you were praying in tongues when you didn’t know it—that’s how normal they acted.
(1 Cor. 14.14-15)

7. There is no place for tongues today.
There is no place in the Bible that says tongues have ceased for today. Of all the spiritual gifts, tongues have probably met the most controversy. Some have misused them, either misunderstanding their application by accident, or using them to divide on purpose. But just because something brings controversy doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, the controversy might be because it’s right.
(Paul said not to forbid tongues—1 Cor. 14.39; In the same statement, Jesus said one sign of believers is that they preach and baptize, another is that they speak in tongues—Mark 16.15-17; we haven’t ceased to preach and baptize, so why should we cease to speak in tongues?)

8. If you don’t have the gift of tongues, you should stop asking God for it.
When it comes to asking for spiritual gifts, the Bible says to eagerly pursue them. There is no quotient for how much you’re allowed to ask for gifts. Instead, the biblical example is to be persistent. Often it’s the person who doesn’t give up who ends up receiving what she has asked for. However, it’s important to guard our hearts in asking and not become bitter or impatient.
(Paul says to eagerly desire spiritual gifts—1 Cor. 14.1)

9. People with the gift of tongues are always more spiritual than people without it.
This isn’t true. I’ve known very spiritually mature Christians who didn’t have the gift of tongues. They got along just fine in their faith. On the other hand, I’ve known some spiritually immature Christians who had the gift of tongues. Just because you pray in tongues doesn’t ensure character or maturity. With that said, I’m glad I pray in tongues for the impact it’s had on my walk.
(1 Peter 4.10)

10. Unless you speak in tongues, you’re not a Christian or Spirit-filled.
This is another controversy that has turned people off from tongues. This myth comes from a misinterpretation of biblical texts. Nowhere in the Bible does it say you’re not a Christian if you don’t pray in tongues. A Christian is one who has been forgiven through the blood of Jesus. There is no requirement for tongues. Nor does the Bible say you’re not Spirit-filled if you don’t pray in tongues. There are examples of people who began speaking in tongues after they received the Holy Spirit. But these are descriptive of what can happen, not what must happen.
(Incidents in which people were filled with the Holy Spirit and started speaking in tongues right away—Acts 2.4, 10.44-46, 19.6; Incidents in which people were filled with the Holy Spirit and did not start speaking in tongues right away—Luke 1.41, 67, Acts 4.31, 9.17-18, 13.52)

Chris Heinz

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My books, "Made To Pray" and "One-Minute Devotions On Prayer", are helpful guides to developing a satisfying and fruitful prayer life. My experience as a Prayer Warrior, Missionary, and Speaker for over 15 years has prepared me to help Christians turn their ineffective prayer lives into exciting experiences that increase their hunger for God's presence and achieve incredible results through the most powerful tool available, prayer. I've appeared in Charisma Magazine, Extant Magazine, the Christian Post, and the Centre Daily Times, and serve on the National Committee of Mission America Coalition.

18 responses to Ten Myths About Speaking In Tongues

  1. Good stuff Chris, the only one that I might not agree with is #4 (well #3 maybe, but mostly #4…).

    I think with the sign gifts (those listed in 1 Cor. 12 and including tongues), there is a bit more Spirit-initiative involved.  So in other words, when God gives the gift of teaching, you simply teach.  But when God gives the gift of prophecy, you don’t prophesy unless the message is given.  When God gives the gift of a word of knowledge, you can only exercise that gift if the Spirit gives the word of knowledge. 

    Right?

    Now perhaps a prayer language is a more static gift that can be used when we desire to use it. 

    But at best that is only 1/3 of the possible expressions.  I wonder if the other two can be used when we choose, or only when the Spirit decides at that moment to manifest in that way through us.

    Not sure if I have the answer, but it seems that there may be a difference.

  2. Dan, I agree with your distinctions about some of the gifts being Spirit-initiated. I should have been more clear. The message cannot be given unless God gives it, same would be with a prophetic message in tongues. I’ll modify my language here. Thanks.

  3. comment on point no. 9
    I agree with you, it doesn’t mean a person more spiritual if he speak in tongues. I know many person with faith integrity who does not speak in tongues. Speaking in tongues is just one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
    The person maybe having the gift of teaching but not the speaking in tongues, maybe the gift of healing not the speaking in tongues.

  4. Well done, Chris!  You’re clarifying things that sometimes confuse God’s people. 

    If a person prays in tongues a lot, it’s possible he will softly pray in tongues even when receiving prayer from someone else—not because he’s uncomfortable being prayed for, but because he’s so used to praying in tongues.  It’s possible to do that with the spirit and still pay attention with the understanding.  It’s just a normal response for someone who has that well primed.  smile

    You’re making a difference.  Largely because people can trust you.  Keep up the great work!

  5. What about when someone is praying for you, should you not pray in tongues while they are praying?

  6. Great article Chris!  This is one of the best explanations on speaking in tongues that I have read.  I really like your commentary on number 5.

    “Why would we expect our human language to cover all the fins and folds of our relationship with God? Sometimes our words just won’t do.”

    Humbling point.

  7. Danielle, thanks for the question, it’s a good one. I think there are two instances that could fit with your question. The first is when multiple people are praying together and pray in tongues at the same time. If all are of the same understanding and praying in tongues won’t be a stumbling block to anyone, then it’s fine to pray in tongues. On the other hand, if someone is praying for you directly, as in you are the recipient of someone’s prayer, I think it’s best to be silent. You will be able to hear what the person is praying while still praying in tongues, but it can be a distraction to the pray-er and your full focus will not be on the content of the prayer. I think sometimes people pray in tongues while they’re getting prayer because they are uncomfortable with being prayed for, so they distract themselves with tongues. But this not a good motivation to pray in tongues.

  8. My Mom passed away when I was 12 years old. The night she passed away— She was Speaking In-Tongues up until she took her last breath. I was standing at the end of her bed AND THAT made a big Impact on my life. I will always believe in my heart, that is why I am a Born Again Christian today.

  9. GREAT post and clarification on speaking in tongues, Chris … I would LOVE to have scripture attached to each one and I will likely do that so that I can use this list of myths with others but it might be good to have that on your blog too? Just thinking out loud – appreciate your voice SO much!

  10. Sherilyn, here you go, Scripture to back up each point. Thanks for the great suggestion.

  11. People continue to be confused about speaking in tongues because people, i.e. Christians, are confused.
    First, I have received SEVERAL messages from God – and NOT ONCE did He babble to me in a language I could not understand.
    One of His messenges came directly to me from one of His angels—who ALSO DID NOT BABBLE TO ME IN A LANGUAGE I COULD NOT UNDERSTAND. The message FROM GOD was spoken in English—my language-so that I could clearly understand every word.
    I have BEEN with Jesus to the End Times ..and in other situations—-NOTE: IN ALL OUR MEETINGS, He spoke to me in English.
    —Now, when I am in my closet—privately, just as Paul said—-and I do not know what to pray, the Holy Spirit interceeds and prays for me to God and PERHAPS in a language only HE and God understand.  I am NOT privacy to that prayer because it is the Holy Spirit praying for me.
    —tongues in Acts 2—-from where most people get the idea to BABBLE-God is not a fool…He would not—NOR DOES HE go around speaking in babble to us where we have to find an interpretor in order to know His will for us.
    —-signed
    His Unlikely Servant

  12. Hi Muriel, wow, it sounds like you’ve have some deep experiences with the LORD. Awesome. I would simply say that all your experiences, as wonderful as they are, do not describe the full counsel or ways of God. Just because you don’t pray in tongues doesn’t mean God doesn’t move that way in other people. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  13. Chris, I am not interested in being contrary, nor in denying your experience, but I do think you need to be careful in your handling of the Word. Your exegesis in number 7 especially concerns me. You have pulled some excerpts from Mark 16 while ignoring the others, saying the passage proves your point. First, there is a good deal of discussion regarding whether Mark 16:9-20 was actually in the original gospel written by Mark Second, if you follow the logic you propose, then we are not only to preach, be baptized and speak in tongues, but to cast out demons, handle serpents and drink poison. We also will be able to lay hands on the sick and heal them. Are you saying all of this should be part of the practice of the Church today? Or, is it possible (assuming the verses do belong in Mark’s gospel) that these instructions were given to the eleven, as the scripture says, and were for the Apostles?

    My final comment is that scripture teaches the gifts (all of them) are given for the edification of the Church. They are not given as personal favors for us to use as we please to please ourselves. I know you don’t say that, but what you said could be interpreted in that way.

    Thank you for your patience in listening.

    • Hi David, thanks for reading and the kind attitude you have in presenting your perspective. In regard to your points, I think that yes, we can lay hands on the sick and if it’s the will of God, heal them. The Book of James calls the elders to pray over the sick, anoint them with oil, for their healing. Also, when Paul writes to the Corinthian believers in 1 Cor. 12, he says some have spiritual “gifts of healing” and “to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.” The James elders nor the entire church of Corinth to which Paul was writing, were not the original eleven Apostles. I would say the same about casting out demons–it is a role of the Church and would interpret the handling of snakes and drinking poison as figurative language, not literal, as it’s not confirmed by other parts of Scripture like healing and tongues are. With regard to praying in tongues as not edifying the Church, as you say, I suggest broadening your perspective. Being built up personally by praying in tongues can empower you to build the Church. Take rest as an example. You rest because it builds you up, but is it selfish to rest? Being rested empowers you to serve others.

  14. It is refreshing to see a kind-hearted debate by Christians. I want to add that I was born again when I was 12 years old. I took a wrong turn about the age of 18 and was a prodigal for about 12 years. I started seeking God again and began to be hungry to be baptized by the Holy Spirit, and God came running to this unworthy man. It is the most awesome thing in the world! I can’t get enough of God. He is so faithful! I wish that everyone could experience God in this way. Praise and glory to His powerful Holy name!

  15. I just came across this and it was really helpful for me to read! I think that spiritual gifts can be generational, and what a blessing that is! My grandmother, my mom, and I all have the gift of tongues. For us it is a prayer language, and sometimes when I am praying in tongues I feel overwhelmed with God’s emotion for someone or a particular situation. It also happens when I pray with people sometimes. Is that intercession? I like to pray in tongues while people are praying sometimes. It is almost like a form of Agreement but in Tongues (Agreement is my #1 prayer type!). Praying in tongues really helps me to focus my prayer sometimes, and I am grateful for it. I am going to take your prayer assessment again, because it’s been a while. Thank you for the Scripture references and insights!

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