Last night it happened again. As I was praying, drifting off to sleep, I began babbling in nonsense syllables. “Get out of bed!” whispered a voice within me. “You don’t want to miss this.”
Still mumbling sounds beyond my comprehension, I knelt and continued my conversation with God in the strangest way that I know how. Sometimes I can picture hazy outlines of what it is I think I’m saying. At others, a name or desire suddenly weighs on my heart, and I speak all the faster. Last night, I didn’t sense anything behind my sounds. Doubts that God would even comprehend this nonsense bubbled to the surface of my consciousness, and the mutterings quickly subsided.
Despite my frequent doubts as to its effectiveness — or even my embarrassment at having received the silliest of the spiritual gifts — I love speaking in tongues and write this article in the hopes of swaying public opinion on its existence and effectiveness.
What exactly is speaking in tongues?
When I say I speak in tongues, I refer to the uttering of nonsense syllables that the Holy Spirit uses to communicate with the Father on the speaker’s behalf. I would distinguish this kind of speaking in tongues from the other two by taking a page from theologian Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, “Chapter 53: Gifts of the Holy Spirit (2): Specific Gifts.”1
Grudem identifies three types of speaking in tongues: (a) speaking a language one has never studied, (b) prophesying in nonsense syllables that other humans translate into commonly spoken languages, and (c) praying in nonsense syllables.
For evidence of the first type, Grudem turns to Acts 2:1-13. In this passage, the Holy Spirit gifts the men and women at Pentecost with the ability to speak languages they have never studied. To be clear, these aren’t nonsense language. They are speaking Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and other commonly spoken tongues.
Evincing the second type of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:5, Paul identifies that sometimes God enables people to prophesy by speaking in nonsense syllables. God only offers this type of speaking in tongues when he has also blessed another person in the same community with the capacity to translate that prophecy into the commonly spoken language.
I have never experienced either of these two kinds of speaking in tongues and cannot represent them well in this article. I would also note that some Christians think that all speaking in tongues ceased at the close of the apostolic age, while others testify to receiving them in the modern era. For more information, I highly recommend that you read Grudem’s chapter on spiritual gifts.2
My basis in scripture for believing in the third type of tongues—unintelligible syllables spoken directly to God—comes from 1 Corinthians 14 and Romans 8.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-28).
“For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2).
While the passage from Romans could refer to a nonverbal intercession, it certainly aligns with my experience of speaking in tongues. In 1 Corinthians, the reference to verbal communication is explicit.
Why is speaking in tongues necessary? Isn’t praying in your native tongue sufficient?
I find the Romans passage particularly compelling in answering this question. I often find myself at a loss as to what I should pray for in difficult situations. My desires seem selfish, outlandish, disobedient. In such moments, I feel blessed to receive help from a party beyond my comprehension. I can partake of prayer while no longer bearing the responsibility of getting its content quite right.
Additionally, praying again and again for the same things with different words grows tiresome. As St. Augustine observed in one of his letters to a Roman monastic widow, “To speak much in prayer is to transact a necessary piece of business with unnecessary words, but to entreat much of Him whom we entreat is to knock by a long-continued and devout uplifting of the heart.”3 Augustine encourages this woman to entreat God constantly but considers extensive words unnecessary. Speaking in tongues enables one to communicate with God without rehashing the same points over and over again.
If I am a Christian, should I be discouraged if I don’t pray in tongues?
Not at all! While speaking in tongues is an exciting gift of the Spirit, it is by no means the only or most important one. (In fact, in 1 Corinthians 14:18 Paul distinctly points out that, while he is glad that he himself prays in tongues, he hardly thinks it’s the gift best-suited for building Christian community.)
If this way of communicating with God appeals to you, I would invite you to ask that God to bless you with the gift of tongues. As a humanities concentrator and ardent word-lover, even I will tell you that there’s something transcendent and delightful about checking your vocabulary at the door and entrusting your heart’s message to the Spirit that guides you.
V.W. is a senior at Harvard. In preparing to launch into the working world, V. W. wanted to maintain a level of anonymity while discussing such a divisive topic as speaking in tongues. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to follow up on this article.
- Grudem, Wayne. “Chapter 53: Gifts of the Holy Spirit: (Part 2) Specific Gifts,” in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Print. Pp. 1049-1088. ↩
- Grudem, Wayne. “Chapter 52: Gifts of the Holy Spirit: (Part 1) General Questions,” in Systematic Theology. Pp. 1016-1048. ↩
- Augustine, “Letter 130,” in The Fathers of the Church. Vol. 18. Trans. by Sister Wilfred Parsons. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010. Print. Pp. 376-401. ↩