At Accessible Prophecy, we want to see all people blessed with the gifts of the Spirit. Although we primarily focus on prophecy and hearing from God, we also believe there are many other gifts available to all of us. In this blog, John White writes for us on 1 Corinthians 14 and his experiences with the gift of tongues.
The church in Corinth was out of order. Everyone did and spoke “what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Paul had no alternative but to write a letter (1 Corinthians) correcting the excesses in the use and practice of spiritual gifts. He is concerned that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
Speaking at each other. Speaking over each other. But there is a way out of this chaos and confusion in the Corinthian church. It is the way of love, and Paul sandwiches this “excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) in chapter 13 between teaching on spiritual gifts and the body of Christ in chapter 12 and the right use of spiritual gifts in chapter 14.
1 Corinthians 13:1-2 – “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
So here then in these verses is the root of the problem that Paul is addressing. During public worship, one group were speaking out in tongues like noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, and, at the same time, another group, because of their understanding of all mysteries and knowledge, were speaking out prophetic revelation. Both groups lacked love and consideration for others in the congregation. Each group was trying to ‘out-spiritual’ the other group. Speaking louder to drown out others? Claiming that they were more spiritual because of their understanding of mysteries and knowledge? Pride and selfishness – what a toxic mix! It was a mess. It was noisy. It was selfish. It was about speaking at each other. It was not the “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).
Instead of speaking tongues and prophecy at each other, the Corinthians were to be shown the more excellent way, namely the way of love, with those speaking in tongues speaking to God, and those speaking out a prophecy speaking to an individual or to a group of people. The gift of tongues is about speaking to God; the gift of prophecy is about speaking to others.
Spiritual gifts are gifts of grace, given to serve others and not to achieve personal status. They are not earned by human merit or allocated by human choice. It would seem that the exercise of the spiritual gifts in the Corinthian was more about status than service.
Let me look at the gift of tongues. There are three situations in which the gift is exercised, namely a tongue in public worship that is unintelligible to both the speaker and the hearers, a tongue that is unintelligible to the speaker but is understood by someone present in the gathering, and finally a tongue that is expressed in private. Privately, tongues can be used at anytime anywhere. Publicly, tongues occur as and when the Holy Spirit anoints a speaker. But, in either case, tongues increase a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Paul writes in Ephesians, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (6:18). Tongues are used for prayer and intercession (Romans 8:26), and for spiritual warfare.
The gift of tongues is a language directed to God. It is a language of prayer and praise. If an unintelligible tongue is spoken out publicly in a gathering, the tongue requires an interpretation, which should also be directed towards God in prayer or praise. In my experience, some interpretations of a tongue in a public gathering are more about encouraging the gathering, rather than about praying to and praising God. Perhaps, service leaders should be more confident in waiting for the right interpretation to be given. The gift of tongues is a Godward gift, praying to and praising God. Prophecy, on the other hand, is directed towards men and women, bringing what’s on the mind and heart of God to an individual or to a group of people.
Some are quick to label the gift of tongues as the least of all the gifts by virtue of it being the last in the list. Last in a list doesn’t necessarily mean the least. Paul’s well-known list in chapter 13 has love listed last after faith and hope (13:13). Love is quite definitely not the least, because Paul writes that “the greatest of these is love” (v.13).
I was once praying with a man who had a serious problem with his leg. After a while, I began to pray in tongues. He and his wife suddenly started to laugh as I was praying. They asked me if I had ever visited Saudi Arabia or whether I spoke Arabic. I answered no. He and his wife had spent some time living in the Middle East. Apparently, as I was praying in tongues for the man’s leg to be healed, I was actually speaking in Arabic for God to heal his leg! Amazing! So encouraging for the man!
Personally, I find that there is a coming together of tongues and prophecy when I minister. Praying in tongues before I minister prophetically is about my ministering to God, of praising and adoring him. It is about preparing my heart, and my spirit. It is about increasing my awareness of the presence of God. So, I find it really helpful to pray in tongues before prophesying (often under my breath). There can be occasions when our human language fails us as we seek to pray to and praise God. We cannot find the words that adequately express our deepest cries of the heart. Paul writes in Romans,
“… 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.” (8:26-27).
The gift of tongues is about praying with our spirits rather than with our minds. It helps to strengthen us spiritually. Tongues are immediate and obvious, suggesting something has happened – an encounter with God and his presence and power. And therein lies the issue with tongues.
Over the years, I have prayed for many people to receive the gift of tongues. We underestimate the stress and anxiety people feel when they come forward to receive the gift. More often than not, they walk away, blessed with having met with God, but not actually being released into speaking in tongues.
I can remember once running a discipleship course. On the particular evening, I was teaching on spiritual gifts, and felt that it was right to pray for people to receive tongues. I mentioned that in my experience God often released tongues when we are at our most relaxed. I said to the group that the process of coming forward to the front of a meeting is not relaxing. It is stressful. It’s a going-through-the-motions of potentially yet another occasion when nothing happens.
I suggested that God sometimes releases this gift when we are relaxed. Yes, there are times and places where God does release the gift in worship settings. One place where we are most relaxed is in our bath at home. I said that I would pray for everyone, and so, after praying for the Spirit to come upon the group, I told the group that they should go home and expect God to fill them with his Spirit and to be released into speaking in tongues as they relax at home.
One person at the meeting was so angry at my offer to pray for people that she stormed out of the building.
The following week I asked the group for any testimony or feedback from the previous week’s prayer ministry. This particular person stood up and told the group that she had been very angry with me the previous week. She had almost lost count of the number of times she had gone forward to receive tongues. But she had never been released into speaking in tongues. Hearing her speak, I was reminded me of the words from Proverbs 13:12 – “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”.
By her own account, she was in a bad mood when she got home. She went to bed, and at 3am, she woke up and, to her absolute amazement, found herself speaking in tongues. After a while, she suddenly jumped out of bed and started to go to the bathroom, because in all the confusion and amazement and sleepiness, she thought that I had said that you needed a bath to be released into speaking in tongues! Fortunately enough, she realised quite quickly that by lying in her bed she was very relaxed. She didn’t need to run a bath! She got back into bed and went back to sleep.
I suspect that tongues has become an issue, not just because it has been used to define an institution, but because its presence, or more accurately its absence, leads to insecurity and anxiety. Am I truly born again? Does the Spirit live within me? We are desperate for to know for sure that the Spirit has filled us with his presence and his power. Because speaking in tongues is so obviously different to our normal speech, we can feel threatened and anxious about our failure to speak in tongues. In our insecurity, we compare ourselves with those who do speak in tongues and feel like second-class spiritual citizens, resulting in our hearts becoming harder and harder with each succeeding disappointment. Some have even required the speaking in tongues to be a key factor in becoming members of their institution.
We need to rediscover and to practise a right practice of tongues and prophecy within public worship (1 Corinthians 14). We need to expect these gifts to be part of our experience of worship: tongues with the focus on God and prophecy with its outward focus on the individual or a group of people. Faith is required in the exercise of all the spiritual gifts. In our public expression of tongues, in our private expression of tongues, in the prophetic word given out in our gatherings, or to individuals, may we grow in faith as we step out in other spiritual gifts.
1 Corinthians 14:1-5 – “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 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. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”