What is praying in tongues? Is praying in tongues a prayer language between a believer and God?

Question: "What is praying in tongues? Is praying in tongues a prayer language between a believer and God?"

As a background, please read our article on the gift of speaking in tongues. There are four primary Scripture passages that are used as prove for praying in tongues: Romans 8:26; 1 Corinthians 14:4-17; Ephesians 6:18; and Jude verse 20. Ephesians 6:18 and Jude verse 20 mention “praying in the Spirit.” Tongues as a prayer language is not a likely interpretation of “praying in the Spirit.” Please read What is praying in the Spirit? for more information.

Romans 8:26 teaches us, “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Two key points make it highly unlikely that Romans 8:26 is referring to tongues as a prayer language. (1) Romans 8:26 states that it is the Spirit who is “groaning,” not believers. (2) Romans 8:26 states that the groanings of the Spirit “cannot be uttered.” The very essence of speaking in tongues is uttering words.

That leaves us with 1 Corinthians 14:4-17 and verse 14 especially, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” 1 Corinthians 14:14 distinctly mentions “praying in tongues.” What does this mean? First, studying the context is immensely valuable. 1 Corinthians chapter 14 is primarily a comparison / contrast of the gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy. Verses 2-5 make it clear that Paul views prophecy as a superior gift to tongues. At the same time, Paul exclaims the value of tongues and declares that he is glad that he speaks in tongues more than anyone (verse 18).

Acts chapter 2 describes the first occurrence of the gift of tongues. On the day of Pentecost, the apostles spoke in tongues. Acts chapter 2 makes it clear that the apostles were speaking in human languages (Acts 2:6-8). The word translated “tongues” in both Acts chapter 2 and 1 Corinthians chapter 14 is “glossa” which means “language.” Speaking in tongues was the ability to speak in a language one did not know, in order to communicate the Gospel to someone who did speak that language. In the multi-cultural, multi-language area of Corinth, it seems that the gift of tongues was especially valuable and prominent. As a result of the gift of tongues, the Corinthian believers were able to better communicate the Gospel and God’s Word to those who spoke other languages. However, Paul made it abundantly clear that even in this usage of tongues, it was necessary to be interpreted or “translated” (1 Corinthians 14:13,27). A Corinthian believer would speak in tongues, ministering God’s truth to someone who spoke that language, and then that believer, or another believer in the church, was to interpret what was spoken, so the entire assembly could understand what was said.

What, then, is “praying in tongues” and how is it different from speaking in tongues? First Corinthians 14:13-17 indicates that praying in tongues is also to be interpreted. As a result, it seems that praying in tongues was offering a prayer to God. This prayer would minister to someone who spoke that language, but would also need to be interpreted so that the entire body could be edified.

This interpretation does not agree with those who view praying in tongues as a personal prayer language. This alternate understanding can be summarized as follows: praying in tongues is a personal prayer language between a believer and God (1 Corinthians 13:1) that a believer uses to edify himself (1 Corinthians 14:4). This interpretation is unbiblical for the following reasons: (1) How could praying in tongues be a private prayer language if it is to be interpreted (1 Corinthians 14:13-17)? (2) How could praying in tongues be for self-edification when Scripture says that the spiritual gifts are for the edification of the church, not the self (1 Corinthians 12:7). (3) How can praying in tongues be a private prayer language if tongues is a “sign to unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22)? (4) The Bible makes it clear that not everyone possesses the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:11,28-30). How could tongues be a gift for self-edification if not every believer can possess it? Do we not all need to be edified?

There is an additional understanding of praying in tongues that needs to be addressed. Some understand praying in tongues to be a “secret code language” that prevents Satan and his demons from understanding our prayers, and thereby gaining an advantage over us. This interpretation is unbiblical for the following reasons: (1) The New Testament consistently describes tongues as a human language. It is unlikely that Satan and his demons are unable to understand human languages. (2) The Bible records countless believers praying in their own language, out loud, with no concern of Satan intercepting the prayer. Even if Satan and/or his demons heard and understood the prayers we pray – they have absolutely no power to prevent God from answering the prayer according to His will. We know that God hears our prayers, and that fact makes it irrelevant whether Satan and his demons hear and understand our prayers.

With all of that said, what of the many Christians who have experienced praying in tongues and find it to be very edifying for themselves? First, we must base our faith and practice on Scripture, not experience. We must view our experiences in light of Scripture, not interpret Scripture in light of our experiences. Second, many of the cults and world religions also report occurrences of speaking and/or praying in tongues. Obviously the Holy Spirit is not gifting these unbelieving individuals. So it seems that the demons are able to counterfeit the gift of speaking in tongues. This should cause us to even more carefully compare our experiences with Scripture. Third, many studies have shown how speaking / praying in tongues can be a learned behavior. Through hearing and observing others speak in tongues, a person can learn the procedure, even subconsciously. This is the most likely explanation for the vast majority of instances of speaking / praying in tongues among Christians. Fourth, the feeling of “self-edification” is natural. The human body produces adrenaline and endorphins when it experiences something new, exciting, emotionally-induced, and/or disconnected from rational thought.

Praying in tongues is most definitely an issue on which Christians can respectfully and lovingly agree to disagree. Praying in tongues is not what determines salvation. Praying in tongues is not what separates a mature Christian from an immature Christian. Whether or not praying in tongues is a prayer language is not a fundamental of the Christian faith. So while we believe the Biblical interpretation of praying in tongues leads away from the idea of a private prayer language for personal edification, we also recognize that many who practice such are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and are worthy of our love and respect.

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What is praying in tongues? Is praying in tongues a prayer language between a believer and God?