Because the gift of other tongues is rarely fully appreciated it tends to be under-used. Apart from the one-off writing on the wall in Belshazzar’s palace in Babylon that Daniel interpreted, these two gifts of tongues and interpretation were brand new on the great day of Pentecost when the Spirit-filled disciples each spoke in a distinct individual language. As Paul made clear when writing to the church in Corinth, ‘if you have the ability to speak in tongues, you will be talking only to God’ (1 Corinthians 14:2, all references from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated). And when we speak to God we are praising or praying. On that momentous day of Pentecost ‘everyone present [in ‘the house’] was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages [to God] as the Holy Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:4).
Paul went on to admit, ‘if I pray in tongues, my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying’ (1 Corinthians 14:14).
Back in the 1960s I was Principal of a small Bible school in West Yorkshire. Among our twenty or so students were Sarah and her husband Raymond, recently married. For the third time since their wedding Sarah apparently was newly pregnant but she had seemed to miscarry each time. The students and I had gathered round her bed prior to lessons. They were fervently praying for the most recent unborn child, but I was not persuaded to do so; being baffled as to how or what I should pray, I quietly talked to the Lord in tongues.
Present with us was a visitor from Southend-on-Sea who was spending a couple of days with one of our students who came from his home church. A day or two later Marilyn spoke to him on the phone to thank him from his visit. This brother was actually a missionary to Italy and asked her, “Where did Hugh learn Italian?” Confidently she replied, “He doesn’t speak Italian. Why do you ask?” She, and later I, were flabbergasted when told, “He not only spoke Italian, but his grammar was perfect, as was his accent.” “Oh, so what did he actually say?” she was keen to know. “He asked the Lord to bless this ‘saintess’, using the feminine form of the noun ‘saint’, but he then dropped his voice and I heard no more.”
When Sarah was taken to hospital, an examination revealed that she had never been pregnant as one ovary was completely non-functional and the other was badly damaged, although it gave her bi-monthly symptoms of ovulating. After graduation they adopted a lovely little girl and later two fine boys.
Years earlier I had close fellowship with John when he and his family were staying in Bristol on a rest period after serving the Lord in Italy. He told me how he was baptised in the Holy Spirit. While his wife was out he piled furniture against the bedroom door so he wouldn’t be disturbed while he cried to the Lord for effective spiritual power. God met with him and gave him just one word in tongues that he did not understand at that time: ‘mondo’. Years later, when learning Italian in preparation for their missionary calling, he discovered that ‘mondo’ is Italian for ‘world’ – truly a missionary expression!
What are spiritual gifts?
The selection of nine ‘different kinds of spiritual gifts’ that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 12:4 and 7-11 are spontaneously ‘being given’ (Greek present = continuous tense) ‘by the Holy Spirit’. Those verses could best be adapted from the NLT as follows:
‘A spiritual gift is being given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit is giving the ability to give wise advice, to another the same Spirit is giving a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit is giving great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit is giving someone gifts of healings [that is, for different ailments]. He is giving one person the power to perform miracles, and to another the ability to prophesy. He is giving someone else ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is being given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is being given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who is distributing all these gifts. He alone is deciding which gift each person should have.’
The person being used does not have permanent possession of any of these. But if we then find ourselves questioning, ‘What if someone is used regularly in say healing, surely she or he has that gift. Not so! But the following paragraph (12:12-31) indicates that the said individual has a functional ministry of healing. An ‘apostle’ for instance (verse 28) has a calling and may exercise a whole raft of spiritual gifts while discharging that ministry?
So, let us all ‘desire the special abilit[y] the Spirit gives’ to speak freely and frequently to God in languages that our brains cannot comprehend! As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, ‘. . . we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will’ (Romans 8:26-27).
P.S. Note these key phrases in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. If you ‘speak in tongues, you will be talking only to God’ (verse 2), even if you do so aloud in church! The interpretation should also be uttered as praise or prayer to God (as in the two examples I have offered in this study). Compare 1 Corinthians 14:16, ‘if you praise God only in the spirit [that is, in tongues], how can those who don’t understand you praise God along with you? How can they join you in giving thanks when they don’t know what you are saying? . . . You will be giving thanks very well, but it won’t strengthen the people who hear you.’ And note 14:5 which has a little Greek word in the original text – hina, which means ‘in order that’: ‘I wish you could all speak in tongues, but rather in order that you could all prophesy’. I’m not highly qualified in that old language, but it encourages me to think that if I speak regularly in tongues to myself and to God, he can then easily give me prophetic words for others. That has truly been my experience, so I do not hesitate to recommend the practice for that reason.