I want to share with you a personal experience in my life. I was in my late teens, not quite too my twenties yet but not too far away either. I was a camp counselor for some non-denominational camp for a week as a favor because they were shorthanded. During this week, I got really sick, but I was going to try and stick it out and see if I got better. Some of the ladies at the camp offered; insisted really, to pray over me for healing, but I refused and asked for some tylenol instead. I got worse and I was in and out of consciousness with a pretty high fever, in this small, secluded cabin being used as a sick house, out in the back woods, with nothing around us.
Laying on the cot, blinking in and out, I must have fallen asleep for a few hours because the next thing I knew there were the two ladies standing over me, hands outstretched, mumbling and speaking incoherently in a loud, frantic kind of tone, what you hear sometimes when people speak in tongues at some churches. I couldn’t recognize any of the words they were saying, it was like gibberish, very loud gibberish. I had no idea what was going on, it was scary and I flew out of that cot, grabbed my backpack and jumped in my car. Fever or no fever I was out of there~!
I never did go back, or talk to those ladies again or even ask what that was all about. Older now, I’ve given them the benefit of a doubt in my own mind and assume they meant well, expressing their faith and asking for help with someone who was sick. But even thinking back on that experience as a professional, it was ill conceived for them, I didn’t desire their prayers in that way, I actually said no, there was no interpretation or explanation of what was going on, and I still don’t remember if I ever got that tylenol or not. I don’t think I did!
Often, this speaking in tongues, that sounds like gibberish, is connected with high emotions and a trance like state and that many Christian churches claim that not only is it an essential aspect of the Christian faith but an outward proof of the work of the Holy Spirit and Salvation in a person’s life. Sometimes people will even look down upon Christians who do not “Speak in tongues,” as inferior at best and not even saved at worse, claiming this is part of what happened at Pentecost.
But when we look at the Pentecost event, that day when the disciples were together in the upper room waiting for the promise Jesus had given to them of being filled with the third person of the Triune God, the Holy Spirit, the very creative energy of Heaven itself to fill them and write the love of God upon their hearts. This promise came in abundance like a wind and a fire filling each one in that room to bursting so that they could not hold back but burst out of that room with a cry shouting to the crowds in the city who had come from every corner of the known world about all that God had done!
These crowds, from every known language, heard what they were exclaiming, these Galilean fisherman like Peter who to be sure did not know Ethiopian or many of those other languages, all of them heard the disciples in their own language, their heart language, the language their mother would sing lullabies to them at night.
The miracle was not from the disciple’s mouths, they were speaking their own language, Hebrew and Greek, the miracle was the work the Holy Spirit was doing opening the ears of all of these people around them to hear the Good News of God’s mighty works in this world. Because that is what the name of Jesus does, it opens hearts and minds to receive the promises of God.
Now, does any of that sound like what we think about and maybe have seen or participated in, this modern understanding of speaking in tongues? It doesn’t. Throughout the New Testament this Pentecost Event doesn’t occur again, not that is recorded for us. That is not to say that God has not nor cannot do this again in a different place and time, but as far as we know, the Pentecost event was a very particular experience. If I was to guess, when this would or might be happening again, I would say in heaven, reunited with the saints in glory from every tribe, nation, and language, not speaking a new language but all of our ears opened through the name of Jesus to finally, actually, hear each other.
But Speaking in Tongues is there in the New Testament, Pastor Paul speaks about it often, gives guidelines for how it may be used in public worship (may used, not needful though) and often talks about how it is misused among Christians as a way of comparing one Christian to another, saying I’m better than you are kind of thing. This warning and admonishment is written right there, in his writings, plain as day, yet Christians still get this wrong, a lot.
But there is a far better and Biblical way of understanding speaking in tongues than this modern, gibberish version that we are used to. It is different then the Pentecost Event when the Spirit opened ears to hear the Good News. This speaking in tongues Pastor Paul talks about with his own prayers.
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.
Have you ever had a moment that you just didn’t have the words for. An illness, suffering of the innocent, a little one in need, an atrocity so wrong you can’t describe your desires, or a joy so wonderful there was simply no words to express it? For the Christian, the ache in the heart for a loved one who simply refuses to live in faith or the desire to reach out to the lost with the light of Jesus.
All of us have had those inexpressible moments. But the Christian in particular brings those moments to our Heavenly Father; our hearts ache, our spirits cry out and the Holy Spirit that dwells within you through faith cradles all of that within it’s essence like a mother wrapping an infant and carries it to God with groanings too deep for words.
What is it that actually comes out of our mouths in those moments? I don’t know. In my own experiences when the Spirit carried my weakness in groanings to deep for words, what came out of my mouth at those moments was not important, what mattered was that deep communion with my God through the Holy Spirit.
Maybe this is why Paul says that if this occurs during the public worship service that their must be an interpreter that can explain to the family of faith, “they lost their mother, their father, their child, their spouse,” or “they just saw someone come to faith before their very eyes;” Explain the tears, why the sounds and the groaning that are too deep for words. Because in worship, God touches the very heart and spirit of who we are and that often brings forth deep emotions and intimate prayer.
This is not something to boast of, or for show, instead it is a prayerful heart to heart with God, by yourself or with your brothers and sisters in Christ who love you. But it is a voice, that we can grow into as we grow deeper into our friendship with God, become more aware of our own heart and more free in sharing our deepest hurts and joys.
Speaking in tongues is not some strange experience or only for the few, nor is it biblically a necessary outward sign of being a Christian. It is prayer, deep and abiding prayer at the deepest moments of a human life. As every Christian prays then every Christian speaks in tongues because every Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit.
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
I Corinthians 12:3
But it is not our experiences, whether high or low, emotional or not, that inform our security in our faith, why would we want them too? Or emotions go high and low, up and down, they are not reliable, and if we keep looking for the high experiences all we end up becoming is like adrenaline junkies looking for the next experience. But there is no security there. The security comes not in speaking in tongues, but from our God who does not change and has given to us his unchanging love in Jesus and the places where God’s good work is found: in His word and Sacraments, in the fellowship of the Saints, in those steady and consistent places of grace.
What God has done for us, not resting our hope in what we do or feel.