Is praying in tongues for real? When someone prays in tongues, are they praying in an actual language?
There is a lot of scriptural and theological understanding underneath these types of questions, which we will discuss at length in this article. We encourage you to read all the way through with an open mind and heart. If you need a quick answer, or don’t have sufficient time to read all of this then a brief summary would be:
Yes, praying or speaking in tongues is real and the words being spoken represent an actual language, often called a prayer language, even if it is not understood by the person praying in tongues or the people around them.
The phrases “speaking in tongues,” “praying in tongues,” and “the gift of tongues” are all going to be used interchangeably in this article.
But mostly I will use the term prayer language, as those are more understandable words in this day and time. Hardly anyone uses the word “tongues” in terms of speaking or praying, so using that term can distract you from the content of this article.
If you really want to know more about praying in tongues then I encourage you to take your time and read the whole of this article. This is not a quick read, “soundbite theology,” type of deal. Understanding the depth of praying in tongues, or using a prayer language, requires understanding spiritual gifts and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Please respect your own spiritual growth and journey with Jesus to meet up with the challenge of learning about something that may not be easily grasped. I think you will be glad you did.
Starting With Humility
As we step into our discussion, I again urge you to read with an open mind. Perhaps you clicked on the link to this article because your religious background doesn’t have any reference or exposure to prayer language from the Holy Spirit. Maybe your background does have that exposure and you wanted to see if this article is in line with your church’s beliefs. Or, it could be that you’re just not sure and were hoping to find a gracious explanation that allowed you to discover for yourself.
That is my aim as I write. There may be parts of this that bump up against the doctrine you’ve been following for some time.
Or there may be sections that challenge what you believe. As I write with a humble spirit in the knowledge that I only know what I know, I ask that you read with some humility that you may not know everything there is to know about this topic.
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12.3, NIV).
And, keep in mind that praying in tongues, or using a prayer language, is not required to follow Jesus. I know devout Christ-followers who engage in a prayer language and other devout Christ-followers who do not. So, there’s no need to be threatened by prayer language, or the discussion of praying in tongues.
For example, I personally have two master’s degrees, and a doctorate, all of which represent a decade of theological training. Add in nearly 25 years of pastoral ministry in a variety of settings, and you could easily think, “Oh, he’s an expert in this stuff, so what he says goes.”
I may know more than a lot of people in regard to theological topics like this, but I don’t know everything, so I try to write and explain things in a way that people can accept and wrestle with and seriously consider. That way, you end up making your own decision, but you do so with a wider perspective.
For the longest time, I didn’t think praying in tongues was a real thing, mostly due to no exposure to the gift in action. Over time, I was exposed to the gift in action and saw it used respectfully and a biblical manner. I couldn’t deny what I saw and heard, as it matched up with Scripture. So, I moved forward with greater humility in regard to spiritual gifts.
Let us lean into our discussion by looking at the source of all spiritual gifts, including tongues, God the Holy Spirit.
Holy Spirit Gives Gifts of the Spirit
Praying in tongues, the gift of tongues, is just that–a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that whatever gifting we have, it comes from the Holy Spirit. We don’t choose the gift, nor do we get to limit what gifts the Holy Spirit gives. A spiritual gift is not a natural talent, or something we learned how to do–it’s not a skill. A spiritual gift, such as praying in tongues, is a divinely given ability to minister in a specific way beyond our own ability, which glorifies God.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12.4-7, NIV).
God the Holy Spirit distributes the gifts as the Spirit sees fit. There’s no indication that gifts, like tongues, are limited to a particular gender, or a specific time in history. And, to put a fine point on it, the Spirit decides who gets what gifts, not us or our personal doctrines or opinions. It is not up to us to disparage other people’s gifts just because we don’t have that gift or we don’t understand how it is used.
Perhaps we should adopt a perspective of gracious receptivity to what God wishes to give to us. Why put limits on what God can do and when? There is some discussion out there about how certain spiritual gifts have stopped, that the Holy Spirit no longer gives those certain gifts anymore because they are not needed.
Since God the Holy Spirit is the giver of spiritual gifts, including the gift of tongues, or prayer languages, wouldn’t it make sense that only the Holy Spirit is the determiner of whether gifts are needed or not? Who are we to place that restriction on God?
Spiritual Gifts Have Not Stopped
Often people who say that certain spiritual gifts like prayer languages, or miracles or healing, have ceased is because they don’t see it as a regular feature in the life of the church. Or they make allowances that such gifts are seen and present in missionary situations in other countries, just not where they are.
It would seem, though, that if spiritual gifts were being given by the Holy Spirit and in use in our present time, then they, in fact, have not ceased. It doesn’t compute to say they’ve ceased, just not over there, in another place. Either they have stopped or they have not, isn’t that what that means?
Some very smart and investigative people have explored that same notion and they suggested that perhaps Christians in America don’t see as much “power” gifts like tongues and miracles, and healing is because we are afraid of being thought of as odd. It could be that we want to be respectable more than we want to witness the move of the Holy Spirit in our midst. May God have mercy on us.
We Only See What We See
The other argument that gets brought up is that if certain spiritual gifts still continued then we would see the lame walking, the blind seeing, and the dead being brought to life. But again, that is limiting what God can, and does, do through spiritual gifts. In Jesus’ own ministry, he healed all types of diseases and illnesses, and they were not limited to the blind, the lame, or the dead.
“ He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all“(Luke 6.17-20, NIV, emphasis added).
As another example, he met a great crowd, not limited to the lame, the blind, or the dead:
“Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick” (John 6.1-2, NIV, emphasis added).
Even the disciples were sent out and did much healing, also not limited to the lame, the blind, or the dead.
If we don’t see it in our churches then it must not exist, yet outside of American churches, especially in Asia and Africa, the gifts of the Spirit is quite evident, including praying in tongues. I would gently suggest that just because someone doesn’t see a spiritual gift occurring, doesn’t necessarily mean it does not happen elsewhere.
Thus, to make the assertion (mostly from personal experience) that spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit are not given anymore shortchanges the third person of the Trinity and unnecessarily limits the God’s power working in the Body of Christ, the church.
Praying in Tongues Not Needed?
People who say that spiritual gifts, including the gift of tongues, have ceased are called cessationists. They assert that the very visible “power” gifts like healing and tongues and prophecy were needed in the New Testament times to confirm what was being said and written and shared in the early church.
Now that the church is established and the canon of the New Testament is set, they say that such gifts are no longer needed. Even though such gifts, including praying in tongues, is extensively mentioned in the Book of Acts and in 1 Corinthians, they state that if such gifts were really continuing, then they would have been mentioned more often in other of Paul’s letters.
That’s a big assumption to make in the face of God the Holy Spirit and what God chooses to do, since God is not controlled by us, mere, finite humans. And, praying in tongues is specifically mentioned when people accept salvation in Jesus Christ, so I fail to see how that kind of blessing from God would stop for no apparent reason. While we may not understand, I would assert that, in humility, we accept that God knows what God is doing.
If praying in tongues, that is, using a spiritual prayer language is given by the Holy Spirit to edify an individual believer, how would that not be needed? I don’t know about you but I need all the help from the Holy Spirit as I can get to keep following Jesus and live an abundant life.
If you are still wondering whether praying in tongues is real, then perhaps you can consider looking beyond America, or the Western church.
Praying in Tongues Where Christianity Growing?
While Christianity is declining in the Western world, especially in America, it is growing quickly in places like Africa and Asia. It is not surprising that in those areas where Christianity is growing, praying in tongues and other gifts of the Holy Spirit, like miracles and healing, are also more present.
I offer my own personal experience as just that, my experience. I don’t want to imply that what I’ve seen is universal, but I do believe that what I’ve seen is backed up by other accounts, personal testimony, and even mainstream reporting.
Although I am not multilingual, I have traveled all over the world and am familiar enough with several known languages that I can recognize sentence structure and cadence, even with a very, very limited vocabulary. So, if someone started speaking Italian, for instance, I would recognize it as Italian.
In places as distant as Australia and Israel, to Cuba, Peru, and Argentina, I have heard people praying in tongues. It was not Spanish, English, Hebrew, or Portuguese (all languages native to those countries or nearby). What was telling was not the language being prayed, but what happened after the person prayed in tongues.
There was usually a word of encouragement or spiritual discernment that the person wouldn’t naturally have otherwise. Sometimes the word was prophetic, speaking into the other person’s life as a direct message of love and grace from God.
It brought edification to the person praying and the person being prayed for. Ultimately God was glorified. In each of those places, the individual churches were growing and bringing people to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
Try Curiosity and Openness Instead of Closed-Mindedness
If you have strong opinions on tongues and disagree with what is written here, I understand. I invite you to consider all that is written and seek God’s guidance on this topic. Instead of having this topic be divisive, I seek to use curiosity to see possibilities of God working, not narrow doctrinal demands of God.
I prefer to be open-minded about what God may want to do through God’s spiritual gifts. Since the Holy Spirit is the giver of gifts and we are the receivers, I’d like to suggest that we adopt a more receptive stance and mindset in regards to praying in tongues. We don’t need to be judgy or close-minded with the things of God. Jesus warned against this type of thing. Perhaps we can be gracious toward people and ourselves on this issue.
There is a popular quote that has been wrongly attributed to Augustine and to John Wesley, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” Praying in tongues is not an essential to following Jesus, so wouldn’t it be the more Christian thing to do to accept that some people engage and minister in this gift, even if others do not? Couldn’t there be a gracious liberty as we live in the spirit of love toward one another?
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13.34-35, NIV).
People often wonder if praying in a spiritual language is actually praying in an actual language that is spoken somewhere else. Although I personally have never discovered the language in which I was praying my spiritual prayer language, some people have.
As an example, there was a pastor flying cross country back to his home in California. The whole trip he had a very strong nudge to speak some of his prayer language to the man sitting next to him but he kept resisting that nudge. He thought the man would think him odd. Finally, as they were approaching the time to land, he finally asked the man if he could speak a couple of phrases that he did not understand. The man agreed.
The pastor spoke his prayer language and the man looked shocked as he recognized what was being spoken. It was the language of the Native American tribe Kiowa. He provided a translation for the pastor. This is a unique example, but it does mean that the language of tongues is recognizable to someone, just as it was in the Book of Acts.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues! (Acts 2.1-11, NIV).
I hope you have arrived at a deeper understanding of praying in tongues and, at some level, grasp that praying in tongues is real, is biblical, and is from the Holy Spirit. If you wish to explore more, the most helpful tool I could point you to is The Beauty of Spiritual Language, by Dr. Jack Hayford.
Keep walking out your faith in God and keep on praying!