On Speaking in Tongues

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I stumbled into speaking in tongues. At the time, it wasn’t what I wanted.

I was sixteen. I’d only been “born again” for about six months, and I knew I could experience God the same way people in the New Testament did. Paul talked about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians – healing, prophecy – and I believed.

I wanted Jesus to fill me with the Holy Spirit, the same way he did for believers in Acts.

I tend to get loud when I pray, and I needed to pray. I didn’t want to freak out my parents, so I decided to pray at a park near my house. At night. I wanted power. Power to do miracles. Power to heal the sick. Power to raise the dead. I’d wait in silence, but eventually, the prayers came out. I cried out to God, even argued with God. And every time, I felt something: warm waves of love crashed into my chest. I physically trembled. I shook.

I kept it up for over a month. Nightly trips to the park, rain or snow. The good feelings kept coming, but I wasn’t experiencing the power I wanted. I wanted more than a feeling. So I decided to chill out on begging God to Spirit-baptize me. Every once in awhile, I’d mention it in my prayers, but disappointment restrained my expectations.

And then I was troubled. I’d stopped actively seeking my own personal Pentecost, and one night, as I prayed, my words were dry, inauthentic. It annoyed me. I remember pacing through the second floor of our house, ticked off at God, and as I stepped into the bathroom, some words fell out of my mouth. But they weren’t in English. I didn’t recognize them.

Was I speaking in tongues?

I was scared. This wasn’t the gift I wanted. It didn’t make sense. But it felt – good. So good!

I ran to my room and prayed in the most pious position I could think of, with my hands folded on the corner of my bed, back straight, knees bent on the floor. I asked God for wisdom in regard to whatever had just occurred. As a precaution, I cast out any pesky demons trying to deceive me, and I asked God, yet again, to fill me with the Spirit. I felt an urge to open my mouth and there they were, those same mysterious words.

They kept coming. And somehow these words that I didn’t understand felt truer than anything else I’d prayed that night. Somehow the barriers I’d been running up against in prayer were gone.

I was skeptical of this new thing. But I was open to God, to whatever God wanted to do, and the result was that God gave me the goofiest and least powerful of the charismatic gifts: the gift of tongues.

The night I first spoke in tongues, I felt those feelings again – the ones that made me quake. The love rushing over me. Like I was cocooned in the Holy Spirit. After I stopped praying, and as I laid in my bed, the warmth and energy remained hovering over me, covering me; and I was at peace. I felt safe. I felt known.

I was humbled, too.

So many times, the Spirit had crept up on me, and I’d dismissed her. The feelings hadn’t seemed valid because they were just feelings. I’d wanted power. Somehow, God knew I needed comfort. That night, I praised God until I fell asleep. I slept well.

Looking back on that night, I recognize that God welcomed me into what N.T. Wright calls a “private language of love.” It felt intimate and holy. The Bible doesn’t say much about what tongues are or how the gift works (let alone what it’s for), but Paul uses the word “edifying.” Some talk about tongues as a way to receive power, like you’re building up Holy Spirit power in order to shoot out miracles. But that’s not what this gift does for me. It helps me tap into the indwelling presence of God. It’s a way of being, of cooperating, of resting with God. Speaking in tongues is about abiding in Christ.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with prayer. Praying has been awkward and unnatural for me the past few months. I don’t know what to say to God. I’m fighting doubt as I pray, and I get overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness. I’ve been repeating the Lord’s Prayer a lot, and I’ve been praying in tongues. Most of the time, I just don’t know what to pray, and words fail to carry what God is stirring within me, so I lean on the Spirit and let her pray for me. In that place, I find rest. The syllables and noises can be clumsy and strange, but as they roll out (or burst out) I feel my spirit breathing, I feel life pouring in.

This act of holy-foolishness grounds me in Christ’s faithfulness, gives me a way to yield and be faithful in the face of my own confusion. The truth is, I still want power. But God knows what I really need.

There’s More to Revival

Worship at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, home of the in/famous “Toronto Blessing”

I was 16 years old when I was convinced that there was more to the Christian life than what I had been experiencing. I didn’t quite know what that looked like, but I found no reason to believe that what the disciples experienced in Pentecost was not for me. I prayed for over a month, every night, rain or snow, in a park nearby my house. I knew if my parents, who are not Christians, heard my pleading to God, they would be a bit freaked out. My prayers were loud, often whiny, sprinkled with shouting and screams, and always irreverent. I was God’s little brat child. (I still am. Sanctification is a process.)

At that time in my life I was a bit over-zealous, I admit, but I miss being filled with so much faith.  I really did expect God to intervene and answer my pleas. I imagined being filled with the Spirit as an absurdly dramatic encounter with God where the ground beneath me would shake, the skies would rumble, and I would be consumed by apocalyptic visions and inward raptures. Instead, each time I prayed, I felt love and peace warm my body, a deep assurance of God’s presence, and I’d shake, not from the bitter cold, but because I was overwhelmed by the love of God. For some reason, that wasn’t enough. I refused to count that as being filled with the Spirit. Eventually I got burnt out by what I saw as unanswered prayers, and stopped asking God to fill me with the Spirit and grant me with the same power as the apostles.

It was months later, when I was 17, that I actually spoke in tongues. For whatever reason, I had some frustrating prayers that night and no matter what I said to God, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t capture something that was stirring in me. My words felt dry and the Holy Ghost seemed distant. I began pacing my bathroom post-prayer, annoyed at both myself and God, and these clumsy words pushed their way out of my mouth. I asked myself, “was that… what I think it was?” Terrified of being deceived by Satan, I got on my knees immediately and asked for discernment and wisdom, and as I prayed, more of these strange words came out. After quite a good while of praying in tongues, I felt clothed in power, filled with peace, and overflowing with love. I got a great sleep that night, too.

After this undeniably charismatic experience, I was scared that this Spirit-baptism would be isolating for me in my very Evangelical church and was hoping I wouldn’t have to succumb to attending a charismaniac church in order to finally exercise these gifts. Thankfully, in my little Christian & Missionary Alliance church, I had found the space to practice these spiritual gifts. I found out some of the youth and young adults in my church recently experienced similar things through a local house of prayer (associated with the International House of Prayer in Kansas City). Almost simultaneously, some of the adults, including folks in leadership, were also starting to experience the charismatic gifts and even started having mystical and ecstatic experiences, such as visions, uncontrollable laughter, and “soaking in the Spirit.”

With the support of the growing charismatic faction of the church, I began an ecumenical prayer ministry in the church basement where we’d eat cookies and then pound on Heaven’s door with simultaneous prayers, with known and unknown tongues. I also began interceding at the altar of the church with the youth every Sunday after service, contending for revival in our region. As I began attending the local house of prayer with my friends from church, I thought I was starting to see revival unfold before my eyes. It was there that I first saw healing, deliverance, and worship that flowed so smoothly yet so wildly. It was so raw, and at times even goofy, but somehow so beautiful and powerful.

Being prayed on a 'Miracles, Signs, and Wonders' conference (2012)

Being prayed on a ‘Miracles, Signs, and Wonders’ conference (2012)

I admit, at first I was terrified. I came to the house of prayer before a meeting and a leader warned me of what may occur that night. He started naming off different manifestations—shaking, falling, tongues, laughing—and I was disturbed. I had been speaking in tongues for maybe over a month, but I was offended that people would pull out something I saw as private and intimate in a meeting with dozens of strangers. As he named off the other manifestations, all I could think was, “I don’t want a demon!” Despite all my hesitation, much of it warranted as I look back on it, by the end of the night I ended up on the ground, squirming and sweating as I felt what I would describe as “fire” run throughout my body. I came out of this experience not knowing how to explain what just happened, but knowing deep in my soul that it was Jesus and I wanted more.

I still believe that it was Jesus, and I believe that fire was the love of God, as I experienced an unprecedented intimacy with God in the following months and came to experience the Christ’s refining work like never before. This was a special time in my life, but I admit that not all of it was healthy. The nature of these two years are such a mixed bag, filled with profound revelations and touches from God, but also much hype, disappointment, and irresponsible theology. There was an air of expectancy and fiery faith, but God was sometimes made out to be some cosmic vending machine and perhaps even a magic genie who automatically delivers your wishes. I remember being commanded to prophesy by a leader and I felt shamed when I was unable to spit out some oracles.

During this season, it had been promised by popular prophets and speakers that a national, and even a global, revival was to come out of the “current move of God”. There would be a new missionary movement, the Church would grow like never before, and a time of tribulation would come and test the Bride, and she’d rise in power and authority and bring back the return of Christ. We were the final generation; the manifest sons of God. But what really happened? I saw some people come to faith and I saw God renew and transform some lives, but I didn’t see transformation on a wider-scale, and I also saw a good amount of harm done. Eventually, even these “power encounters”, as some neo-charismatics label these experiences, started to die out. The testimonies started to dry up and we saw less and less healings and miracles, and even laughing, weeping, and being “slain in the Spirit” started to vanish from the meetings.

Ultimately, I didn’t see revival. At least not one that matched the narrative we were offered by popular charismatic teachers. What they offered doesn’t seem to count as revival anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in revival. I just think it’s bigger than doing signs and wonders and getting a bunch of people to say a prayer and go to church on Sunday. Revival, when it poured down on the Church in Pentecost, brought power from on high to do miracles and to preach the Gospel, but it also brought deep fellowship, discipleship, and selflessness in the Church. It created a radical community (Acts 2:42, 44-46).

Sometimes I wonder if much of the Charismatic world focuses on these elaborate prophecies and miraculous goals in order to avoid the hard stuff the gospel calls for us to do. I know too many people caught up in a cycle of mission trips, “schools of supernatural ministry”, conferences, etc., seeking to be equipped in the miraculous, but have no idea how to snap out of speaking Christianese and actually engage with the world. They are so often out of touch with issues of injustice in society and the ways the world desperately needs healing. It appears they are more concerned with winning people over to their club rather than living and manifesting redemption. Even their acts of compassion and mercy are frequently a ploy to gain a convert.

Jesus calls us to a radical mission, and sometimes it is to go across the world and serve the poor, but most often it is to bring the gospel to wherever we are. It does not take much searching to find brokenness. The truth is that most often the ministries we are called to don’t look fantastic or worthy of being on the front cover of Charisma Magazine. God almost always utilizes the situation we are already in and the resources we already have. Even if God breaks into our lives with the miraculous, let us never fool ourselves to think we are more than human. In the incarnation, and even on the cross, we discover there is glory in being human. There is even power in being weak. May we never forget to live boldly in the ordinary, bringing the seed of the Kingdom into every act, and the love of God into every moment. I think that’s what revival looks like.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
Matthew 7:21-23

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
1 Corinthians 13:1-3

How and Why I am [Still] Charismatic / Pentecostal

I consider myself a fairly experienced charismatic despite the fact that I have never been grounded in a single charismatic culture. I’ve had many brief dippings in different charismatic streams, but I have remained fairly nomadic and apprehensive of finding a home in any of these movements. I have tasted and seen a bit of the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church/Mainline churches, the Vineyard, the ecumenical ‘Sword of the Spirit’ association, the ‘houses of prayer’, the ‘New Mystics’, and the ‘Apostolic-Prophetic’ movement. All these renewal movements were a blessing in my life in one way or another, some much more than others, but I also witnessed a ton of unhealthy things in this world, especially among the younger movements. I have had multiple people inform me that God wanted me to marry them, I have had too many friends make unhealthy and reckless decisions because of a personal revelation, I have seen the young and on-fire force their friends with a physical disability out of a wheelchair, and I have often come away from these sorts of places losing faith and growing bitter.

But still, I find myself believing that the Holy Spirit is still working like he did 2,000 years ago. Still, I find myself pursuing and seeking the powerful graces of the Holy Spirit, including the ‘wild’ ones. Still, I find myself both reminiscing about and encountering those holy moments of inebriation and ecstasy.

Despite the abuses and counterfeits I have encountered, I know I have also met God in a very real way through charismatic experiences and I know I need to pursue the charismatic gifts because of that. I think about the Corinthians and how their worship was marked by excess and the mishandling of the spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians, Paul corrects the Corinthian Church for various sins, including their borderline gnosticism and hypersexuality, and dedicates a good amount of this letter to correct their charismania… but still encourages them to continue to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy.” (1 Cor. 14:1)

Slain in the Spirit and resting under a 'modesty cloth'

Slain in the Spirit and resting under a ‘modesty cloth’

Why Charismatic-ism Matters To Me

I had my first pentecostal experience the day I put my faith in Christ and surrendered to an overwhelming urge to receive His grace. I didn’t exactly know what that meant, but I knew it had to happen; I fell on my knees in my bedroom and tried my best to pray. I began to feel this warmth in my heart that kept growing and growing until it eventually felt like a spring of love bursting out of my chest. I began shaking and trembling. I didn’t have words for what was happening, but I believed then and now that I encountered the Holy Spirit, the same Inward Teacher the disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost. I fall back on that moment frequently; It is why I am following Jesus and it is why I keep going.

Seven months after I decided to follow Christ, I had an experience that Pentecostals label the ‘Spirit-baptism’, where I began praying in tongues. Following this baptism, I sought out the Spirit by diving into every charismatic meeting I heard about. I began identifying as charismatic, though I was wary of some pop-charismatic ideas, such as blindly supporting the state of Israel. During my years of seeking out the Spirit in the Charismatic world, I saw God move powerfully in healing power, through the gift of prophecy, and through other encounters, namely individuals receiving baptisms in the Spirit, with tongues, laughter, weeping, trembling, etc. Though I do not doubt that some of this phenomena was fueled by things other than the Spirit, much of it was fruitful, authentic, and these are moments I fondly remember and thank God for.

I have gone through seasons of glory where I often saw people healed and received powerful prophetic words and was moved by God on an ecstatic level, and seasons that I considered dry because they lacked these things. Now, I realize that it’s all glory, because I recognize God’s closeness in all of these moments and how I am meant to seek him in all of this, even when things don’t look the way I want. Ultimately, I think I can see things this way because I am charismatic, for I believe that Spirit is always available and present and works in innumerable ways.

The Implications of Pentecost

Posing with a friend at a 'Miracles, Signs, and Wonders' conference

Posing with my friend Joshua at a ‘Miracles, Signs, and Wonders’ conference

Pentecost was truly a Trinitarian wonder given as a grace to the Church of God because the work of Christ. Although some make this event merely pneumacentric, Pentecost glorifies all Three in the Godhead, for it was the Father’s promise (Acts 1:4) that Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11). This event is meant to drive believers back to the very events the Gospel stands on: the death and resurrection of Christ. The gift of the Spirit for the believer, the grace of walking under the Spirit’s influence and sanctifying power, is only available because of the shed blood of Jesus and his victory over death.

That being said, Pentecost and the pentecostal experience of the Spirit-baptism described in Acts shapes my theology and my practice of the faith in two major ways:

  • The egalitarian work of the Spirit: Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit did not take gender or race into account, but was to be poured out on to “all flesh.” Joel prophetically promised that the Spirit would cause both men and women to prophesy and to receive revelations (Acts 2:17-19). The Holy Spirit was, and is, a gift for all who called upon the name of the Lord and equality in the Church, as all were called by Paul to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts for the edification of the Church (1 Cor. 12:39, 14:1), including women, who were expected to pray and prophesy in the meeting (1 Cor. 11:3-16). Many women were ordained after the Azusa Street Revival, which birthed the Pentecostal movement, and were sent out as evangelists and missionaries, and some were even counted as ‘apostles’. A woman by the name of Aimee Semple McPherson even founded a Pentecostal denomination, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
  • The Spirit of God being the Spirit of love: As William Seymour believed, as well as many (if not most) of the early Pentecostals believed, the experience of the Spirit-baptism primarily brings love. This experience was seen as more than empowerment for preaching the Gospel but as an experience where the love of God touches the believer so deeply that a love for mankind naturally overflows. After Pentecost, the Church came alive, not just in power, but in genuine love for each other. They experienced an unprecedented unity, as they shared all things in common and were constantly gathering to pray, worship, and celebrate at the Lord’s table (Acts 2:44-47). The Pentecostal writer, evangelist, and missionary Frank Bartleman who was present at Azusa noted that “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.” The experience of the Spirit-baptism famously broke down the walls of racism among early Pentecostals, as the fire of the Azusa Street Revival brought black and white believers to worship together. This same fire also fueled their respect of the image of God in all men and their embrace of non-violent gospel. Most Pentecostal denominations that formed in the early 1900s had formally expressed a pacifistic view. Sadly, as ‘love’ was replaced by ‘tongues’ in doctrinal statements, racial division crept back in and Pentecostals eventually became less passionate about pacifism.

The distinctive doctrines of western Pentecostalism are not always things I can endorse in good conscience, such as pre-tribulational premillenialism, the rapture, and tongues as necessary evidence of the Spirit-baptism, but the distinctives of early Pentecostalism—pacifism, love as the primary sign of the Spirit-baptism, racial reconciliation, and egalitarian ministry—reveal, at least to me, the glorious finished-work of Christ on the cross. Though I may not culturally or theologically fit into much of the Pentecostalism around me, the history of the Pentecostal movement inspires me, and the event of Pentecost (both 2000 years ago, and my personal pentecostal experience) has powerfully shaped me and has drawn me closer to my Savior. This conviction and inspiration has led me to Quakerism, where I see that egalitarian ministry manifest week by week in meeting for worship and where I see that testimony of peace brought into action. I do long for more expectant fellowship where all the gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-11, 28.) are both appreciated and experienced, but I see such a desire as completely compatible with Quakerism, and even more fitting with Quakerism, with its discernment processes and the posture of ‘waiting’ in worship.