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.

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.