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Praying in the Spirit: Just What Is the Nature of the Prayer Language?

The truth of the matter is that the prayer language may be used with the same emotional outpouring elicited by opening a can of soup or feeding the cat. Tongues observer Morton Kelsey writes that “one does not have to turn an emotional hair in order to speak in tongues” (Tongues, 145). The believer does not wait until his emotions are whipped into a frenzy before praising God with his heart language. He speaks quietly or reverently or joyfully just as he does with every expression of prayer and praise, and the words come every bit as naturally.

Charismatic Lutheran pastor Larry Christenson writes:

In a prayer group of Lutherans and Episcopalians … the speaking in tongues will be no more pronounced in its emotional aspect than prayers in English. The reason speaking in tongues is tied to emotionalism in many people’s minds is because the practice of it, until quite recently, has been confined almost exclusively to religious groups which follow a rather free and emotional form of worship.

(Speaking, p. 83)

When the apostle Paul placed certain restrictions upon tongues, he was addressing those Corinthian believers whose practice of tongues monopolized or disrupted the service and perhaps annoyed or baffled unlearned Christians or unsaved onlookers. Paul was concerned with order and edification.

One cannot read the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians without seeing that Paul was of the opinion that the Christian controls tongues-speaking; tongues-speaking does not control the Christian.

Tongues-speaking is a spirit or heart language in that it does not originate in our understanding but in our spirit.

Paul specified, for example, that only one speaker could address the congregation in tongues at a time, and that the speaker was to “keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God” if there was no interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:28). These rules imply that the tongues-speaker could control himself—unlike the dervishes of pagan religions who achieved a trancelike state and delivered oracles from the gods.

The woman described at the beginning of this chapter, who interrupted a prophetic message with an utterance in tongues, was herself apparently out of control. From where she sat she should have been able to hear the speaker. If she could but still did not restrain herself from speaking in tongues, this would indicate that she was misusing the gift.

This is not to say that our prayers and praises must be based on intellectual understanding or our ability to express them verbally. The language of the heart argues for the opposite. Through those “groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26) the joy that was unspeakable finds fluent expression. And joy unspeakable becomes enjoyable speech. We need only safeguard that we use the gift appropriately and biblically.

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Category: Fall 1999, Spirit

About the Author: Robert W. Graves, M. A. (Literary Studies, Georgia State University), is the co-founder and president of The Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship, Inc., a non-profit organization supporting Pentecostal scholarship through research grants. He is a Christian educator and a former faculty member of Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, Texas, and Kennesaw State University (adjunct). He edited and contributed to Strangers to Fire: When Tradition Trumps Scripture and is the author of Increasing Your Theological Vocabulary, Praying in the Spirit (1987 and Second Edition, 2017) and The Gospel According to Angels (Chosen Books, 1998).

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