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

Tongues-speaking has been called a love language because it results in praise, adoration, worship, and exaltation of our beloved Lord.

There are anti-charismatics who argue heatedly against a prayer language that transcends our natural vocabulary. But why would God limit us to such a feeble word treasury? Many people have difficulty communicating simple things. How can they—or we—possibly express those ineffable feelings that well up from time to time within our innermost beings? Until the manifestation of tongues was recovered from relative obscurity Christians employed groans, sighs, and cries. How valuable these are! And how much more valuable that which God expressly gave to the Church and placed His seal of approval on!

Up to this point I have used several words to designate tongues-speaking. These include heavenly language, prayer language, praise language, devotional language, heart language, spirit or soul language, and transcendent language. Such language is heavenly in the sense that it is neither carnal nor earthly (1 Corinthians 14:14; some readers may be reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:1 here: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels …”). It is prayer, praise, and devotional language in that it is offered to God (1 Corinthians 14:2,16, 28). It is actually called thanksgiving in I Corinthians 14:16. And tongues can be considered a “personal” prayer language, not in an elitist sense, but in the sense that Paul instructs the Corinthians to keep their tongues between God and themselves and not to share it with other hearers unless there is an interpreter (I Corinthians 14:2, 28).

Tongues-speaking is a spirit or heart language in that it does not originate in our understanding but in our spirit (I Corinthians 14:15). For the same reason, charismatic Presbyterian J. Rodman Williams calls it a transcendent language (Gift, pp. 29, 133): It transcends the limited human capacities of earthly languages. It would seem that its personal edifying value also transcends that of prayer in our native tongue. It has also been called a love language because it results in praise, adoration, worship, and exaltation of our beloved Lord.


Foreign vs. Unknown Languages

Tongues is the hallmark of a phenomenon that has motivated Christians to read their Bibles more faithfully, fellowship more happily, attend church more regularly, pray more fervently, witness more effectively, work more committedly, love more sincerely, and care about others more passionately.

Some anti-charismatics insist that the New Testament manifestation of tongues was the divine impartation of the ability to speak in a foreign language. They continue to argue like this: (I) Linguists have affirmed that the charismatic prayer language is not always a foreign language; (2) New Testament tongues-speaking was a foreign language; therefore, (3) The twentieth-century phenomenon of tongues is not the New Testament phenomenon. They can then conclude that Pentecostals and charismatics are duped and that their tongues-speaking is fraudulent and even dangerous.

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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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