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The Danger of a Pagan Religious Experience

July 2nd, 2015

…The Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.

Acts 26:17-18

This was the commission Paul received from Christ on the Damascus road where he was converted. And it is a summary of the calling of all Christians to take the gospel to the ends of the world, that people might be saved from faithlessness or from false systems of belief, and brought into the saving knowledge of God.

Pagan tongues: A fact that must be acknowledged is that many other religions teach their adherents how to have ecstatic emotional experiences. Dr Merrill F. Unger in his book, New Testament Teaching on Tongues, wrote the following:

That tongues can be and are counterfeited by demon spirits is evidenced by the fact that spiritistic mediums, Muslim dervishes, and Indian fakirs speak in tongues. It must be remembered by those who try to make tongues a badge of spirituality or a status symbol of saints who have attained the height of spiritual experience, that speaking in tongues and their interpretation are not peculiar to the Christian church but are common in ancient pagan religions and in spiritism both ancient and modern.

The very phrase “to speak with tongues” (Greek glosais lalein, Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19-6; 1st Cor. 12-14; cf. Mark 16:17) was not invented by New Testament writers, but borrowed from the ordinary speech of pagans. Plato’s attitude toward the enthusiastic ecstasies of the ancient soothsayer (mantis, diviner,) recalls the Apostle Paul’s attitude toward Glossolalia among the Corinthian believers.

Virgil graphically describes the ancient pagan prophetess “speaking with tongues.” He depicts her disheveled hair, her panting breast, her change of color, and her apparent increase in stature as the god (demon) came upon her and filled her with this supernatural afflatus. Then her voice loses its mortal ring as the god (demon) speaks through her, as in ancient and modern necromancy (spiritism).

Religions have through the centuries noticed the spiritual void of humanity and sought to fill it with ecstatic emotionalism – confusing emotions with spirit. The Bible says that we are dead in our transgressions and sins, and we understand that to mean that humanity is spiritually dead, cut off from the life of God. Our disease is spiritual in nature, not emotional, and requires a spiritual solution, not an emotional.

Nevertheless, people are attracted to emotional experiences – we cheer at ballgames, weep at weddings, laugh at comedies, get sentimental over silly things – and after these emotional purgings we feel a bit better inside, more relaxed and calmer. But this is just emotion, and does not substantially change us.

Revisiting the Prophets of Baal: In 1 Kings 18:20-40 we have the dramatic account of the showdown between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The different approaches of worship are also described. The false prophets called on Baal with great emotions and drama, leaping about the altar they had made, even to the point of cutting themselves according to their custom, crying out to their god with intensity.

Elijah’s prayer was very simple and plain, and his demonstrated faith in God. His was the one God answered. And in this way he contrasted true faith with false faith.

False faith seeks to inform and engage a distant and apathetic god. Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. for they think they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). Christ taught that God is aware of our needs, that He desires to bless us, and that He is ready to help us.

Yet often in Charismatic services and in their songs, they have returned to similar theology that sees God as distant, unaware, and unconcerned. So there is much hopping around to be noticed and work to motivate God to answer and care. I see this as very “paganistic” in thought and practice.

There are likewise those who claim to be able to teach people how to speak in tongues – but all they do is to encourage emotional utterances – no different from other religions.

The biblical emphasis is on hearing the gospel, believing, and surrendering our lives to God for Him to do what He wants to do. We should trust Him with the experience that He entrusts to us, and not to seek after the experience of others not promised in scripture.

The work of the Spirit is to give life of God to us, assuring us, sanctifying us, strengthening us, transforming us. This should be our focus – life, truth, transformation, holiness – and not mere raw emotion.

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Is There a Prayer Language?

July 1st, 2015

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.

1 Corinthians 14:14-15

The Apostle Paul described a phenomenon, an experience that he and many others had in the New Testament era. That fact should not be in dispute, for this is the clear testimony of Scripture. It was an experience that he described here as “praying in a tongue,” and one in which his spirit prayed while his mind, or his understanding, was “unfruitful.” The experience could also include singing in the spirit, again, while the mind did not apparently follow or understand fully the song of praise.

The frustration of tongues today is the difficulty of understanding what is being described in these chapters of 1 Corinthians. Many great biblical scholars have pondered this passage repeatedly and came away puzzled and with different opinions about the matter. John Calvin, the great Reformer, saw the tongues referred to here as real languages, and this passage here as a mere theoretical example from Paul to explain the importance of speaking in words that all could understand. A worshiper singing in song in a language he did not understand may be ministered to in his spirit but not in his mind, and worship is to be done in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). The entire passage, then, for Calvin, was about the multilingual reality of the New Testament churches. He was counseling peace, unity, patience, understanding, rather than arguments about which language would be used. The phrase then, “Do not forbid the speaking in tongues,” meant simply to worship in the language that most understood but to not forbid private conversations in other languages in the church.

But others of us have understood this as a spiritual gift and not as a result of the normal process of learning more than one language. Some divinely bestowed capacity was given to a few people in these early days of the church, and it was done so for their personal edification (1 Cor. 14:2). That this gift was listed among the spiritual gifts and as such was divinely bestowed (1 Cor. 12:10), meant that it was not of human origin, but of God. But clearly not all had this gift, not all needed this gift, not all benefited from this gift.

Some challenges in translation and interpretation: One of the challenges which faces anyone translating the New Testament into English is our English habit of capitalizing the word “spirit” when it refers to the Holy Spirit, and leaving it all in lower case letters when it refers to the human spirit. In the original Greek there was no such grammatical rule, so the context itself has to determine whether the author meant the human spirit or the Holy Spirit. It is not always easy to determine or agree on. Here is a case in point.

Verse 14 says ‘my spirit,” but verse 15 simply says, “spirit,” which has led some to determine that there in verse 15 is a description of praying in the Holy Spirit – mentioned also in Ephesians 6:18, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit.” They then connect this verse to Romans 8:26, “The Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

But in carefully reading the context and thinking through the entire passage, this seems like a poor and unlikely meaning. First, the Apostle described the experience of speaking in a tongue from the believer’s perspective. “Pray with the spirit” is likened to “pray with the understanding,” so it seems more reasonable to see him referring to the human spirit here, not the Holy Spirit. Secondly, this interpretation of Romans 8:26 confuses the work of the Spirit of God to translate our poorly uttered prayers and the burdens and concerns of our hearts into intelligible requests according to the will of God, with our own personal experience. The “groanings which cannot be uttered” refers to the communication within the Godhead and not within the believer.

A better understanding of this is that he was describing a mystical personal experience in prayer that he found difficult to express to others. He wrote, “my understanding is unfruitful,” meaning that it bore no capacity to give a public witness to the experience, certainly not in its entirety. It was like a barren tree – beautiful green leaves but no fruit for others to eat.

I have known many people to confuse public praying with the deep personal praying that takes place in private. There are things we pray in private that we should not pray in public. Since the Church is called the bride of Christ it is not taking this too far to say that the public prayer is compared to the token kiss a husband and wife make to one another in front of others, while the private prayer is like the secret intimacy they share alone.

The tongues in Corinth is best understood to be believers speaking in prayer in a way that even they could not fully understand. And that mostly this was a gift for the individual, but not strictly only for the individual, for there was also the capacity for some ministry to the church body if there were someone with the gift of interpretation of tongues. 1 Corinthians 14:28: “But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church, and let him speak to himself and to God.” Clearly, though, tongues, even if they were capable of being interpreted, were that still mostly personal, for the person spoke “to himself and to God.”

What is transferable and applicable today? Whatever we make out of this we cannot be lured into the idea that this is a special experience for the deeper Christians. I have often heard some people (not all) say that they have their “private prayer language” with a hint of spiritual pride, as though their faith was stronger and their devotion deeper, so their spiritual life was richer. There is no hint of that whatsoever in these chapters of 1 Corinthians 12-14.

The fact that the gift is so vaguely described leads us to not be able to know if we are speaking in tongues today or not. The jibberish that some utter and that they claim to be divine languages can be so easily falsified that it serves as no proof whatsoever that someone truly has this gift. Many a pretender has stood before great assemblies and faked this gift, and the gullible have believed him – Marjoe Gortner for example. Uttering jibberish in public is no proof of authenticity, and neither is someone who claims to be able to translate it.

Any emphasis on speaking in tongues will distract from clear biblical teachings and tends to lead believers into error. It creates pride in believers and divisions in the body of Christ and is said to one day “cease,” and for these reasons many of us Christians through the centuries have said it is best to leave it alone. Better – much, much better – to study the scripture and to teach the scripture rather than to invite pride, divisions, and doctrinal entanglements in what we cannot understand.

But, still, it is in God’s Word. I have asked a question in the title of this article that I cannot answer, because the scripture is too vague. But let me make an important point about God’s Spirit. I do not encourage anyone to search for the “tongues experience” or to try and find your own “private prayer language,” but I do strongly affirm the spiritual reality that God sometimes moves within us today in ways that we find impossible to express. There are spiritual blessings and joys that He gives, there are burdens and fears and personal wounds that He lifts in His power that transcend our understanding. Paul wrote of the “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:4-7), and whether tongues has any thing to do with this or not, what is certain is that we cannot limit what the Holy Spirit does in our lives, nor even begin to understand it all.

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