A Private Prayer Language?
Updated July 6, 2010 (first published March 6, 2006)
Pentecostals and Charismatics often teach that there are two types of tongues described in the New Testament: the “public language tongues” of Pentecost and the “private prayer” tongues of 1 Corinthians 14:4 -- “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.” Some call this distinction “ministry tongues” and “devotional tongues.”
Early Pentecostal leaders understood that biblical tongues were real earthly languages. They even thought they would be able to go to foreign mission fields and witness through miraculous tongues without having to learn the languages. Those who attempted this, though, returned bitterly disappointed!
“Alfred G. Garr and his wife went to the Far East with the conviction that they could preach the gospel in 'the Indian and Chinese languages.’ Lucy Farrow went to Africa and returned after seven months during which she was alleged to have preached to the natives in their own 'Kru language.’ The German pastor and analyst Oskar Pfister reported the case of a Pentecostal... ‘Simon,’ who had planned to go to China using tongues for preaching. Numerous other Pentecostal missionaries went abroad believing they had the miraculous ability to speak in the languages of those to whom they were sent. These Pentecostal claims were well known at the time. S.C. Todd of the Bible Missionary Society investigated eighteen Pentecostals who went to Japan, China, and India ‘expecting to preach to the natives in those countries in their own tongue,’ and found that by their own admission ‘in no single instance have [they] been able to do so.’ As these and other missionaries returned in disappointment and failure, Pentecostals were compelled to rethink their original view of speaking in tongues” (Robert Mapes Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism).
The conclusion was soon reached that their “tongues” were not earthly languages but a “heavenly” or special prayer language; and those are the terms we have heard frequently at large Charismatic conferences, such as those in New Orleans in 1987, Indianapolis in 1990, and St. Louis in 2000. The tongues that I heard in these conferences were not languages of any sort, but merely repetitious mumblings that anyone could imitate. Larry Lea supposedly spoke in tongues in Indianapolis in 1990, and this is a key example of what is being passed off for tongues in the Charismatic movement. It went something like this: “Bubblyida bubblyida hallelujah bubblyida hallabubbly shallabubblyida kolabubblyida glooooory hallelujah bubblyida.” I wrote that down as he was saying it and later checked it against the tape. Nancy Kellar, a Roman Catholic nun who was on the executive committee of the St. Louis meeting in 2000, spoke in “tongues” on Thursday evening of the conference. Her tongues went like this: “Shananaa leea, shananaa higha, shananaa nanaa, shananaa leea…” repeated over and over and over.
If you think I’m making fun of these people, you are wrong. This is taken directly from the audiotapes of the messages. If these are languages, they certainly have a simple vocabulary! My children had a more complex language than that when they were still toddlers.
Michael Harper says: “In the short history of the Charismatic Renewal speaking in tongues has become rare in public, but continues to be a vital expression of prayer in private (These Wonderful Gifts, 1989, p. 97). He says this type of “tongues” is “a prayer language: a way of communicating more effectively with God” (p. 92). He claims that this experience “edifies” apart from the understanding: “Modern Western man finds it hard to believe that speaking unknown words to God can possibly be edifying. ... All one can say is ‘try it and see’. I can still remember today the moments when I first used this gift, and the immediate awareness I had that I was being edified. This is one of the most important reasons why the gift needs to be used regularly in private prayer” (These Wonderful Gifts, p. 93).
Harper says he is mystically aware of being edified even though he does not know what he is saying. He also says this “gift needs to be used regularly” and is therefore something important for the Christian life.
To prove his point he simply invites the skeptical observer to “try it and see,” reminding us that experience is the Charismatic’s greatest authority. (The “come and see” approach creates a new problem, though, for the Bible never says to “try tongues” or to seek after tongues and never describes how one could learn how to speak in tongues. In the Bible, speaking in tongues is always a supernatural activity that is sovereignly given by God.)
Even some that do not claim to be Pentecostals or Charismatics have this experience. Jerry Rankin, head of the International Mission Board (Southern Baptist), says he speaks in a “private prayer language” and contrasts this with the practice of “glossolalia.”
“I do have a private prayer language, have for more than 30 years. I don’t consider myself to have a gift of tongues. I’ve never been led to practice glossolalia, you know, publicly, and I think the spiritual gifts clearly in the didactic passage of the Scriptures are talking about the public uses, edification and gifts in the church. ... I've never viewed personally my intimacy with the Lord and the way His Spirit guides me in my prayer time as being the same as glossolalia and subjected to that criteria. ... I just want God to have freedom to do everything that He wants to do in my life and I’m going to be obedient to that” (“IMB president speaks plainly with state editors about private prayer language,” Baptist Press, Feb. 17, 2006).
It is a wonderful thing to desire to do God’s will wherever that leads, but He will never lead contrary to His own Word in the Scriptures. For the following reasons we are convinced that the Bible does not support the doctrine of a “private prayer language.”
FIRST, IF THE TONGUES-SPEAKING OF 1 CORINTHIANS 14 IS DIFFERENT FROM THAT OF ACTS 2, THE BIBLE NEVER EXPLAINS THE DIFFERENCE. We leave “tongues” in the book of Acts (the last mention is in Acts 19:6) and we do not see them again until 1 Corinthians 12-14. If the “tongues” in this epistle is a different type of thing than the “tongues” in Acts, why doesn’t the Bible say so and plainly explain this matter so that there is no confusion?
SECOND, PAUL SAID THE TONGUES SPEAKER EDIFIES HIMSELF (1 Cor. 14:4). That would not be possible unless the words could be understood, because throughout the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul says that understanding is absolutely necessary for edification. In verse 3 he says that prophesying edifies because it comforts and exhorts men, obviously referring to things that are understood to the hearer. In verse 4 he says that tongues speaking does not edify unless it is interpreted. In verses 16-17 he says that if someone does not understand something he is not edified. Words could not be plainer. If there is no edification of the church without understanding, how is it possible that the individual believer could be edified without understanding? This is confusion. The word “edify” means to build up in the faith. Webster’s 1828 dictionary defined it as “to instruct and improve the mind in knowledge generally, and particularly in moral and religious knowledge, in faith and holiness.” The words “edify,” “edification,” “edified,” and “edifying” are used in 18 verses in the New Testament and always refer to building up in the faith by means of instruction and godly living. For example, in Ephesians 4 the body of Christ is edified through the ministry of God-given preachers (Eph. 4:11-12). Thus, the fact that Paul said the tongues speaker edifies himself (1 Cor. 14:4) is proof that he understands what he is saying.
THIRD, PAUL SAYS THAT TONGUES ARE AN EARTHLY LANGUAGE (1 Cor. 14:20-22). If the tongues-speaking in 1 Corinthians 14 were some sort of “private prayer language,” why would Paul give this prophetic explanation of it and state dogmatically that it is an earthly language? He does not say that only some “types of tongues” are languages.
FOURTH, IN 1 CORINTHIANS 14:28 PAUL SAYS THE TONGUES SPEAKER SPEAKS BOTH TO HIMSELF AND TO GOD. “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.” This means that he can understand what he is speaking. Otherwise, how could he speak to himself? Does anyone speak to himself in “unknown gibberish”?
FIFTH, THERE IS NO EXAMPLE IN 1 CORINTHIANS 14 OF A BELIEVER SPEAKING IN TONGUES PRIVATELY AND THERE IS NO ENCOURAGEMENT TO DO SO. What about verse 28? “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God” (1 Cor. 14:27-28). This says nothing about praying in tongues privately. It is talking about the exercise of gifts in a public meeting. Paul says that if there is no interpretation, the individual tongues speaker should keep silent and pray to God, but he says nothing about getting off by oneself and praying privately in tongues. One must read all of that into the verse.
SIXTH, IF THERE WERE A “PRIVATE PRAYER LANGUAGE” THAT EDIFIED THE CHRISTIAN’S LIFE IT WOULD BE VERY IMPORTANT AND THE BIBLE WOULD EXPLAIN IT CLEARLY and circumscribe its usage as it does the use of tongues in the church.
SEVENTH, A “PRIVATE PRAYER LANGUAGE” THAT HELPED THE CHRISTIAN TO BE STRONGER IN HIS WALK WITH CHRIST WOULD DOUBTLESS BE MENTIONED IN OTHER PLACES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT IN THE CONTEXT OF SANCTIFICATION AND CHRISTIAN LIVING. In fact, though, it is never mentioned in any such context. The apostles and prophets addressed many situations in the New Testament epistles and gave all things necessary for holy Christian living, but they never taught that the believer needs to speak in a “private prayer language” in order to have spiritual victory or to find God’s guidance or to be healed or to be able to fall asleep or any other such thing. If there were such a thing as a “devotional prayer language” that built up the Christian life and made the Christian stronger spiritually, Paul would doubtless have instructed the church at Corinth to spend more time speaking in devotional tongues, but he gives no such counsel.
EIGHTH, IT IS NOT POSSIBLE THAT TONGUES-SPEAKING COULD BE A NECESSARY PART OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE, BECAUSE PAUL PLAINLY STATES THAT NOT ALL SPEAK IN TONGUES (1 Cor. 14:29-20). Some will ask, “Why, then, does Paul say, ‘I would that ye all spake with tongues’” (1 Cor. 14:5)? The answer is that Paul was not saying that all did speak with tongues or that all could speak with tongues; he was merely expressing a desire that the exercise of spiritual gifts be done and that it be done right. In 1 Cor. 7:7, Paul uses exactly the same expression in the context of celibacy. He said, “For I would that all men were even as I myself...” We do not know of any Pentecostals or Charismatics who take this statement literally by teaching that it is God’s will for every believer to remain unmarried, but they take the same expression in 1 Cor. 14:5 as a law. There is a strange inconsistency here.
NINTH, ALL OF THE NEW TESTAMENT’S INSTRUCTION ABOUT PRAYER TAKE FOR GRANTED THAT PRAYER IS A CONSCIOUS, WILLFUL, UNDERSTANDABLE ACT ON THE PART OF THE BELIEVER AND THAT HE IS SPEAKING TO GOD IN UNDERSTANDABLE TERMS. We see this in Jesus’ instructions about prayer. “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen” (Matt. 6:5-13). This is a conscious, understandable prayer. We see the same thing in Paul’s instructions about prayer (e.g., Rom. 15:30-32; Eph. 6:18-20; Col. 4:2-3; Heb. 13:18-19). There is not one example of a prayer recorded in Scripture that is anything other than an individual speaking to God in conscious, understandable terms. In fact, Christ forbade the repetitious type of “prayers” that are commonly heard among those that practice a “private prayer language.” “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Mat. 6:7). Yet I have oftentimes heard “prayer tongues” that sound like this: “Shalalama, balalama, shalalama, balalama, bubalama, shalalama, bugalala, shalalama....” Whatever that is, it is not New Testament “tongues” and it is not New Testament prayer.
TENTH, EVEN IF WE WERE TO AGREE THAT 1 CORINTHIANS 14 REFERS TO A “PRIVATE PRAYER LANGUAGE,” IT WOULD NOT BE SOMETHING THAT COULD BE LEARNED OR IMITATED. Whatever is described in 1 Corinthians 14 is a divine miracle, but this is contrary to the Pentecostal-Charismatic practice whereby people are taught to speak in a “prayer language.”
ELEVENTH, TO USE THE GIFT OF TONGUES AS A “PRIVATE PRAYER LANGUAGE” WOULD BE TO DESTROY ITS CHIEF PURPOSE, WHICH IS A SIGN TO UNBELIEVING ISRAEL. Former Pentecostal Fernand Legrand wisely observes: “By using this sign in private, some think they can profit from ONE of its aspects, while ignoring the others, but you cannot dismantle a gift and retain only one of its components. A car is a complex mechanical object that is driven as an entity or is not driven at all. You cannot take the wheels for a run and leave the body and the engine in the garage. When a car is running it is the whole car that moves. In the same way, TONGUES WERE NOT TO BE SLICED UP LIKE A SAUSAGE. They were to edify the speaker AND the others AND be a sign for the Jewish unbelievers AND be understandable or be so rendered by interpretation. They had to be all that at the same time. The gift was inseparable from its one and only unchanging purpose: to be a sign for non-believing Jews of the universal offer of salvation (Acts 2:17; 1 Cor. 14:20-22)” (All about Speaking in Tongues, p. 67).
TWELVTH, THOUGH I HAVE HEARD MANY EXAMPLES OF “DEVOTIONAL TONGUES” OVER THE PAST 33 YEARS, I HAVE NEVER HEARD ANYTHING BUT GIBBERISH. What I have heard is not languages of any sort but mere repetitious mutterings that anyone could imitate. Larry Lea’s “tongues” at Indianapolis 1990 went like this: “Bubblyida bubblyida hallelujah bubblyida hallabubbly shallabubblyida kolabubblyida glooooory hallelujah bubblyida.” I wrote that down as he was saying it and later checked it against the tape. Nancy Kellar, a Roman Catholic nun who was on the executive committee of St. Louis 2000, spoke in “tongues” on Thursday evening of the conference. Her tongues were a repetition of “shananaa leea, shananaa higha, shananaa nanaa, shananaa leea…” This is taken directly from the audiotapes of the messages. If these are languages, they certainly have a simple vocabulary!
THIRTEENTH, THE PRACTICE OF LEARNING HOW TO SPEAK IN TONGUES THAT IS POPULAR AMONG PENTECOSTALS AND CHARISMATICS IS UNSCRIPTURAL AND DANGEROUS. If we were to agree that there is such a thing as a “private prayer language” and that it would help us live a better Christian life and if we were to accept the Charismatic’s challenge to “try it and see,” the next question is, “How do I begin to speak in this ‘prayer language’?” A chapter in the book These Wonderful Gifts (by Michael Harper) is entitled “Letting Go and Letting God,” in which the believer is instructed to stop analyzing experiences so carefully and strictly, to stop “setting up alarm systems” and “squatting nervously behind protective walls.” He says the believer should step out from behind his “walls and infallible systems” and just open up to God. That is a necessary but unscriptural and exceedingly dangerous step toward receiving the Charismatic experiences. Having stopped analyzing everything with Scripture, the standard method of experiencing the “gift of tongues” or a “private prayer language” is to open one’s mouth and to start speaking words but not words that one understands and allegedly “God will take control.” Dennis Bennett says: “Open your mouth and show that you believe the Lord has baptized you in the Spirit by beginning to speak. Don’t speak English, or any other language you know, for God can’t guide you to speak in tongues if you are speaking in a language known to you. ... Just like a child learning to talk for the first time, open your mouth and speak out the first syllables and expressions that come to your lips. ... You may begin to speak, but only get out a few halting sounds. That’s wonderful! You’ve broken the ‘sound barrier’! Keep in with those sounds. Offer them to God. Tell Jesus you love Him in those ‘joyful noises’! In a very real sense, any sound you make, offering your tongue to God in simple faith, may be the beginning of speaking in tongues” (The Holy Spirit and You, pp. 76, 77, 79).
This is so grossly unscriptural and nonsensical it would seem unnecessary to refute it. There is absolutely nothing like this in the New Testament. To ignore the Bible and to seek something that the Bible never says seek in ways the Bible does not support and to open oneself uncritically to religious experiences like this puts oneself in danger of receiving “another spirit” (2 Cor. 11:4).
FOURTEENTH, THE FACT IS THAT BIBLICAL TONGUES WERE REAL EARTHLY LANGUAGES, AND THIS IS A FOUNDATIONAL TRUTH. Any doctrine of tongues that reduces this practice to mere gibberish of any sort that is not a real language is unscriptural.
QUESTION: If tongues can be understood by the speaker, why does Paul say, “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14)?
ANSWER: The Pentecostal-Charismatic movements find justification in this verse for their doctrine that tongues-speaking is some sort of communication that bypasses the intellect and understanding. Pastor Bill Williams of San Jose, California, says that the awareness one has through tongues is “beyond emotion, beyond intellect. It transcends human understanding” (“Speaking in Tongues--Believers Relish the Experience,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 19, 1987, B2). Charles Hunter says, “The reason some of you don’t speak [in tongues] fluently is that you tried to think of the sounds. ... You don’t even have to think in order to pray in the Spirit” (Hunter, “Receiving the Baptism with the Holy Spirit,” Charisma, July 1989, p. 54).
But if 1 Corinthians 14:14 means that the tongues-speaker is speaking “beyond his intellect” or something of that sort, it would be the only place in Scripture where such a doctrine is found. Nowhere else does the Scripture say that man’s spirit can operate properly without the understanding or that God operates on man’s spirit in such a manner that he does not understand the communication or that there is some sort of spiritual level of communication that bypasses the understanding. In this same epistle, Paul said, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?” (1 Cor. 2:11). Thus, man’s spirit is that part of him that knows and understands. Eph. 4:23 says the believer is to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” Obviously this involves understanding, because Romans 12:2 says we are “transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God..”
What is Paul talking about in 1 Corinthians 14:14, then? Most commentaries say that he is referring to the tongues-speaker’s understanding in relation to others rather than to his own understanding.
Barnes: “Produces nothing that will be of advantage to them. It is like a barren tree; a tree that bears nothing that can be of benefit to others. They cannot understand what I say, and, of course, they cannot be profited by what I utter.”
Adam Clarke: “... my understanding is unfruitful to all others, because they do not understand my prayers, and I either do not or cannot interpret them.”
The Family Bible Notes: “...according to another and preferable view, it bears no fruit to others, since it communicates nothing to them in an intelligible way.”
Jamieson, Fausset, Brown: “"understanding," the active instrument of thought and reasoning; which in this case must be "unfruitful" in edifying others, since the vehicle of expression is unintelligible to them.”
John Wesley: “‘My spirit prayeth’--By the power of the Spirit I understand the words myself. ‘But my understanding is unfruitful’--The knowledge I have is no benefit to others.”
Matthew Henry: “but his understanding would be unfruitful (1 Cor. 14:14), that is, the sense and meaning of his words would be unfruitful, he would not be understood, nor therefore would others join with him in his devotions.”
Treasury of Scripture Knowledge: “That is, ‘not productive of any benefit to others.’”
The context of 1 Cor. 14:14 supports this interpretation:
“Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.” (1 Cor. 14:13-17).
Paul says the tongues-speaker should pray both with the spirit and with the understanding, and it is obvious that he is talking about the understanding of those who are listening, because he says, “Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?” In 1 Corinthians 14:13-17 Paul is saying that the tongues-speaker should give an interpretation of his tongue so that he is not the only one that understands what is being said, because if he prays in a tongue that is not interpreted those who are listening cannot understand and cannot therefore be edified.