This summer, a year after finding my faith, I am working as a prison missionary in Cape Town, South Africa (click here to read more about this decision). My time in this country has brought about immense growth; naturally, much of this growth has been spiritual.
I believed in miracles and spiritual gifts before arriving in South Africa, but my somewhat-shaky belief in such was based solely on Scripture and hearsay. I wish I could say that I never desire evidence of the divine. Unfortunately, my pre-law heart craves it. Fortunately, an abundance of miracles and supernatural distributions of spiritual gifts have occurred before my eyes this summer. A few of these have been quite personal. On the last Sunday of June, while visiting one of South Africa’s many Pentecostal churches, I received the gift of tongues.
What is the gift of tongues?
Considering the widespread misunderstandings of this gift, it is best to begin this explanation with an exploration of the phenomenon’s medical term, “glossolalia.” Merriam-Webster defines tongue-speaking, termed “glossolalia,” as “profuse and often emotionally charged speech that mimics coherent speech but is usually unintelligible to the listener and that is uttered in some states of religious ecstasy.”
The experience of glossolalia remains fairly consistent between the gifted. In an interview with the New York Times, a subject in a famed neurological study of glossolalia (discussed later in this post) explained:
”You’re aware of your surroundings,” she said. ”You’re not really out of control. But you have no control over what’s happening. You’re just flowing. You’re in a realm of peace and comfort, and it’s a fantastic feeling.”
Glossolalia is nothing new. As we will see later, this gift is discussed throughout Scripture. Ancient accounts of tongue-speaking in early Church communities have also been found. Celsus, a second-century Greek philosopher who heavily opposed the spread of the early Church, was baffled by the mysterious tongues. In The True Word, Celsus asserts that members of the early Church frequently released “incomprehensible, incoherent, and utterly obscure utterances, the meaning of which no intelligent person could discover” (Contra Celsum 403).
Since the manifestation of this gift usually follows a baptism in the Holy Spirit, sudden and widespread spikes in glossolalia often accompany Christian revivals. The most notable account of a mass inheritance of glossolalia stems from the 1906 Azusa Street Revival. That said, a quick Google search will reveal that evidence of this gift has been documented throughout the centuries.
Despite my youthful penchant for low-budget “religious” horror films, receiving this gift was never on my bucket list. My younger, unbelieving self certainly never desired — or even believed in — the gift of tongues. Though I attended church most Sundays throughout my unbelieving days, secular media remained my only source of knowledge about “tongues.” Even after coming to faith, I primarily learned about this gift through the testimonies of a good friends.
One of these friends surrendered her life to Jesus at age twelve. She is the type of labeled “super spiritual” by believers and unbelievers alike. She frequently hears His Voice clearly, prays incessantly, and has gifts that cannot be denied or explained by even the most vehement of atheists. As a new believer possessing little knowledge of spiritual gifts, I found her and her experiences encouraging, yet intimidating. As a result of my ignorance, I erroneously deemed her gifts — namely, the gift of tongues — unattainable.
It is a shame that I — a lifetime church goer — believed that this gift was the stuff of movies even after coming to faith. And worse, when conversations with other believers forced me to acknowledge the reality of this gift, I clung to the false notion of it being unattainable! By the grace of God, I now have this gift; however, many are still under the spell of the aforementioned lies. For this reason, it is important that believers and unbelievers alike understand what ancient Scripture and modern science say about this gift.
What does Scripture say?
The western Church’s neglection of glossolalia is confusing, considering its importance within Scripture. The origin of the gift of tongues traces back to the day of Pentecost, which occurred during the early aftermath of the Resurrection. According to Jesus’ disciples, before ascending to Heaven, He told them that his Spirit — the Holy Spirit — would come to them in the following days.
On the Spirit, He said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues” (Mark 16:16-17). Sure enough, fifty days after Jesus rose, the Spirit came down and glossolalia appeared. This moment is documented in Acts 2:1-4, which reads:
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
The subsequent spread of this gift is documented in Acts 19:6. This portion of Scripture centers around a baptism carried out by the Apostle Paul. This passage reads:
“When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spoke in tongues, and prophesied.”
The same strange occurrence — baptism in the Holy Spirit followed by the appearance of glossolalia — has been reported year after year, worldwide.
Many may wonder what purpose is served by this gift. The answer is found in 1st Corinthians 14:2.
“For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.”
This ancient claim is consistent with our modern understanding of tongues. Glossolalia manifests in a non-human language. Thus, neither the speaker nor witnesses can make sense of the utterances (sans those who receive translations through the Spirit; i.e. the gift of interpretation). In essence, glossolalia occurs when the Holy Spirit — which dwells within the believer — prays to the Father through the believer.
Why is this necessary?
Humans rarely know what they need. At any moment, we may be suffering from undetected illnesses or teetering along the edge of an unforeseen disaster. Sometimes, we simply do not have the words for our dismay — or our elation. Fortunately, the Most High knows all. Thus, through heavenly, incomprehensible tongues, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf.
Naysayers will claim that this is religious nonsense. Understandable. I thought the same. Obviously, I thought, those who claim to speak in tongues just speak gibberish.
Wrong. To the surprise of many, scientists have disproved such claims.
What does science say?
Neurologists and psychiatrists have been studying glossolalia for decades. In 2006, University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Andrew Newberg and his colleagues collected neuroimages from five tongue-speaking subjects. The subjects were injected with a radioactive tracer, which allowed the team to study the subjects’ brain activity during standard, English-speaking worship. The subjects were then instructed to worship in tongues as the researchers conducted the same test a second time.
The results revealed that frontal lobe activity essentially disappeared as the subjects spoke in tongues. In his conclusion, Newberg remarked that “the part of the brain that normally makes them feel in control has been essentially shut down.”
my leftover, deserted pre-medical notebooks the National Institute of Health, the frontal lobe is responsible for motor function and language. Thus, if these tongue-speakers were truly uttering man-made gibberish, the frontal lobe would have been kicked into high gear.
Newberg also found that activity in the parietal region increased. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), this region “[receives] information about temperature, taste, touch, and movement from the rest of the body.” In other words, the parietal lobe is tasked with determining a being’s relation — and reaction — to their surroundings. Newberg claims that these results “make sense,” considering glossolalia “involves relinquishing control while gaining a ‘very intense experience of how the self relates to God’ (Holden).
I, and many others gifted with glossolalia, continue to testify that tongues flow without any efforts of our own. The testimonies have remained consistent throughout history and match the ancient biblical descriptions.
Research has shown that the motor and language centers show little activity, while sensory centers are heightened.
Yet, its validity is continually ignored and attacked. Moreover, as a result of the Western Church’s tendency to shy away from the supernatural (despite the supernatural nature of the Gospel itself), naysayers — such as my younger self — often harbor little, if any, knowledge of the phenomenon.
It comes as no surprise that unbelievers deny its validity. This is predicted in 1 Corinthians 14:23, which reads: “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”
If you do not believe in the Holy Spirit, believing in tongues is out of the question. I cannot blame unbelievers for attacking attempting to explain away glossolalia.
Unfortunately, the distortion of glossolalia is not merely the work of those who do not follow Christ. I would argue that most Western churches are complicit in the spread of misinformation surrounding tongues. I have heard tongues spoken — and spoken of — in every South African church I have visited. My studies have shown that glossolalia is widely celebrated in many corners of the world. Y’all, it is even one of the main theological teachings of Hillsong, Justin Bieber’s church (lol). Yet, of the countless and varied American churches I’ve visited, I have heard tongues spoken and/or mentioned a whopping zero times.
Members of the Church — most of whom claim to believe Scripture to be the Word of God — do themselves and their brethren a great disservice when they deny, minimize, or ignore the power of tongues. As seen in the aforementioned Scriptural explanations of tongues and its purposes, this gift is wholly powerful. The practice of tongues also confronts unbelievers. People can reject God, but they have been unable to explain this manifestation. Frankly, I wish that I had been confronted by the truth of glossolalia when I was steeped in doubt.
The Western Church’s tendency to avoid the supernatural reveals a hole in the Church’s application of Scripture. This mistake robs believers of the healing that is made possible through communion with the Holy Spirit.
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.” (1st Corinthians 12:27-31)
I urge the Church to abandon timidity, step out in faith, and embrace this gift.
Carey, Benedict. “A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Nov. 2006. Web.
Origenes, and Henry Chadwick. Contra Celsum. Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2003. Print.
The Holy Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. Print.
“Tongues on the Mind.” Science AAAS. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 11 July 2013. Web.