QUESTION: Speaking in tongues, what is that? Does it really come from God? If that is true, why don’t we all have the power to do that?
ANSWER: “Speaking in tongues” is mentioned several times in the New Testament especially in relation to the gifts of the Spirit given at baptism (see Acts 10:46 and 19:6). Generally, it refers to speech which is not understandable to those who hear it.
The Scripture indicates that human language is incapable of fully praising the goodness of God. At times the Holy Spirit inspires some individuals to speak in language unknown to them but nonetheless fitting as praise of God.
The Holy Spirit, then, is the source of the power to speak in tongues and it is God to whom the speaking is addressed (I Cor. 14:2). The purpose of tongues in addition to praise of God is to inspire the one who speaks (I Cor. 14:4) and as a sign for unbelievers (I Cor. 14:22).
Finally, the Scriptures add that the speaking in tongues should be regulated within Christian assemblies (I Cor. 14) and that they should be interpreted if they are to be of any real value for the entire community (I Cor. 14:5-19, 27).
Saint Paul’s judgment on the gift of tongues is quite interesting. He admits that it can be a genuine gift of the Spirit. But he also places the gift of tongues last in a hierarchy of gifts: “God has set up in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles workers, healers, assistants, administrators and those who speak in tongues” (I Cor. 12:28).
Paul also writes: “I speak in tongues more than any of you but in the church, I would rather say five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in tongues” (I Cor. 14:18-19).
Following Paul, I believe we must acknowledge that some among us may be given the gift of tongues. But together with Paul, we must also place the gift in its proper perspective. It is a New Testament axiom that all gifts of the Spirit are given for the building up of the Body of Christ.
There is also one additional use of “tongues” which is found in the Scriptures (Acts 2:4-11) and which is different from that cited above. In this passage the disciples speak to a vast crowd originating from many parts of the world and are understood by each person in his or her own language.
Perhaps in this use of tongues we find an additional criterion for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that is at the heart of evangelization. The Spirit that prompts and strengthens us to preach the Gospel of Jesus. It reasonable, then, to expect that all the gifts of the Spirit should tend toward that end.
Finally, Saint Paul reminds us that of all the “gifts” the greatest is love (”the way that surpasses all the others” I Cor. 12:31). Perhaps it is that gift for which we ought to pray and allow God to judge which additional gifts would most benefit ourselves and the Christian community.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.