Glossolalia is a greek word combining glossos (tongue) and lalia (speaking). What this represents is not a set vocabulary or syntax, or a set phonology or pronunciations. To me, and I have been in pentecostal circles and around pentecostals (as well as being one myself) for many decades, glossolalia is a set of sounds or syllables that represent a heart of praise or a burden God shares.
Three Opportunities for Glossolalia
There are recognized 3 different representations of glossolalia (as I see it):
- A private prayer language: 1 Corinthians 14:18 “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” I want to believe Paul was saying, “I am most thankful for my prayer language.”
- In evidence of the infilling of the Spirit: Acts 19:46 “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” I see no immediate need for calling this the initial evidence. I would rather think of christian love for all as the initial evidence. I understand that Classical Pentecostalism maintains the theological position that tongues is the initial evidence because without a proper emphasis even with believers truth tends to go stale and be forgotten. We fall out of practice and slip into a sleepy cultural mood of living unless the preacher keeps preaching.
- The charismato: 1 Corinthians 12:28 “And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.” There is a ministry of glossolalia which Pentecostals pair with prophecy for interpretation. I think this is an appropriate interpretation. The plural suggests many languages which have this in common—each is a spiritual language or a language—the Greek reads—by the Holy Spirit at work within. Vs 10-11 “to another speaking in different kinds of tongues…All these are the work of one and the same Spirit…“
To me, these three are one and the same except manifest in different situations:
- In private prayer
- As an initial experience
- In a public gathering interpreted in a prophetic utterance.
I believe in the continuance of this spiritual gift of tongues to the present day and until Christ returns. It seems inappropriate to derive a hermeneutic that would explain away its 7 references in 1 Corinthians 14 (verses 2, 4, 13, 14, 19, 26 and 27) as a deceased spirituality, gifts no longer offered by the Spirit to His people.
Other than the charismato, tongues is God’s provision for personal spiritual edification and prayer. It is a communion with God on a higher level than praying in our known language.
For anyone who speaks in a tongue [language] does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 14:2
So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 1 Corinthians 14:15
My view of this gift began when a friend of mine was—we call it overjoyed—emotionally bubbling with a joyous desire to praise God. Kneeling at a church altar he called out loudly, “Hotdog! Hotdog!!” And that was when I realized we—or some of us—now and again—may need a language of the heart to express feelings, longings, desires, and praise to God. Words in our native tongue cannot always fully say to God what we want to say. There is a need to express burdens and praise when what we want to say to God goes beyond the common language:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray” Romans 8:26
“speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,” Ephesians 5:19
We need a heavenly language and that need is met by this gift: speaking in tongues. “It is a language conversing with God by the Spirit’s leading,” Paul explained to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:2) and to all of us.
What English cannot Say
Admitting that our native tongue lacks some of the meaning and words to fully express ourselves, we are moving much closer to an understanding for a need at times for glossolalia in communion with God.
An absolutely charming illustration is the Welsh word, cwtch. ‘Cwtch’ has no literal English translation, but is an emotionally significant embrace and an intrinsically Welsh word that evokes a sense of home. a ‘cwtch’ (pronounced ‘kutch’, to rhyme with ‘butch’) is the Welsh word for a cuddle or hug, but it’s also so much more than that. … it’s the wrapping of your arms around someone to make them feel safe in the world.
Or look at a few German words that should be anglicized if for no other reason they are poetic.
- Beinaheleidenschaftsgeganstand which means “almost a passion.” This is that gale or guy you thought you’d wed but after rethinking a life together backed away for no other reason than a gut feeling that it wasn’t you. And later you met your
- Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz, your “lifelong treasure of destiny.” This is your “soul-mate?” More like your “destiny.” The wisdom in choosing mate number two over the first shows you have
- Fingerspitzengefuhl. This German term means “finger tips feeling” and indicates a person’s intuitive flair or instinct. It describes a great situational awareness, and the ability to respond appropriately and tactfully,
These are simple examples out of many possible saying what our native language was never designed to say. What can be said of the natural, can be said of the spiritual.
A Particle of Truth
Unless we imagine this ridiculous, keep in mind the many expletives—not unlike hotdog—which have evolved in language to express what otherwise is unintelligible.
In defense of glossolalia for my non-pentecostal reader consider the greek word de, δη, which the dictionary calls a “particle” indicating something must be done at once or evidence it has been done. I like the English word “now” in the Christmas Story (Luke 2:15), “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass.” The NIV doesn’t even translate it.
How about the Classical Hebrew word nah, נֳא called a “particle of entreaty” in the dictionary. Consider Numbers 12:13 (this has been set to music) “And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, Heal her [his sister of leprosy] now, O God, I beseech thee.” It is written twice (in bold print above). The NIV reads “please” and the ESV “O God, please heal her—please.” Even the word ‘O’ is exclamatory to strengthen the request—an emotional response, or expressed desire.
Communing with God
Glossolalia is a conversation with God. If spoken in a public setting glossolalia needs interpreting. 1 Corinthians 14:6 offers the directive.
“Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?”
[Aristotle outlined 4 causes* which are delineated here: The content of a prophecy is knowledge which God shares as a divine revelation—which confirms His written Word—to instruct us. This is not the purpose for glossolalia.]
The Language of the Heart
Glossolalia is more a language of the heart, an outflow of thought and emotion that God interprets as prayer or praise. It exceeds our ability to put into our spoken or native language a burden or joy we want to express.
Glossolalia is a purer voice that releases from deep within what we feel toward God. It becomes a prayer which is weakly nuanced in any other language. As Paul, we, too, recognize that there is a level of grief or joy that is inexpressible in the common language. …but the Spirit has the words. Romans 8:26: “In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings.”
Glossolalia represents a level of joy or a burden that otherwise goes unexpressed, suppressed, or weakly spoken on faltering lips. This does not mean God doesn’t honor prayer spoken in our native tongue, but it does mean that it is possible to carry a heavier or more deeply seated, unexpressed and inexpressible longing to say to God something we cannot effectively or more completely share with Him—unless there is a language, a heavenly language, in which to say it.
*Material Cause – the stuff out of which something is made. Formal Cause – the defining characteristics of (e.g., shape) the thing. Final Cause – the purpose of the thing. Efficient Cause – the antecedent condition that brought the thing about.