What is speaking in tongues, and is it something all Christians can and should do? Woman Alive’s deputy editor, Jemimah Wright shares her own experience.


Source: Photo by Rosie Sun on Unsplash

Speaking in tongues or ‘glossolalia’ (from the Greek glōssa meaning “tongue” and lalia “talking”) is something that divides many Christians. Some say it’s for everyone, others say only for a few, and still others believe it is not a gift for today. Some Christians have prayed for it and don’t believe they have received it. It is therefore understandable that many would come to the conclusion that it is not for everyone, and therefore give up on asking.

However, I believe speaking in tongues is the ultimate gift to ask our heavenly father for this Pentecost! Just as Jesus left us the Holy Spirit, as our comforter and guide, so I believe the gift of speaking in tongues is to help us walk the narrow road of faith.

Speaking in tongues edifies us (1 Corinthians 14:4), it strengthens us in our weakness (Romans 8:26) and helps us to intercede when we don’t know how to pray.

I speak in tongues. I don’t actually remember when I first spoke in tongues, as I was a young child when my father prayed for me and my siblings to receive the gift. Perhaps it is easier to start speaking in tongues as a child, as our adult minds often can halt the flow of what may seem like gibberish initially.

 Perhaps it is easier to start speaking in tongues as a child, as our adult minds often can halt the flow of what may seem like gibberish initially.

We know that in Acts 2, when the apostles were first filled with the Holy Spirit, they immediately spoke in ‘other tongues’. Acts 2:4 says:  ’All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.’

My father was once prison visiting, and he told the story of praying for an inmate in tongues, not knowing what to else to pray. At the end the prisoner said, ‘I didn’t know you spoke Arabic?’ My dad did not either! He asked the man what he had been saying, and the inmate said he had been blessing him in his mother tongue.

So sometimes we are given the gift of speaking an earthly language, but often tongues is attributed to a heavenly language. 1 Corinthians 14:2 says: ‘For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.’

In 2014 I spent six months with English missionary, Jackie Pullinger’s ministry, St Stephen’s Society in Hong Kong. St Stephen’s works with drug addicts and helps them get free of addiction.

Every day the community would spend time reading the Bible, and then speaking in tongues aloud, altogether. Whenever a ‘new boy’ would join the house, they would be prayed for, and when they asked Jesus into their heart, immediately they would be given the gift of tongues. There was an expectation in the community that this was a gift for everyone, as it was so needed in the hard battle of ‘cold turkey’, when the ex-addicts are coming off drugs.

’The Bible says he who prays in tongues will be built up spiritually, so never mind what you feel – do it.’

Many years ago, when Jackie Pullinger first moved to Hong Kong she was asked if she spoke in tongues. She writes in her book ‘Chasing the Dragon’, how the conversation went. She said to the question:

‘Well, no actually. I haven’t found it that useful. I don’t get anything out of it so I’ve stopped.’ ‘That’s very rude of you,’ Jean said. ‘It’s not a gift of emotion – it’s a gift of the Spirit. You shouldn’t despise the gifts God has given you. The Bible says he who prays in tongues will be built up spiritually, so never mind what you feel – do it.’

Jean, the lady Jackie was speaking to, then suggested they pray together in tongues. Jackie said, ‘I was not sure if this was all right since the Bible said that people should not all speak aloud in tongues at the same time. Jean explained that St. Paul was referring to a public meeting where an outsider coming in would think everyone was crazy; we three would not be offending anyone, and would be praying to God in the languages he gave us.’

Jackie then started praying in tongues every day for fifteen minutes on the clock. She said: ‘Before praying in the Spirit I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray, or whom to pray for. Will you pray through me – and will you lead me to the people who want you.’

’After about six weeks I noticed something remarkable. Those I talked to about Christ believed. I could not understand it at first and wondered how my Chinese had so suddenly improved, or if I had stumbled on a splendid new evangelistic technique. But I was saying the same things as before.

It was some time before I realised what had changed…I had let God have a hand in my prayers and it produced a direct result. Instead of my deciding what I wanted to do for God and asking his blessing I was asking him to do his will through me as I prayed in the language he gave me. Now I found that person after person wanted to receive Jesus. I could not be proud – I could only wonder that God let me be a small part of his work.”

So this Pentecost, if you want to speak in tongues, I would encourage you to go somewhere to be alone with God. Ask him for the gift, and in faith believe you have received. Open your mouth and start praising God, and then like any new language, use it, speak in tongues every day, and trust that however silly you may feel, he has given you the gift to bless you and build you up this Pentecost time.