What's the point of speaking in tongues?

One thing that many people find a bit odd about Pentecostalism is speaking in tongues. Of course, it's not only Pentecostals who speak in tongues. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he prays in tongues every day. But it is something which has quite a significant place among Pentecostals. 

Now, the reason many people find speaking in tongues a bit odd is that it is a bit odd. It's not normal to speak a language you haven't learnt. And really, that's the point. Speaking in tongues points us beyond our own abilities to what only God can do. 

Speaking in tongues along with the interpretation of tongues are complementary gifts of the Spirit for the building up of the church. The Lord speaks to His people through these gifts to encourage and strengthen them. But that isn't the only way we see speaking in tongues in the Bible and in the lives of believers. The Lord doesn't only give the gift of tongues for interpretation for edifying the church, He also gives tongues to individual believers so that they can pray and praise Him in tongues by themselves at home. 

Sometimes the Lord speaks to us by tongues and interpretation, and sometimes He gives tongues so we can speak to Him. And by that speaking to Him in tongues, the Holy Spirit is helping us in two ways: in praise and in prayer.


In speaking in tongues, we bless the Lord and give thanks (1 Corinthians 14:16-17). We magnify God (Acts 10:46) and speak the wonderful works of God (Acts 2:11). Through this wonderful gift, the Holy Spirit enables us to praise and magnify our Infinite God, far beyond the finite limitations of our words and our abilities. When we come to the end of how we can express our praise and worship, the Holy Spirit enables us to praise beyond our limits. 

And speaking in tongues is also a sign to us of many wonderful reasons to praise the Lord. For tongues is a sign that the Lord is with us — it's the Holy Spirit who is here giving us these words we don't know. Tongues is a reminder that the Lord has promised to clothe us with power from on high by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon us. Tongues is a sign that the risen Christ has poured out His Spirit upon us so that we would be witnesses to Him here where we are and to the uttermost parts of the earth. That means tongues is a sign to us that He is the God who delights to save! And tongues is also a sign that the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world is risen, exalted, ascended and seated on the Throne of Heaven as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. By tongues we praise, but tongues also point us to more and more reasons to praise.


"He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God" (1 Corinthians 14:2). Therefore, speaking in tongues is a way of praying. Specifically, verse 28 tells us that without interpretation, tongues isn't for speaking to the church, but only for prayer in speaking to the Lord. "If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays" (1 Corinthians 14:14). In fact, the Scripture here encourages us to pray in tongues with the spirit and also to pray in our own language with the understanding (verse 15). 

Every time we pray, we're depending entirely on Christ our Mediator, Intercessor and Great High Priest. He is praying for us, and He takes our prayers and purifies them to present them perfect to the Father. So it's only in His name, relying on Him and in union with Him that we can truly pray.

And to help us pray, not only does Jesus pray for us and purify our prayers, but He also pours out the Holy Spirit to empower and guide our prayers. Jesus helps us pray by praying for us, by perfecting our prayers, and by empowering our prayers by the Spirit who also intercedes for us. Christ intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father, and the Spirit intercedes for us in our hearts.

So as we pray in tongues in the Spirit, the Lord is showing us how all our prayer depends entirely on Him. It's not the eloquence of our words, or our great ideas of what to pray for that get us heard. It's all because of the Lord Himself. The Father invites us, the Son prays for us and purifies our prayers, and the Holy Spirit prays in us and unites us to Jesus our Great High Priest so that we can truly pray through and in Him. When we pray in a language we don't understand, we're being built up in that faith that it's all down to the Triune God, not us! So, as we pray in tongues, we are praying — and seeing a demonstration of how all our prayer is — in communion with the glorious intercession of the Son and Spirit. 

We might not understand what we're saying when we pray in tongues; but that's actually part of the purpose. Our faith is not in our words or our ability in prayer, but in the Triune God who gives us these tongues in which to pray by the Spirit, in the name of the Son, to the Father who delights to hear His children pray.