I had just preached on how to cope when the Lord doesn’t answer our requests for legitimate things. Someone came up and posed the following question: “I have asked the Lord to give me the gift of tongues but He hasn’t.” The stand of the church, and my own stand, is that the gift of tongues is still available and is a good gift (1 Corinthians 12:10) but that it is not the sign of spiritual anointing and that not everyone is given this gift (1 Corinthians 12:30). We also believe that we can ask the Lord to give any gift (1 Corinthians 14:1) but the final call is His (1 Corinthians 12:11).
The person who asked me about why the Lord hadn’t answered her prayer for tongues knew all the above biblical teaching so I didn’t review the biblical position on why some are not given the gift. I wanted to try to deal with the reality of what was happening. She said she was a highly rational person and wanted to experience the Lord in a different way, something she felt was needed in her own pilgrimage. Her pilgrimage reminded me of my own though I was where she was about thirty years ago.
First, I encouraged her to thank God for how God had made her; for making her a thinker. If the whole church was full of mystics, who would do the hard work of thinking God’s thoughts after Him? God needs all sorts of people in His church. I also prayed that she wouldn’t feel that she was any lesser a Christian because she didn’t speak in tongues. The most important spiritual reality for her and for all of us who are followers of Jesus Christ, is that we have been saved by grace and that we are now children of the living God (Romans 8:14–17). (Interestingly, few, including myself, don’t seem to feel that our Christian experience is incomplete because we haven’t suffered for Christ.)
Next, I reminded her that “tongues” means “languages” in Greek. The “gift of tongues” can legitimately be translated as “the gift of languages.” I prefer this translation but few English translations interpret it this way. The Holman Christian Standard Bible is one. And I am delighted that the 2013 edition of the New Living Translation translates it this way as well. When we understand that “tongues” basically means “languages” we lower its hyper spiritual association. And we can think clearer about the gift.
What are languages used for? They are used for communicating. The gift of tongues/languages refers to a spiritual language—a “language of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1), not a known human language—which is used for communicating with God (1 Corinthians 14:2). If this is true then maybe we should not be so hung up on the language but on why we want to communicate with God. Usually, the gift of tongues/languages comes into play when we worship God in prayer and find that we have things to express that move us to grasp at all the languages available to us, angelic or mortal, or when we are praying for someone in such dire need that we are just overwhelmed and we cry out in “wordless groans” (Romans 8:26–27). However, if our hearts are not consumed with a love for God and a love for neighbour, the gift of tongues/languages is irrelevant. (I believe the primary place for the exercise of this gift is private personal prayer and Paul allows its use in community only if there is an interpreter.)
It is not fatal if we do not have the gift of tongues/languages. But if our lives are not marked with the love of God and the love for neighbour, we may have missed out on eternal life itself (Luke 10:25–37).
I commended the sister in Christ for not trying to fake the gift. I know of certain groups who try to teach people to speak in tongues/languages and people have faked it because they want so much to fit in. The person who came for prayer obviously wanted the gift badly but had not given in to any pressure to fake the gift. I commended her for her integrity. I did pray that the Lord would manifest the gift in her but more than that I prayed that the Lord would fill her with the joy of the Spirit, a surer sign of the Spirit’s presence (Acts 16:34; Romans 14:17).