I met a man one day—a Russian-American, retired Yale professor, who had written several peer-reviewed books and articles. I don’t remember what it was that he taught prior to retirement. And the stuff he’d written was highly specialized, mind you, and not really something, he said, that would be of interest to the average reader. But I insisted and he relented. Sadly, it must’ve been some pretty dry stuff because I don’t remember what he told me regarding a book he’d just published. I do however remember an encounter I had with him on a later occasion. That day, he was wearing a cream-colored three-piece suit that offset his dark complexion. He told me, in his hoarse, gravelly Russian accent, of an article he’d written that profiled and defined a single Russian word. He held up his index finger—one word. The amazing thing though about this word, he told me, was in order to translate it into English—one word—it took the entire article to define and describe, so dense was this word with meaning and significance. I don’t remember what it was. Of course, even if I did speak Russian, is it a word that’s commonly used? Who knows?
I never saw him after that. He either moved away or passed away, I don’t know.
Many languages have words that are powerfully dense with meaning and definition and connotation. Perestroika (another Russian word), apartheid, ausschluss (which is essentially a German version of apartheid with a socioeconomic application as opposed to just racial). And while those words are all negative, I bring up my story because I feel that it applies to the concept of speaking in tongues. God has the ability to speak things into existence using a language that we wouldn’t understand and by that token would be imbued with more meaning and content than we could possibly comprehend. The language of Heaven would be so dense as to render human language obsolete and superfluous. Am I going too far out on a limb here? Granted, these comments are my thoughts based on my observations, filtered through the way that I think. I do know this though, that when words fail us and we “know not what to pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26), then—as I interpret the rest of this verse—that’s when I can of my own volition, let the Holy Spirit take over and pray through me. While this is how I see it, I understand that many churches think that verse to mean something else. They interpret the verse as saying that the Holy Spirit hears my incomplete and inchoate prayers and presents them as complete and coherent before a perfect and holy God, of whom I can only have a dim and incomplete comprehension. And I agree with this to a certain point but it also seems to me like this is giving up when one feels the “pray-ers block”. Could it be possible that, by praying in tongues, I could cover more ground with God by having Him pray through me than me trying to think through and reason out anything beyond my meager self-centered consciousness? How am I, in prayer, going to affect the world for Jesus in a specific and pointed way, when I find it difficult to cover my own needs at times? Because while “Please bless and help the world, Lord” certainly works from a childlike standpoint, God can effectively speak out, through you, specific solutions to that which is going on worldwide. “O Lord, Thou Knowest” (Psalm 40:9).
It might sound like mumbo-jumbo (one origin of the phrase ‘hocus pocus’ says it arose from Catholic Mass rendered in fake Latin by priests who made things up as they went along—the parishioners were none the wiser) but God is speaking, how else can I say it? Human speaking ability has a set number of phonemes and inflections, yet God is able, through a willing participant, to get words in edgewise.
“Human thought is so primitive that it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies.” Agent K to Agent J in the movie Men In Black.
I’m not advocating a belief in aliens, but I suppose the same might be said for language.
Here’s another story.
I have attended an inordinate amount of churches throughout my life and aside from my current church. only one (out of at least a dozen) openly practiced speaking in tongues, to where I witnessed it for myself. And while an interpretation came immediately, and while said interpretation seemed to ambiguously apply to the issues I was facing, the whole “disposing thereof” seemed purely mechanical and devoid of the beauty and witness and love of the Holy Spirit. The end result for me was more confusing than edifying and altogether unlike the process which my dad had learned and subsequently taught me. Remember, “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
The previous verse (1 Corinthians 14:32) says that “the spirits of the prophets are subject unto the prophets.” This essentially means that we are in control of our gifts. When someone seems to be uttering a strange language and acting as if they aren’t in control of themselves, you know that has to be a source of confusion. Especially if the observer may not be aware of how the gifts are truly supposed to operate. Not only did the person who gave the message in tongues at my former church seem out of control, but he also seemed angry and harsh. Totally not in keeping with the character of Jesus. You can understand how people and churches, when witness to this kind of outburst would seek to distance themselves en masse from the gift of praying in tongues. “Let all things be done decently and in order”.
Forgiveness, understanding and healing are needed in order to come back around to the simplicity and power of the early church as described in the book of Acts.