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Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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A Theological Pilgrimage: Chapter 9

By Dr. J. Rodman Williams

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Conclusion
Preface | Abbreviations | Bibliography

Chapter Nine


Not too long after my first experience of speaking in tongues, I recall a colleague saying something like this: "I don't deny that such a phenomenon exists, but actually I see no reason for it, no value in it." In other words, why should one want to speak in tongues? What need is there for it, what worth to it?

The basic reason for such questioning, I am convinced, is the failure to comprehend the essential nature of speaking in tongues, which is transcendent praise of God. Speaking in tongues- -glossolalia- -is an expression of that praise of God wherein there is the breakthrough of usual speech limitations of one's native tongue into a higher and fuller realm of praise, blessing, adoration, and thanksgiving. It is to go beyond the most elevated of earthly expressions- -even "Hallelujahs" or "Hosannas"- -into spiritual utterance. To put it directly: it is the praise of God in language given by the Holy Spirit.

If such transcendent praise is possible, would one not want to share in it? Would one not want to speak in tongues, yes to sing in tongues, that is, to speak and sing by the Holy Spirit's inspiration? Would one not want to transcend the limits of earthly language in the high praises of God? Why speak in tongues? The answer is not far off: because it is the vehicle of praise par excellence for glorifying and extolling God. If there is little desire to praise God, then tongues are of little significance; but if the worship, the praise, the adoration of Almighty God is the chief concern of one's life, then tongues have unlimited value as a supernatural avenue of that transcendent praise.

The praise of God, of course, should also sound forth as fully as possible in the native speech of man. One's mother tongue- -whether it be English, French, German, or something else- -is so much a part of one's whole being that it is the most natural vehicle of worship. Hence there are hymns, anthems, prayers which, whether sung liturgically or spontaneously, may in human language declare the glory of God. And surely those who are enamored of God will ever seek ways of fuller worship in the speech of their own place and time. However, there comes- -or may come- -a moment when the level of natural speech is left behind and one enters upon the extraordinary praise of God in the language of the Spirit.

A word of personal testimony may be helpful. My attitude concerning tongues formerly was much like that expressed at the outset of this article: I could see no value in it. Indeed the whole matter was a bit repugnant to my sensibilities. However there came a day and hour when all this suddenly changed. And what brought it about? Namely, there came a sudden intensity of desire to praise God more totally and completely. It was in the context of saying the opening words of Psalm 103- -"Bless the Lord, 0 my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name; bless the Lord, 0 my soul, and forget not all his benefits"- -that my spirit, full of joy, yearned to express this totally- -"all...within me" to break forth in heavenly blessing. Then came the gracious gift of a new tongue, a spiritual language- -an extraordinary, even shocking event. But now at last I was praising God with my whole being- -body, soul, and spirit.

When speaking in tongues is understood primarily as transcendent praise, there is every reason to be grateful for its occurrence. For example, there has been a long history in the church of what many have called "jubilation." To jubilate is to go beyond ordinary speech into a praise of God that even the most expressive words cannot convey. St. Augustine wrote much of jubilation in his commentary on Psalms, for example: "If you cannot express your joy, jubilate: jubilation expresses your joy; it cannot be a silent joy." Again, "What is jubilation? Joy that cannot be expressed in words; yet the voice expresses what is conceived within and cannot be expressed verbally." St. Thomas Aquinas, also in his commentary on Psalms, wrote: "Jubilation is an unspeakable joy, which one cannot keep silent; yet neither can it be expressed (in words) is beyond comprehension."1 Other quotations might be added, but these should suffice to show how jubilation has often been experienced as a matter of transcendent joy, transcendent praise. Although jubilation may not be identified with glossolalia as such, since the emphasis is on wordless praise rather than praise in a new language, the connection is quite close. Each is motivated by the same intense yearning: to express the inexpressible- -thus to go beyond ordinary speech into the realm of transcendent praise.

Next it is important to add that speaking in tongues can be understood only against the background of a kind of total yielding to God. This is not a "yielding to tongues" (as is sometimes said), but a yielding to God in which everything, including the tongue, becomes the avenue of God's presence and power. The apostle Paul urges that we present our "bodies...a living sacrifice" (Rom. 12:1); in other words, our total selves to be completely given to God. Surely there is no part of the body that causes more havoc than the tongue. James speaks of the tongue as "an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell...with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men" (James 3:6, 9). How essential the surrender of the tongue, how urgent its purifying, how marvelous that God may grant a new tongue to "bless the Lord and Father"! But, to repeat, the basic matter is that of surrender of everything to God.

So let us probe deeper. In the yielding of the total self- -body, soul, and spirit- -to God, the situation is that in which the Spirit of God is able to take full possession. This is what the Scriptures refer to in the language of being "filled with the Holy Spirit." The prime example of this is the apostles and many others- -men and women alike- -who "with one accord devoted themselves to prayer" (Acts 1:14). On the Day of Pentecost "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). The primary matter was the filling with the Spirit, out of which came glossolalic speech. Their speech, so full of joy that many observers thought them to be "filled with new wine," was that of transcendent praise as they spoke forth "the mighty [or "wonderful"] works of God" (Acts 2:11, 13). Truly they were filled with new wine- -but it was wine of the Spirit, not of the grape. The Spirit of God had filled them: they were people possessed by the divine presence.

We may note further that when the Spirit of God fills a person, this signifies that on the deepest level of his being, namely, the spirit, he or she has been penetrated and pervaded by the Holy Spirit. Not only has the conscious mind been probed but also the subconscious, even into the depths of the human spirit. The Spirit of God may already have been at work within (as is the case for every true believer); but this is a further visitation in which the Spirit takes inward possession. This does not mean domination but freely given control wherein the Holy Spirit now functions without hindrance through the human spirit. Thus when speech occurs it may be not rational utterance but spiritual utterance- -or utterance, which, though spoken by man, is in spiritual language, language the Holy Spirit provides. The mind is no longer the controlling center so that this utterance is in conceptual speech, nor for that matter is the subconscious predominant so that the utterance is ecstatic;2 rather the Holy Spirit moving upon the human spirit brings forth utterance which is other than both the conceptual and the ecstatic. It is glossolalic utterance: the language of the Holy Spirit spoken through the speech organs of people.

Given the conditions of being "filled with the Holy Spirit," speaking in tongues is a quite normal occurrence. One cannot say a "natural" occurrence because the spiritual (the Holy Spirit) is the source. Rather it is basically supernatural, and belongs to the realm of "signs and wonders" (a New Testament frequent definition of miracle) which may occur when the spiritual breaks in. However, when a person is filled with the Spirit it is normal for spiritual utterance to occur: one follows directly from the other. Of course, there may also be rational utterance (though penetrated by fresh spiritual content), for the Holy Spirit moves through all levels of the spiritual and mental. There is often an alternation between spiritual and natural language- -with mutual enrichment. But my basic point is that speaking in tongues, while miraculous, is a normal aspect of being filled with the Spirit of God.

The question is sometimes asked: Must believers speak in tongues if they are Spirit-filled? The question, incidentally, usually expresses some fear or disquiet about the possibility. The answer is not that one must, but that one may! If people are filled with the Holy Spirit, a new and wonderful thing can now happen. They may, through the infilling Spirit, speak in tongues. The Holy Spirit will never force His way ("where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" [2 Cor. 3:17]), but a new- -even supernatural- -possibility is now given. The Spirit, if allowed free access to the organs of speech, may bring forth a new and spiritual language. There is no "must" about it- -but an exciting and wonderful new possibility is now at hand.

It is important to add that situations vary among people who first speak in tongues. Some filled with the Holy Spirit are so flooded with the reality of God's presence and power that they can scarcely contain themselves; thus speaking in tongues, or transcendent speech, quickly occurs. They sense deep within their spirit a great yearning and urge to break forth in fresh praise to God, and so they allow the Holy Spirit to provide the language. Others, likewise Spirit-filled, through ignorance, fear, and uncertainty, may seek to hold things in check and thus do not immediately speak in tongues. However, the possibility is now present, and with the proper conditions and a willingness to venture forth, they will soon be speaking a new language of the Spirit.

This is not always easy. There is so much resistance to the whole matter of speaking in tongues- -as being irrational, hyper­emotional, even a bit shameful- -that it takes some courage for many even to contemplate it. Furthermore, when people speak in tongues they often burn their bridges behind them. They may now be labeled a "tongues-speaker" (with all the negative images usually associated). Reputation, respect, and position may be forfeited. Thus it is not easy for some to take the step. However, on the other hand, it may be that what is folly in the sight of others is wisdom in the eyes of God and that God has established this strange, and often despised, way as a channel for His praise and glory.

Finally, let me summarize a number of values of speaking in tongues. First, whatever others (in the world or church!) may think, when people speak in tongues, they begin to experience in a fresh way the reality of God. They may start with only a few syllables or words, or with the whole new language, but there is a growing sense of awe that God is present, speaking in them and through them. This new language, which is known not to have been made up or conjured up, is an audible reminder, whenever spoken, of the miraculous activity of God.

Second, speaking in tongues as it moves into singing in tongues or singing in the Spirit (where both words and melody are given by the Holy Spirit) becomes a joyful expression of praise when people are gathered together for worship. Where people not only sing psalms and hymns but also are able to sing "spiritual songs,"3 there is the zenith of the worship of God.

Third, speaking in tongues has great benefit in the life of prayer. The apostle Paul enjoins us to "pray at all times in the Spirit" (Eph. 6:18), for such prayer is essentially that which the Holy Spirit utters in us. Many persons find themselves, like Paul, praying with the Spirit (which is praying in tongues) and praying with the mind also (cf. 1 Cor. 14:14-15), and discover in the alternation between the two an increasing enrichment of the spiritual life. It is hard to overestimate the value of tongues in the daily experience of prayer. Many begin their prayer time with praying in the Spirit and find these prayers of the Holy Spirit a rich background and force for the prayers of the mind that follow. Often people move back and forth between the two: and their life of prayer becomes all the richer and fuller. Thus it is that praying in tongues does much to build persons up in their faith. The words of Paul are indeed true: "He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself" (1 Cor. 14:4); and the words of Jude are a continuing challenge: "beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit" (Jude 20).

Fourth, speaking in tongues often proves to be the doorway into a deeper experience of the other gifts of the Spirit. Since tongues are such an extraordinary avenue of prayer and praise, many persons soon find themselves moving more freely in the realm of other spiritual gifts, or manifestations, of the Holy Spirit. It is not at all unusual to experience prophecy, healings, miracles and other gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Cor. 12:8-10) after having begun to speak in tongues. Tongues often are the key turning the lock of the door into the whole realm of God's extraordinary workings.

Fifth, and finally, speaking in tongues wherein the Holy Spirit communicates through us to the Father and glorifies the Son is that kind of praise which is very near to the glory of the world to come. Since the Holy Spirit provides the language, it is a pure and holy language- -whatever the imperfection of the one who speaks. Thus it is the noblest language this side of heaven.


1These quotations from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are taken from Eddie Ensley's book Sounds of Wonder, 8, 53. Ensley, in this valuable book, later says, "Indications are that jubilation is a continuation of the glossolalia of the New Testament," and that "plainsong and the musical parts of the liturgy emerged from the early practice of glossolalia" (pp. 115, 117). In any event the connection between speaking in tongues and the praise of God is unmistakable.

2By "ecstatic" reference is commonly made to speech uncontrolled by the conscious mind, which is an expression of the non-rational depths. Such expression, in which the subconscious breaks through, may have tremendous spiritual vigor and drive. However, such ecstatic utterance, in which strong emotion may dominate, often passes into irrationality, frenzy, even madness. Speaking in tongues is not ecstasy; for there is continuing control under the direction of the Holy Spirit. There is joy, elevation-but no irrationality, no lack of conscious control.

3Paul speaks in both Ephesians and Colossians about "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Psalms and hymns doubtless signify known and frequently used musical expressions (as is true in the church today), but "spiritual songs" (or songs inspired by the Spirit) probably refers to songs where words and melodies are spontaneously given by the Holy Spirit. In the Jerusalem Bible a footnote to Colossians 3:16 speaks of these spiritual songs as "charismatic improvisations" (!).

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | Conclusion
Preface | Abbreviations | Bibliography

Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

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