I was raised in a non-denominational, rather introverted church. When other churches or denominations were talked about, it was virtually always about doctrines or practices where we had it right and they had it wrong. These areas of deviation on their part were seen as a compromise that rendered them ineffective. We were the standard. Every other church was weighed in a balance against ours. And most of the time, in fact almost every time, the scale tipped in our favor. The word discernment was used a lot. It seemed as if our little group had been endowed with an extra dose of spiritual discernment, for we found fault in just about everyone else.
One of the areas of theology that our group was very strong about was the gift of tongues. It was made clear that they were a temporary gift given to the early church. They ceased upon the completion of the Canon.
I actually did not become a Jesus-follower in that group. It was not their fault. They faithfully preached the Gospel message. I heard it literally my whole life, but I wanted nothing to do with Jesus. In my early twenties, after a series of foolish lifestyle choices I was led to seek help in Teen Challenge. Teen Challenge is a Christ-based drug and alcohol program that is affiliated with the Assemblies of God. It was in Teen Challenge that I met Jesus and surrendered my life to Him. And, it was in Teen Challenge that I was exposed to the gift of tongues for the first time. While there, the baptism of the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues was emphasized, and I was strongly encouraged to seek it out. However, I did not interpret the Bible as saying that everyone was supposed to have tongues and had no desire for them. Thankfully, tongues was never forced upon me and my salvation was never held in question.
I graduated from Teen Challenge in October 1998, without ever speaking in tongues. Still, my experience there left me with a few nagging questions I could not shake about the teaching that the gift of tongues is not for today. All of the men who were counselors and pastors at Teen Challenge loved the Lord dearly. They loved His Word and were students of it. They loved the souls of the men in the program and interceded in prayer faithfully on our behalf. They gave their lives for the souls of the lost. And, all of them had a prayer language that was other-worldly. It was not gibberish. It had a supernatural ring to it. I had to file that somewhere. Either these men were deceived and possessed by some demonic influence, or there was some validity to the gift they possessed.
I remember one incident, in particular, that influenced my perspective on tongues. There was a young man I met in the program named Troy. His life was a mess before he came to Teen Challenge, as were most of the lives of the men in the program. He had been a heavy cocaine user and lost his job, his wife and his little girl. And when Jesus got a hold of this man and saved him, he was fired up!
Troy dearly loved Jesus for the new life He gave him, and he loved to pray for people. He was very passionate. If he started talking on a subject he was excited about, he gradually talked louder and louder, as he inched closer and closer to the edge of his seat. But the more excited Troy got, the harder it was for him to enunciate his words. He didn’t exactly stutter, but he had trouble articulating his thoughts. He would just stop talking with a slightly frustrated look on his face over his inability to express to us what was so clear in his head. One day, a group of us got together to pray. We held hands as we stood in a circle outside. We began to intercede for others in the program; for our families and loved ones back home; for former friends who desperately needed Jesus.
Troy was next to me. As he prayed, he got more and more fervent. Just about the time where he would normally start to lose his ability to clearly express himself, he began to pray in tongues. It was not the first time I heard tongues, but being so close to Troy I was able to pick up the distinct, yet subtle inflections of this language. It was too complex for Troy to make up. This lasted about 10 or 15 seconds, and then Troy was able to pray in English again.
Later on, I asked Troy what had happened. He told me that often when he prayed by himself, there were times he would not be able to utter the words necessary to pray how he wanted. And at those times, he would pray in tongues. He quoted the verse, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 ESV). I had never interpreted that verse to mean praying in tongues. I always interpreted, and still believe, it quite literally to mean that when I don’t know how to pray, the Holy Spirit will intercede on my behalf. It is a comfort to me. This divine intercession does not have to manifest itself in an ecstatic language. But, I certainly could not tell Troy that he was possessed, and that he needed to stop praying in tongues.
Since then, I have had various similar experiences with tongues. The few times I witnessed public tongues, I admit I was not impressed with the handling of it. An interpretation was given, but usually after an awkward silence, and a few times by the person who spoke the message in tongues. It was generally vague and non-specific, and could have been said just as easily in English or not at all. But, I have had people whom I respect pray with me or for me. And at any given time during their intercession, there were interspersed sentences in a distinctly supernatural language.