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Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:9 that understanding and clarity is important, especially when it comes to speaking in tongues. From my observation, it seems to have been more important to the apostle than to modern Charismatics, and in my opinion this situation ought to be addressed in order to bring the Charismatic churches into greater alignment with this Scripture.
Paul then continues in 1 Corinthians 14:10, 11,
10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. 11 If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.
Every genuine language uses words that have meaning. Jabberwocky had not yet been invented by Lewis Carroll. Of course, there is no doubt that some who speak in tongues do so by the flesh, rather than by the spirit, and that such tongues have no genuine meaning. But such cases do not discredit the genuine tongues which do indeed have meaning, if only to God. There is real and counterfeit in most practices, religious and secular.
The problem is that it is often difficult to discern the validity of an unknown tongue. It is hard enough to discern an unknown earthly language, but with some mental (soulish) experience, it can be done. Heavenly tongues, on the other hand, must be discerned spiritually and require more than soulish experience and logic. Paul distinguishes between earthly and heavenly tongues in 1 Corinthians 13:1, where he refers to them as “the tongues of men and of angels.”
Paul’s use of the term “barbarian,” (or barbaros), largely in the way that the Greeks used the term. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says that the Greeks used this term to refer to “any foreigner ignorant of the Greek language, whether mental or moral, with the added notion after the Persian war, of rudeness and brutality.” In other words, the Greeks thought people were uncivilized and uncultured if they did not know the Greek language.
Paul did not use the term to indicate any “rudeness and brutality,” but he did use it to show that a believer speaking in an unknown and uninterpreted tongue might cause his hearers to think of him as uncivilized and uncultured. In other words, the effect of tongues would be negative, not positive, for it would serve only to prejudice the hearers against the speaker.
Paul was cautioning believers about their use of tongues apart from interpretation.
Pray to Interpret
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:12, 13,
12 So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. 13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.
The Corinthian believers were “zealous of spiritual gifts,” and Paul does not discourage this. Instead, he guides them in their zeal. He does not discourage the gift or usage of tongues, but tells them to pray for an important adjunct to the gift of tongues—the gift of interpretation. First, the gift of interpretation does not often come with the gift of tongues. Second, it may be sought through prayer.
This raises another point about all spiritual gifts. Sometimes the gifts are given without a person even seeking them, but spiritual gifts may also be sought through prayer. Recall Paul’s earlier statement in 1 Corinthians 12:31, “earnestly desire the greater gifts,” and again in 1 Corinthians 14:39, where Paul says, “desire earnestly to prophesy.” Paul’s instruction shows first that some gifts are “greater” than others, and second, we are to desire (“covet,” KJV) those greater gifts.
The context implies that tongues is the lesser gift, relative to prophecy, and it is somewhat inadequate or incomplete apart from interpretation. Yet Paul also says, “do not forbid to speak in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39) and even makes the claim that “I speak in tongues more than you all” (1 Corinthians 14:18).
The church in which I grew up had an official policy of “seek not, forbid not.” This was the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Their policy was a compromise from the 1930’s, when the Pentecostals among them finally left the denomination, feeling stifled by the “seek not” principle. About a third of the denomination left and joined the Assembly of God at that time, leaving somewhat of a bad aftertaste in the mouths of those who remained.
Nonetheless, the CMA had many great spirit-filled leaders, even if some of them focused on spiritual gifts other than tongues. Even so, the denomination justified its “seek not” principle by applying it to the “lesser” gift of tongues, for they seemed to have no problem seeking gifts of miracles or of healing, which they considered to be more worthwhile.
I grew up in this atmosphere. It was only when I was grown (age 21) that I finally came into the experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. My wife soon experienced the same baptism as well, after hearing a spirit-filled Baptist missionary speak at a meeting. We then knew it by personal experience, rather than by mere observation or discussion. It changed our lives in 1971, and thereafter, God has brought major changes in our lives every ten years to enhance our spiritual life, understanding, and relationship with Him.
In 1981 God removed us from the church and thrust us into the wilderness in order to learn to hear His voice. Our baptism of the Holy Spirit in 1971 had given us the gift of tongues, which we often used in the next ten years, especially when problems arose. The problem was that we often did not know the will of God, so we did not know how we should pray. The gift of tongues was helpful, but it did little or nothing to give us understanding or clarity.
Our “wilderness” experience in 1982 forced us to pray more earnestly and to seek the will of God. In February 1982 I met people who knew how to pray and actually get answers. Prayer, to them, was not a matter of speaking to God, but of listening to what He was saying. That was a revolutionary idea to us, for we had always struggled with unanswered questions. And, in fact, at that very time in 1982 we were in dire need for answers.
On March 20, 1982 I reached the end of myself, and I prayed earnestly, seeking answers to four big questions. Then I attended a conference in Lexington, Kentucky that began April 1, 1982. There a man came up behind me, laid his hand on my shoulder, and prophesied to me, giving me the answers to all four of my questions. At that moment, I knew by experience why prophecy was as vital to the church today as it was in the first century. Those who taught the Cessationist view, that the spiritual gifts were rendered unnecessary and ceased after the completion of the New Testament, simply did not understand that we still need prophecy today as much as ever.
On June 5-7, 1982 I finally broke through and began to hear God for myself. I began to hear on June 5, and I received independent confirmation of this on June 7. Our lives were changed forever. But there was much more for us to learn. The next ten years were spent developing the ability to hear, but this also involved learning to hear without heart idols. It took ten years to root out the worst of my heart idols, though God did this by His own sovereign will. For the most part, I did not realize what He was doing, nor did I understand it from a biblical perspective.
In 1991 our lives changed again, as God brought me back into full-time ministry. On June 5-7, 1992, precisely ten years after I began “hearing,” a great heart idol was cast down in my own heart, and my wife began “hearing.”
Realize, of course, that we all hear God’s voice, even non-believers, for “the heavens are telling of the glory of God… Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1, 2). Verse 3 says that God speaks in a silent voice, which is not usually heard by our physical ears. For this reason, we do not usually recognize His voice.
So it was also with my wife and I. It would be more accurate to say that in 1982 I began to recognize His voice, and then I recalled hearing that same voice many times when I was younger. The same was true with my wife. In 1992 she suddenly knew that she had been hearing His voice for a long time. The problem was that she did not have confidence that it was truly His voice, especially in this case, when her word did not agree with my own word.
But on June 5, 1992 it became clear that she was right and that I had been influenced by an idol of the heart. God used this situation to confirm to her that she was indeed hearing God’s voice! From that day on, neither of us have ever doubted her ability to hear. This again changed our lives and strengthened our relationship. This is what brought us into a New Covenant marriage relationship, where God speaks to both of us and thereby gives us a double witness to guide us and to know the will of God for our lives.
Again, clarity and understanding increased in 1981/82 and again in 1991/92. At the same time, I learned the principle of the Amen. As a declaration, “amen” is a double witness. In our prayer life, we hear what God has to say and learn His will, so that we may say “amen” to His will and purpose. We ceased trying to instruct God about the things that He was neglecting or doing wrong. We ceased trying to convince Him to do things our way. From then on, we began to seek His perfect will, so that we might conform our lives accordingly. This, we learned, was the key to being like Christ, who is “the Amen” of God (Revelation 3:14).
In 2001/2 God began to speak to us with even greater clarity and with greater detail, so that we could conduct spiritual warfare with greater effectiveness and with greater understanding. In 2011/12 this was enhanced again as we began to learn greater practical applications of spiritual gifts. Explanations would take too much space to record here. It is sufficient to know that the overriding purpose of God, as my wife and I have seen in our own experience, is that God has used spiritual gifts not only to accomplish His will in us and through us, but also to clarify His will and to give us understanding.
When spiritual gifts fail to give us clear revelation that is useful and practical in establishing His Kingdom, then something is wrong. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14 makes is very clear that clarity and understanding is very important. For this reason, the gift of tongues by itself can be insufficient in practical applications. Paul says that we should seek to interpret so that we may be edified and strengthened by the knowledge of His will for our lives.