GOD’S GIFT THAT TERRORIZES THE CHURCH–TONGUES
In 1977 I became aware that I desperately needed the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the power Jesus promised in Acts 1:8. At the time, I was nearly 30 years in pastoral ministry, but was void of all New Testament power and was witnessing the death of entire Associations (Synods) of Churches in my denomination. These were vanishing in epidemic proportions. Some were historic, pre-Revolutionary War congregations. Watching that tragedy, I knew my own ministerial-death would soon follow unless God came to my rescue. Our "denominational" gospel had no spiritual power and I knew it. Nor did I have answers for my own spiritual crisis. My wife had been in a critical automobile wreck and I was trapped in an equally critical depression.
Though I began praying earnestly to receive the Holy Spirit’s impartation, there was a serious problem blocking my way: I did not want to speak in tongues. That was my absolute, final, unchangeable position, and I told God so. To me, tongues denoted an intellectual level just one step above idiocy. I had no respect for people who claimed such unintelligible babbling and publicly declared that in my preaching. For that reason, the instruction I gave the Lord in prayer was this: "Lord, I want to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. I need to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. My only condition is this: I do not want to speak in tongues, I do not want to shout, I do not want to be spectacular. With that understood, You may go ahead." –But, as you have already guessed, absolutely nothing happened. Even so, I kept praying, waiting in full expectation that God would eventually accept my terms. He didn’t. And I got steadily worse–losing the battle against horrendous depression.
The day I finally received the Spirit’s impartation I was in the visitors’ room of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary counseling an inmate. The year before our meeting this young man had been miraculously born-again, miraculously delivered from drug addiction and suicide, and miraculously filled with the Holy Spirit. I did not know how to explain such transformation in a man’s life and was secretly afraid of his spirituality. In every way, he was a walking miracle which my theology could not explain. His "words of knowledge" and ability to tell me private events in my own life were outside my realm of understanding. He was locked behind bars but knew facts which he could have learned only from God. Thankfully, that cold November day my own depression was too desperate for me to put any more conditions on the Lord. I felt like one whose boat was plunging toward Niagara Falls and could hear the thunderous roar below me. It was the prisoner who laid-hands on me, quoting Ananias’ words to Saul of Tarsus, "The Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you came has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." The scene must have been puzzling to the Maffia inmates and their wives who were watching from other tables: The pastor was receiving prayer from the prisoner. He was aglow with the glory of God–I was in deep distress.
What happened to me soon after I got home–a baptism of unspeakable joy and bone-rattling power–totally, radically, changed my life, my ministry, my theology, forever. That awesome day, "Heaven came down my soul to greet, And Glory crowned the Mercy Seat." I rose from the encounter a new man, a new minister, a new husband, a new father. Depression was gone forever. My encounter with the Holy Spirit was very similar to what Dwight L. Moody and Charles Fenny described in theirs. I soon began experiencing phenomenal power in ministry, received amazing "words of knowledge," prophetic wisdom appeared, people were healed, hardened sinners were born-again—but I still felt insufficient because I could not pray in tongues.
Some will not believe mine was a genuine baptism in the Spirit because I did not immediately experience this gift of the Spirit. Ideally, one does, but I did not because God demanded deeper repentance from me. My years of ridiculing and scorning the gift exacted severer penitence and I began to beg for it. Nor was this begging a mere, routine prayer. At times I lay face-down on my office floor weeping, other times I curled into a tight, prenatal position, crying out to God for forgiveness in having reproached this special provision of His grace. Once at a night-time home meeting, I sat outside in my car in the dark, refusing to go in because I felt spiritually naked without the gift. In a very graphic way, God showed me I dared not call any provision of His grace "common or unclean".
And I had done that arrogantly in reproaching the gift of tongues. Nor could I plead ignorance; in such cases God expects everyone able to read the New Testament to believe and practice all of it.
Then it happened: Two years after my baptism, I was standing–praying alone–in my church office. Suddenly, an unseen power slammed me so hard against the wall I knocked a picture loose from its’ nail. The room was filled with the Presence of God and moments later, I found myself face-up on the floor, listening to an unknown Oriental language flowing from me. It came forth poetically beautifully–rhythmically–like a flow of music. In the next half-hour the tongue changed languages about seven times, climaxing, finally, with my singing what I believe was a Hebrew Psalm. As I lay there, I could not believe it was finally happening: That wonderful gift had come at last!
Learning A New Lesson About The Gift
A few years later, on the closing day of a Conference in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where I had been invited by the Mercy Ship, Anastasis, to speak at a series of Conferences, I had just finished my final message, when the Holy Spirit began sweeping through the room in an astonishing way. What happened was wonderful. The people in this congregation spoke creole-English and some fifteen other African tribal languages. The words, however, that began rising from us were in none of these tongues. People rose to their feet, and as the Holy Spirit started moving, we were instantly caught up in the glory of singing in the "tongues of angels". I Corinthians 13:1. The experience was awesome. As we worshiped "in the Spirit" we were suddenly in a realm beyond human understanding. Paul said, "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding." For that wonderful time, like Paul, we too were beyond human "understanding" and lost in the dimension of the Spirit.
I had been in similar meetings in Latin America where Spanish, English, and Indian languages were in use, but this experience hit me with an understanding I never had before. In spite of all the cultural, ethnic, and language barriers that were crowded together in Sierra Leone’s Miatta Center, all of us were suddenly transported out of ourselves and into "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace". There is no way to describe the experience. It was as if the Glory of Heaven had suddenly fallen upon us. In that moment we ceased being Americans, Africans, New Zealanders, or Europeans, and instantly became "The Body of Christ." Our separate identities disappeared into an ocean of God's love. What I realized was this:
One of the blessings of tongues, "singing in the Spirit", I Corinthians 14:15, is God's way of drawing believers out of their own racial differences and into the universality of the Body of Christ. It transcends every form of human division and locks Christians into a oneness unlike any other. The only way I can describe the experience is that it was "heavenly". Nothing else would have accomplished this unity except the Holy Spirit's gift of worshiping in His infinite language. This kind of holy adoration puts Africans and Americans on equal footing. In it, one nationality is not superior to another, nor is one separated from the other. Rather, through it, the Holy Spirit inseparably joins our spirits –not just our voices. Believe me, when this happens, one is instantly aware of the fact that he is part of a Greater Body than just his own congregation. Denominations, factions, splinter-groups, lose all their meaning and importance before such an awareness. In moments like these, the "Kingdom of God comes with power." Mark 9:1.
Ordinary singing would not have done this, preaching would not have done it, healings, and other miracles would not have done it. In His wisdom, God knew how to provide the perfect instrument of worship which would allow men who could not otherwise communicate with each other to instantly become one united voice in praising Him. In Heaven, people out of "every tribe and tongue and people and nation" will join in singing a "new" song which none of us yet know. We may have not yet heard it, but if there is anything on earth that gets close to that heavenly song, it is this blessing of "singing in the Spirit".
History records that early Christians gathered on open hillsides and sang for hours. While I know of no reference to their singing in tongues–"in the Spirit"–at these events, it seems very likely that they did.
Nor can I prove this, but I personally believe the Gregorian Chant which became part of 6th century Catholicism was a poor substitute for the lost "tongues of angels" which they had formerly known.
There are two directions of tongues. The first is from God, downward to the people. This comes as a public message to the congregation which requires interpretation. I Corinthians 14:27,28. When Paul asked, "Do all speak with tongues?," this is the one under consideration. The second direction of tongues is upward, from the people to God. This may be prayer, worship, or "singing in the spirit". I Corinthians 14:15. Of this message, we are told to ask for the interpretation–which may, or may not, be given. I Corinthians 14:13. Every Spirit-baptized believer should expect this type of prayer to become an important part of his spiritual life. I was late receiving because I was late repenting. That fact brings up this question: Why would any sincere Christian pastor such as I hold this gift in such low esteem? The answer is important:
Tongues is the only spiritual gift deliberately designed to attack man’s ego and pride; it exposes insincerity, self-centeredness, falsity, and other negative traits in believers.
Because of its unique attack on the human intellect, tongues remains the eternal "watch guard" at the gate. In a very calculated way this gift protects the other gifts from exploitation. The Holy Spirit will not allow us to choose one charisma and reject another. Many seek the gifts of healing, words of wisdom, faith, prophecy, etc., but will not endure the reproach of this strange gift. God says "No!" to this attitude. We must accept all grace-gifts as one package or we do not get any of them. Simply said: Unless you deal with pride and ego in your own life, become willing to endure the public’s humiliation and scorn, you will not be entrusted with other gifts. But that is only one aspect of tongues. This is also the only gift which personally edifies the believer.
While "tongues" becomes the key that unlocks amazing spiritual power in someone, it does that by "building up" the one who is employing it in prayer. Strange? Yes. Do I understand it? No. Do I believe it? Absolutely.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board once announced that they would assign no one to the mission field who spoke in tongues. But–once the Board’s vote was taken–the Director, Jerry Rankin, acknowledged that he had prayed in tongues for the past 30 years. More recently, Lifeway Book Stores, the official book-seller for the Convention, conducted a survey and found that 70% of Southern Baptist lay-people believe that spiritual gifts, including tongues, are valid today; 50% say they are open to receiving that gift. More astonishingly, the survey discovered that 50% of SBC pastors privately pray in tongues. This disclosure was a spiritual-earthquake to SBC Executive leadership.
Historically, Baptists have been "cessationist"–claiming that the gifts ceased with the death of the Apostles or completion of Scripture. But Paul did not believe that. Nor does the New Testament teach it. In the introduction to his Corinthian letters Paul exhorted believers to " ... Come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ." I Corinthians 1:7. In that brief statement, Paul equated the duration of spiritual gifts to be the same length as the Church's waiting for Jesus' return. Examine it for yourself. This is precisely what the Apostle said. There is probably no greater ignorance in the Church today than of spiritual gifts and Jesus' offer of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. But, someone asks, why do I need the baptism in the Spirit and the imparting of spiritual gifts?
Why You Need The Baptism In The Holy Spirit
On the Day of Ascension, Jesus told the disciples on the Mount of Olives, "John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now ... You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you." Acts 1:5,6. In a single statement, Jesus connected baptism in the Spirit to the imparting of His power. It is significant however, that on the evening of the Resurrection, before Pentecost, John 20:19-22, Jesus suddenly appeared in the closed room with the disciples, breathed into them, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit." This was their first receiving of the Spirit. But this encounter with the Spirit was not their "baptism" or an empowering for their gospel ministry. This first reception of the Spirit was their "new birth" and their personal regeneration. Pentecost was yet to come.
That wonderful event occurred forty days later when 120 disciples in the Upper Room received the miraculous blessing with tongues of fire blazing upon them. Even after Pentecost the disciples experienced many subsequent "fillings" of the Spirit. Scripture carefully explains that others who were not present at Pentecost received the empowering later. That included the Samaritans, Acts 8:14-17, Saul of Tarsus, Acts 9:17, the household of Cornelius, Acts 10:44, and the Ephesians, Acts 19:1-7. Young Timothy followed the example. II Timothy 1:6. Identically, today, multiplied millions around the world have stepped into the Spirit's wondrous baptism. It is estimated that of the world’s two billion Christians presently alive–one-fourth–or five hundred million now believe in the full quota of spiritual gifts.
The Apostle Paul, who received the Spirit's imparting through the laying-on-of-hands by Ananias, later wrote an 84 verse treatise on spiritual gifts. I Corinthians 12,13,14. His explanation provides the most comprehensive, authoritative information we have on the subject. More importantly, it is the only resource bearing the seal of Divine authorship. All conflicting opinions, no matter how cherished or long-established, are but human speculation and must be discarded. Scripture is our final, absolute authority.
Once when I addressed the student priests and faculty at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, I taught on this same subject of spiritual gifts and was afterward surrounded by a flock of these excited young men eager to hear more. Some were so over-joyed they were literally dancing on their toes.
When I said to them, "Don’t do like I did ...", one of them interrupted me and said "But, Father! (a title I don’t claim) You are what we want to be!" A shocking statement from young priests to an Evangelical? Yes. But they were hungry for truth. Some of them recognized the emptiness of ritual and their need for real spiritual power.
But, hear this: I have given this same teaching to so-called Bible-believing, Evangelical Churches and had them become irate and hostile at the mere suggestion they needed spiritual gifts. Denominational Christians should realize that God does not read church signs–Catholic or Protestant. He reads hearts. Mainline believers need to repent of their conceit, prostrate themselves before God, acknowledge their sin of sophistication, and accept the humbling experience of tongues. God’s motive is not to terrorize the church but to bless it. Stop your arguments about His "watch guard at the gate,"–the gift of tongues–and receive His complete provision. You will be very glad you did!