It’s spring of 2013, and I'm at a small conference in the middle of nowhere, Indiana. There are about thirty people in a room, seated at round tables. The leaders of the conference are some of the leaders of our very small church organization - three men, one woman, all from Oxford, England. They come about once a year to the Midwest to shepherd the leadership of the region’s churches.
At the end of a session, I have an all-too-familiar feeling inside. That feeling you get when you know God wants you to do something, and you don’t want to do it at all. This feeling had me pretty freaked out for two reasons: first, it was something I had never done before. Second, I felt the need to do something very unpopular in most of the American Church.
I feel like you can talk about almost any spiritual gift, and the statement is well-received. “Our church has been praying over my dad’s cancer and he’s been healed!” or “My friend told me something she thought was from God, and it was exactly what I needed to hear!” These occurrences are good, easy to confirm, and usually easy to digest.
Speaking in tongues, however, can be quite a bit different. By design, it’s not really something everyone can just hear and understand. It may not appear to be beneficial for anyone, at least not on the surface. I completely understand why people think that. I used to think the same.
Some backstory: I was home from college in the summer of 2011 and met up with my mentor and spiritual advisor, Art Good (a friend of mine conjectured that Art is his middle name, full name being “Thou Art Good”). Art was a retired pastor at a church within our small “denomination” and an astoundingly wise man.
At the small-town diner by our church, I told him about this strange and new desire I had been experiencing. A desire to speak in tongues. What I didn’t know, but was hoping for, was that Art knew a lot about that spiritual gift. That made it easier to talk about, but I was still fearful and confused.
Art gave me the basics: praying in tongues is beneficial. It’s a unique way you can communicate with God. The Holy Spirit is leading you to pray even when you may have no idea what words to say. And in that way, it’s a blessing to you and to God. It’s even better to have a translator, so that the things you’re declaring about God can be shared (see 1 Corinthians 14:1-24). That way, the whole body of Christ can hear and know the praises being declared.
Therefore, according to Art (and Paul, from what I can tell), praying in tongues is probably a good thing to do quietly, not publicly - unless there’s someone who can translate. And that’s what I did for a few years. When I would feel the need to respond to God in a language unknown to me but known to Him, I did - whether by myself, or quietly if others were around.
Fast-forward a few years - to the conference, to that fresh, yet familiar feeling of a need to take action. I walk up to Dave, the leader of the current session, during a time of silent reflection and prayer. Dave has become a confidant of mine and has let me tag along to other conferences with him so that I could hone some of my spiritual leadership and discernment skills. He likes to push me, to make me uncomfortable.
I walk up to Dave and I say, “I have the weirdest feeling, and I don’t know if it’s an appropriate time, or if it would be better later, maybe when we break out into groups, or…” Dave is very understanding of my nervousness. Lucky for me because I’m dripping with it.
I finally am able to communicate that I’m feeling a need to pray in tongues - publicly. I feel this momentary calling but need convincing. Dave says (quietly enough to not disturb the people silently praying), “Okay, great! No problem. I’ll give everyone a heads-up before you do. And don’t worry. I know that Jim can translate, but who knows? Someone else here might be able to! And if nobody else does, I will. So you’ll be fine.”
At the end of our silent reflection and prayer, Dave says, “Okay everyone, Ian has just informed me that God is prompting him to pray over us in tongues. He’s never done it before, so” - I’m paraphrasing here - "cut him some slack. And whoever is able to translate, please feel free.” He looks at me, says something very British-sounding like, “Have a go,” and I stand up.
Everyone stands up with me. The pressure is on, there’s no going back, and I know that God is the one guiding me - so I go for it. As I said before, I had prayed in the Spirit many times – but this was a completely new experience for me, and I was incredibly nervous even as it was happening.
Jim translates as I pray, alternating sentences with me. I can hear from his translation that I’m declaring freedom over all the people in the room. Freedom to do what God is leading our church to do, even though sometimes it may seem impossible. Freedom from sin. Freedom from fear. Proclaiming that the freedom is in Christ. At one point, Jim simply translates, “Freedom, freedom, freedom.” Without Jim, I have no idea what I’m saying.
Something else happens after the translation. Sue, one of our leaders, tells us that God is showing her the way He looks at our church: He is pleased, but wants us to keep moving forward. We all begin to pray, to see a clearer vision of what He is calling our churches to.
Dave uses the experience as a teaching moment: "Ian felt led to pray, and he did. Jim’s translation blessed the people in this room. But Sue heard from God and didn’t feel comfortable sharing it until that happened. And we wouldn’t have known God - or how well He knows us - the way we know now.”
Huge disclaimer: I did not really “enjoy” the experience. There wasn’t any emotional high. I felt somewhat out of control and fearful of what people might think of me. I knew I was walking in a path God had laid out for me, but I didn’t feel very okay with it. I had problems with praying in tongues in that small room, with no music, no ambient noise, and the fluorescent lights at full blast. It’s not what mainstream American Christianity would think of as an environment for intimately experiencing God’s presence.
To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with setting aside a space and time to commune with God. But I want to make a statement controversial for our Western culture and probably our own specific spiritual cultures: God doesn’t just fly in through our church windows, take our confession of sin and faith that we’ve left under the pillow, and leave us a dollar’s worth of spiritual fulfillment. Instead, He sees humility and pairs it with obedience to create something that blesses His Church and glorifies Him. It’s not just for you. And it’s not just for me. Because none of that would have happened without the Holy Spirit’s guidance, my willingness to take a step forward, Dave’s willingness to support and teach me, and Jim’s willingness to translate. I believe that the people in the room were blessed by how the Holy Spirit interacted with all of us that afternoon, but He had to start with someone. It just happened to be me.
We shouldn’t be afraid of the Holy Spirit, except maybe in the way we’re supposed to fear God, and stand in awe of Him – after all, He’s immense, infinite, and all-powerful, but not scary. Instead, I believe that when it comes to the Holy Spirit, other people’s reactions can be scary to us. The possibility of judgment is often what we’re afraid of. And instead of admitting that and trusting God, we hide ourselves in our own devices, and mask it by saying that the stuff's not real, or that we’re not equipped to pull it off.
My challenge to you is this: the next time you’re having the weird feeling that you’re “supposed to” go do something - whatever it is - pay attention. Realize that it might be the Holy Spirit. Try to discern. And be honest, with yourself and with God. Because it may just be the first step into the water - which will lead to another, and another, until you see that the water you’re venturing into is not a dead sea, but a River of Life.
Post by Ian Morley (CG Northeast).