Bible Answer

Is it wrong to use or seek a "personal prayer language"?

My husband and I have just started attending a new church which encoruages the congregration to find your “personal prayer language”. Is this the same as speaking/praying in tongues?

Unfortunately, many believers have fallen prey to misunderstanding the purpose behind speaking in tongues. Today, many people set this spiritual gift on a pedestal, implying it is a spiritual gift for everyone in the body, while that is contrary to scripture. Personal prayer language falls into this unhealthy practice circulating within the church body today. 

First, it's critical to recognize that when the Bible uses the term "tongue," it refers to normal, spoken language (e.g., English, Spanish, French, etc.). The word "tongue" does not mean a strange, non-human sound or utterance. A "tongue" is a real, understandable human language, and therefore the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues always involves speaking a real, human language, complete with syntax, vocabulary, and sentence structure. The gift of tongues never involves making gibberish sounds or chanting repetitive phrases or nonsense words. 

The sin of the Corinthian church was that it elevated one gift (i.e., speaking in tongues) above all other gifts in importance and desirability, and the church taught all members to seek the attainment of that gift. Paul responded by teaching that this kind of thinking regarding spiritual gifts is wrong. Let's begin by addressing Paul's correction to the church of Corinth as they heightened speaking in tongues within the body of believers as well:

1COR. 12:28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.
1COR. 12:29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they?
1COR. 12:30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?
1COR. 12:31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.

Paul's prioritized list of gifts cannot be a "wish list" for an individual Christian, who seeks to acquire new gifts. Instead, Paul's list teaches the church the proper priority for the expression of gifts within the gathering. This brings us to v31, where Paul says the church should "earnestly desire the greater gifts." The Greek word translated "earnestly desire" is zeloo, which can also be translated "to seek zealously." To understand Paul's statement, we must ask who is to do this seeking, and what should they seek specifically?

Understanding who should seek begins with recognizing that Paul's statement in v31 is written in the second person plural in the Greek language. In Texas, we say "you all" to indicate second person plural. In other words, Paul's command to seek is directed to the collective church body (i.e., second person plural), not to individuals within the body (i.e., second person singular). So as a group, the church body should do the seeking. This is important because it tells us Paul was trying to direct the behavior of a group, not of an individual.

As Paul continues in his correction to the body of Corinth we must understand these believers are currently misusing the spiritual gifts God has given to individuals to edify the body. Therefore, Paul states that not everyone will be a prophet, not all will be teachers, not all will speak in tongues. The truth of these verses is self-evident. 

In v31 Paul gets to his point in providing a ranked list; he’s making a contrast between things that are great and things that are greater. The proper interpretation of v31 hinges on knowing that the phrase "desire" (zohooin in Greek) is written in the second person plural. Paul is speaking about the desires of a congregation, not the personal desire of an individual Christian. Therefore, as we gather together with others in the body of Christ, we should make it our goal to support and encourage those with the higher priority gifts to serve us all the more, while holding the lessor gifts in the proper perspective.

Paul says the priority should favor the apostolic, prophetic and teaching gifts over lessor gifts. Should we have the choice to hear teaching or see miracles, we should seek more to be taught than for someone to do a miracle for us. Our flesh will always prefer miracles – just as Israel did in the desert but our spirit needs the teaching of God’s word.

In Chapter 13 Paul focuses on a prologue explaining to the Corinthians that spiritual gifts will cease to exist in Eternity, yet love will remain. After his detour concerning the importance of Godly love within the body of believers, Paul returns to his rebuke to this church concerning their ill motives and use of spiritual gifts. 

In Chapter 14, Paul leaves nothing to chance, spelling out exactly what the church should and shouldn’t be doing in the practice of gifts. Much of what Paul writes in Chapter 14 has been twisted by some to justify the very practices Paul is condemning, for example, encouraging every person in the body to find their personal prayer language.

Paul admonishes the church regarding their heightened focus on speaking in tongues:

1COR. 14:13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.
1COR. 14:14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.
1COR. 14:15 What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.
1COR. 14:16 Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?
1COR. 14:17 For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.
1COR. 14:18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all;
1COR. 14:19 however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

First, if a Christian possesses the gift of tongues and desires to contribute to the gathering with their gift, they are commanded to pray for the opportunity to interpret their own speech. The fact that interpretation may be obtained through prayer in this manner demonstrates that interpretation is not a distinct spiritual gift. Instead, the gifts of tongues is a general category of gifts that includes the ability to speak and/or interpret foreign languages. For this reason, a person with the gift of tongues may have the ability to speak in a foreign tongue and at other times they may possess the ability to interpret or as Paul says here, they can be moved by the Spirit to understand their own foreign tongue. Therefore, Paul tells all who possess these gifts of tongues to pray for interpretation before they use their gift in the gathering. The reason they should pray in this way is so they might ensure their gift edifies others.

Paul then uses himself as an example saying that if he should speak in tongues without the ability to interpret his own speech, his spirit is edified but his mind is left out of the loop. There is an edifying effect in the spirit that doesn’t transfer to the brain. So in v15 Paul says, what should be the outcome then? In other words, what would be the better alternative?

The better alternative is to have both our spirit and mind engaged in the spiritual service, allowing both to be edified. Thus, Paul preferred to pray in a way that both his spirit and mind were engaged and he preferred to sing in a language that both his spirit and mind could understand and agree with. Specifically, Paul says even if he might pray or sing in a foreign tongue, he would prefer to pray and sing in a recognizable language so that others would be edified through his service.

Notice in v16 Paul says that the effect of praying or singing in a common language is to trigger an “Amen” from the others in the gathering. Ministry is happening in that moment, as evidenced by another person’s agreement in the expression "Amen". Consequently, this means someone is feeling blessed, or learning something, and therefore is moved to bless the name of the Lord with an Amen.

Ultimately, in v19 Paul says he would rather speak five words in an understandable tongue rather than speak 10,000 words in a foreign tongue. 

We might still exercise the gift of tongues in private, because it still brings us personal benefit. Therefore one should ask, what does it look like when the Spirit uses the gift of tongues during individual prayer time?

First of all, all prayer (even in our native tongue) is equally capable of reaching the Lord, as He promises to hear the prayers of His children at all times:

MATT. 6:6 “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
MATT. 6:7  “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.
MATT. 6:8 “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

According to scripture speaking in tongues during personal prayer time must follow these specifications as found in scripture: 

1. A real human language (Acts 2:6-11)
2. Not boastful; private (Matt. 6:6-8)
3. Edifying to your individual walk (1Cor. 14:14)
3. Most Importantly, not all humans have the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues (1Cor. 12:30)

Additionally, those who maintain that there is a special “prayer language” will usually cite Romans 8:26 to support their belief, though when they do they grossly misinterpret the scripture. When we read Romans 8:26 in context, we find Paul was teaching on something entirely different in that passage:

ROM. 8:18  For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 
ROM. 8:19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 
ROM. 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope
ROM. 8:21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 
ROM. 8:22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 
ROM. 8:23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 
ROM. 8:24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? 
ROM. 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. 
ROM. 8:26  In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 
ROM. 8:27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 

It’s necessary to read Romans 8:26 in its complete context to properly interpret its meaning. In Romans 8 Paul is wrapping up his eight chapters explaining the way of salvation by faith in Christ. At this point in the text, Paul explains God has assigned us a new spirit by faith in Christ yet He expects us to live on earth for a time in our sinful body. During this time, we will know suffering and struggle against sin even as we await our glorified body. 

Paul explains that we are not alone in our struggle against sin and in our desire for freedom. The whole creation itself is “groaning” for freedom from sin, because the entire Creation is under the same curse.

In v20 Paul says the creation was unwillingly subjected to this “futility,” which is a reference to God's curse on the ground in Genesis 3:17 as a result of Man’s sin. Adam’s choice brought the entire Creation under condemnation, yet God's curse included a hopeful purpose. Paul says we were subjected to a curse of physical death so that ultimately we may receive something better. In the same way, Paul says we await the "redemption of the body" in v23 referring to our resurrection into a new, eternal body to replace our current dying body. In v23 Paul says we have already received a down payment on that new body in the form of "the first fruits of the Spirit," referring to the indwelling of God’s Spirit in our current body at the moment of our faith. A hope means a confidence in an unseen future outcome, therefore we cannot say we "hope" for something that has already arrived (v24). Instead, we must live with perseverance by faith contending with the trials and difficulties that come from living in a sinful body.  

Turning to v26 Paul begins with the phrase “in the same way” to draw a comparison between the two roles of the Holy Spirit. First, the Holy Spirit gives us reason to hope in the future arrival of the new body, because He is proof to us that the Lord intends to keep His promises. Secondly (i.e., in the same way), the Spirit helps us in our present weaknesses. While we await the new body, we must contend with the sin of our flesh, and the Spirit helps us in that fight. 

The Spirit's ministry in us includes making appeals on our behalf with "groanings too deep for words." Paul uses the word “groanings” here again as a reference back to his earlier use of the same word in v22. Additionally, Paul used the word to emphasize the weighty burden that the Creation bears under the curse. The curse God delivered on the earth placed all Creation in a state of decay, corruption and death, and therefore the world is “groaning” under the weight of this death sentence, like slaves groaning under the burden of their captivity.

In v26 Paul uses the same word again to emphasize the burden we experience contending with the weaknesses of our sinful body. Our spiritual weaknesses are so profound that we often lack the ability even to know how to communicate our needs before God. Like slaves who can't understand how to find their own freedom, believers often don’t know how to seek for freedom from our own sin.

Nevertheless, the Spirit knows our spiritual deficits and the opportunities for relief our Father is prepared to grant us. Therefore, we can take additional hope knowing the Spirit in us will intercede on our behalf even when we don’t know what or how to pray, and Paul calls these Spirit intercessions "groanings too deep for words." The Greek word translated "deep" in v26 is alaletos, which literally translated means "inexpressible." 

If the Spirit's groanings are outside human speech, then Paul cannot be advocating for any type of utterance prayer, whether babbling or "groaning" or any other sound made by the human mouth. The Spirit's intercession is beyond the abilities of the human mouth. It is a purely spiritual form of communication between two members of the Godhead. 

Moreover, Paul says the church should desire more teaching, more miracles (like healing), more prayer, more service gifts, etc. — rather than emphasizing the expression of the lesser gifts like speaking in tongues. Paul was telling the church to seek earnestly for more nutrition and less junk food. Paul supports his point with a proof text taken from the Old Testament in Chapter 14:

1COR. 14:20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.
1COR. 14:22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.

For a deeper understanding of tongues within the Church Body, we suggest our verse by verse teaching through the Book of 1 Corinthians.