I have a question about a spiritual gift. What is the difference between the gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of a prayer language?
– Nancy H. from Alabama
Speaking In Tongues (Part 1)
For the most part, people use the terms “speaking in tongues” and “prayer language” interchangeably. Generally, when people are talking about either one, they probably mean exactly the same thing. Favoring one term over the other may have more to do with what their church favors or what religious affiliation or tradition they come from.
However, since you asked, I will say that while the Bible mentions speaking in tongues as a gift, there is no mention of a “gift of prayer language.” So why does anyone use that term at all? Let’s take a little tour of tongues in scripture and try to find out.
It was on Pentecost day when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the fledgling church that they “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). In this case there were people from many different countries in town for the holiday, and they all heard what was spoken in their own language. It amazed them and they said; “we hear them (meaning the disciples) speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).
Later, Peter was sent to the house of a Gentile named Cornelius, and the gift of tongues was poured out while the apostle was speaking to those gathered in his house to hear the gospel. In this case, we cannot be sure whether or not the tongues were intelligible as a known language. Acts 10:46 says; “For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.” However, again scripture speaks of these tongues as a gift.
Likewise when Paul visited the Ephesians in Acts 19:6; “And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.” Were these unknown tongues or understood? We don’t know, but we know that in this case the gift of prophesy was also poured out.
Notice that no one was talking about praying in any of these cases. Of course proclaiming God’s wonderful works would most certainly be considered a type of prayer. Still, why would someone call this a prayer language? Let’s look at that next.
Prayer language (Part 2)
The tiny little book of Jude with only one chapter tells us in verse 20; “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit.” This type of prayer no doubt encompasses both praying in our own language and praying in tongues where we may not know exactly what we are praying.
Is this confirmed anywhere else in scripture? Yes. 1 Corinthians 14:2 says; “For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.” This example of speaking in tongues is obviously different than the day of Pentecost since men DID understand what was being said at that time. Then skipping down to verse 4 it says; “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself…”
Clearly there is public speaking in tongues and private speaking in tongues, but both are tongues (a language unknown to the one using it). When we refer to the “prayer language” we are usually talking about private tongues. According to Jude, its use is building up the faith, and to Paul it is speaking to God and speaking mysteries. That is because it is the Holy Spirit inside the speaker prompting and praying those things that are on God’s heart.
If you have a prayer language/gift of tongues, one of the best times to use it is when you do not know how to pray. Let the one who knows exactly how to pray in that situation – the Holy Spirit — do the praying for you. In that case you can never go wrong.
Having or not having the gift of tongues should never be a point of pride by a Christian. It should never bring separation or distain between believers. “Tongues” is a God given tool, but it is not the only tool. God is the giver of gifts; let it be His business how He dispenses His gifts.