A couple of weeks ago, Brandon and I talked about the mystical gifts of the Holy Spirit, and admittedly, we were bordering on the cynical when talking about it. For me, I have always found I struggle especially with the gift of tongues. I have only had one experience personally with people speaking the gift of tongues, and it was definitely one where it did not make a particularly favorable impression. That being said, what is the gift of tongues and how does it contribute to building up the Body of Christ?
First of all, the gift of tongues is the ability given by the Spirit to speak in languages that have not been studied. The gift of tongues is seen in the Bible in the Acts of the Apostles at Pentecost, when the Spirit descended on the Church, and resulted in the disciples preaching the Good News to the Jews gathered for the feast in Jerusalem, each of them hearing their own language spoken by a bunch of uneducated people from Galilee. It is also, though, referenced by St. Paul as being a gift for mystical conversation between the individual and God, in a language which is not a human language. Ultimately, it seems that the gift of tongues is a gift for communication with God, since even in the case of Pentecost, the message being delivered was the message of Christ.
The potential problem with this gift, and many of the mystical gifts in fact, is the potential for it to be faked. Especially in the context of tongues, when it can be a language which is unintelligible to any other humans in the area, how do we distinguish between the gift and a person simply making noises? I know this brings me dangerously close to the cynicism Brandon and I were trying to avoid, and I still don’t want to doubt the truth of the Gifts or the sincerity of the people receiving them, but I take some comfort in the fact that even St. Paul seems to have been slightly wary of this one as well. This is, in part, why he emphasizes the idea of tongues being a paired gift. He says that, in general, the gift of tongues should be accompanied by a gift of interpretation of tongues. This establishes how the gift is able to meet the standard by which all spiritual gifts must be verified, namely its ability to contribute to the building up of the whole community.
When discussing the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, whether tongues or prophecy or administration, the ultimate question remains the same. Is this Gift bringing glory to God? Or to the person receiving the gifts? Any gift which focusses the attention on us instead of God deserves to be greeted with skepticism.