How I Learned to Speak in Tongues (And Then Never Do It Again)

(This was originally written a decade ago, so have mercy on me for the grammar and style!!!!Couple of things I wouldn’t say or word the same way, but we’ll let it ride. It’s also a bit of my testimony as well, along with my journey from continuationist to cessationist)

My first real exposure to speaking in tongues was at a youth conference in my late teens. The speaker mentioned this fantastical possibility, this new, exciting, and necessary part of the Christian faith. I remember him encouraging us to speak in tongues and telling us how vital it was. He spoke of how it would radically change our prayer life, our sin life, and our personal walk with God. As soon as I heard about it, there was nothing I wanted more than to receive it. There was never a question of if tongues were for everyone; it was taught that they were, and that they were evidence of baptism of the Holy Spirit, a second supernatural baptism subsequent to the first.

But the church I attended didn’t emphasize it, so I found one that did. At my new church, my new Pastor was ecstatic about the possibility of imparting this into my life, and devoted hours working with me and teaching those who hadn’t received the gift yet some techniques to start speaking in tongues. 

He told us that we first had to clear our minds of any thoughts. This was because our mind wouldn’t understand what we were doing and would want to war against and question what our mouth was doing, and so it was important not to overthink it or think it at all. 

Then, he told us some methods that would help get us going. He used the analogy that it was like starting a car on a cold day. Asking to speak in tongues was like turning the key, and all you needed was a little kick to help the engine turn over and get it to start roaring. These were some of his suggestions:

1. If I know a foreign language, start speaking that and ask God to transform it into a different one on the go.

2. Repeat the words “shabbada-shabbada shaka-whaoh” over and over again. This will train my mouth and my tongue to lose control and get used to making strange sounds.

3. Pick a phrase from the scriptures and say it over and over again, as fast as I can, until the words become unintelligible in my mouth. When I can’t say it any faster, take a leap of faith and say the first things that come to mind- often, this will be my new tongue.

4. Start making intercession with groaning that can’t be uttered. Start to groan and moan while curled up in a ball on the ground, from deep within my chest, visualizing my sounds transforming into words.

5. Read Bible verses but take out the vowels from what I’m reading, and try to pronounce them all the while asking God to give me the gift- this oftentimes acts like a kickstart.

6. Hold my hands over my ears so that I can’t hear myself speaking. Start saying words and making sounds as the spirit leads, and then have a friend come over and listen. I was told I should try plugging my ears because I was getting disappointed with the English words that were coming out of my mouth and then losing faith, which would kill it. After a time, keeping my ears covered, start speaking in tongues, with my friends nearby to hear it and confirm that it was happening. 

I spent months practicing these things, trying to get my mind to turn over, but to no avail. I was warbling by tongues and lips in between guttural gasps in an effort to make something happen.

Anything.

But to no avail.

Consequently, I had become hopelessly disappointed. I went up to the altar on a weekly basis for prayer and rededications- my cheeks wet with tears as I sobbed and wept and asked God why everyone around me could do it, but I couldn’t.

Didn’t he love me enough to help me speak in tongues? I had been told that it was one of the main proofs of salvation, and my heart was becoming a ball of confusion and distress. At the time, I was struggling with sin and thoughts of suicide and was told that the Baptism of the Spirit would give me the power to overcome. With it being absent, all I could think was that I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t have enough faith, I didn’t repent enough, I didn’t tithe enough. All these things rocked my little ship of faith. 

Then a Christian conference happened.

It had been two days of manic worship music, ultimate frisbee, and sleep deprivation. We just finished singing the same song, “Let It Rain,” for almost half an hour. An evangelist and revivalist appeared on stage and took a show of hands to see who had yet to speak in tongues. He said that he would slay us all in the spirit, and when we awoke, we would have the gift of tongues. 

The room was hot and sweaty. Under blue and pink lights, he approached us and had all thirty of us line up on the stage and start left from right. Once we were all in a row, he would put his hands on my friends and almost throw them to the ground.

Thankfully, there were adults behind us who would catch us as we fell to ensure that the impact of throwing a body gone limp would not crack our skulls on the floor.

“SHANDALA-HUNDARA!” he screamed as he picked us off one by one.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

Bodies were hitting the floor as if being cut down in a swath. I could hear some of the girls who had gone first starting to rise and stir as the sound of giggles and laughter filled the room, along with the sounds of unknown tongues. 

Finally he came to me. I couldn’t breathe with anticipation. Finally, it was going to happen. I knew it was. This was going to be amazing. All I could think about was the coveted tongues. I wanted it so bad, and the knowledge that I would go under and come up a new man was exquisite. He gripped my head with his hands. I braced my soul. He blew a rush of air and spittle in my face and then yelled, “Spirit be released in Jesus’ name!”

But I did not fall as almost every other had, nor felt any impartation that I built myself up for. I wanted my knees to go weak. I wanted my legs to buckle. I wanted my mind to be assaulted by a hundred million senses and to come up for air with new words and a heavenly language and the powerful rapture of being so close to God that we shared a secret language that only we knew. 

Instead, my legs remained strong. I did not bend or bow. Despite being nearly hurled towards the carpet, my instincts kicked in, and I twisted my body in such a way that I was able to catch myself on the front row chairs as I reeled back.

The speaker, content with seeing me displaced, went back to the center and compelled the praise band up to keep on playing while my friends and strangers laid with their backs on the floor. Their hands were raised slightly at their side and facing heaven, weeping and laughing.

I could hear the sound of garbled voices while I sat there, head in my knees, begging God’s forgiveness for being such a disappointment to him.

Months passed.

The disappointment took a a spiritual toll on me and I began to withdraw myself from church functions and other ministry events. I was a youth leader, and whereas I had been outwardly enthusiastic and committed initially, inside, my mind was roiling. I began to grow non-committal and distant. I was the one guy who didn’t speak in tongues. I was the one guy who couldn’t get it together. I was singled out by the Lord as unworthy of his gift and unworthy to communicate with him in this manner. Hell, I probably wasn’t even saved. 

The impact that had on me was devastating, and it meant I had to live a lie for a long time.

During church services, we usually had people come up and give prophetic messages. They would say, “Thus says the Lord our God…..” and then proceed to give a message in tongues. Typically we would leave it at that- tongues were almost never interpreted- and the Pastor would thank them, and we would continue as normal. On rare occasions he would tell us that God told him that someone had the interpretation, and the service would grind to a halt until someone spoke it. 

Oftentimes, I thought I had the interpretation. I was taught that after someone gives a word, if you clear your mind and focus on the words, that a thought would pop into your head. That thought was almost always the interpretation and that we should stand and give it. 

I had spiritual things mulling around in my head during those times, and one time, I ventured a guess. I stood up and said [approximately] “Thus says the Lord, I love my people and I am pleased with their worship.” And then I sat down as fast as I could. The Pastor stared at me from across the room and then said, “That was good, but that was not the message that the Lord wanted to give us. Anybody else?”

I sat there with my ears red and my face burning, stewing in my own shame. After a few minutes and our go-to interpreter, stood up and said [approximately], “Thus says the Lord, I am coming to do a new thing. I am coming like a flood to wash away your impurities, so long as you walk in the new things. You cannot put new wine in old wineskins, and you can’t put old patches on a new shirt. So come to be and give me your hearts, humble yourselves and seek my face, and I will heal your land and bring prosperity.”

I was mortified that I had gotten the message wrong. Later, during my midweek discipleship time with the Pastor, he told me that I was acting in the flesh when I stood up because it didn’t make sense that someone who couldn’t speak in tongues could interpret those tongues as “only spiritual could interpret spiritual.”

I never ventured an interpretation again.

Then, one Friday night youth group something happened. March 12, 2004. I arrived early to pray and I felt troubled and uneasy. Agitated and mentally wandering. Probably the best description would be “angst.” My heart felt like it would overflow and burst with angst and resentment.

The service began and I sat there, leaning with my back against the wall, listening to a few praise songs, then watching and brooding as the worship leader began to lead a song in tongues. Disappointment and disillusionment welled up and broke the dam. Even my worship was defective. Deficient. Incomplete. Inadequate. Flawed. The hollow ache finally overcame me and I wept. Weeping and sobbing out of sheer frustration and futility, running my life through my head and hating every minute of it.

One of my friends came and put his hand on my shoulder, probably surmising that I was having an encounter with God, when the exact opposite was true. It was an awful, tortuous experience.

Then, in one last ditch effort, I bit my tongue as hard as I could and blurted out something, anything. In my mind, it was my final effort to speak in tongues. Sheer desperation. I was tired of crying. Tired of trying little speaking in tongue tricks. Tired of trying to make my mouth and lips do things they wouldn’t do. Tired of trying to force the issue. Tired of the constant awareness of inadequacy. So here it was- my final offering upon the altar of God’s faithlessness and indifference.

Out it came.

I was saying the words “God forgive me, God forgive me” over and over again, and I could think myself saying them, but I heard other words come out of my mouth. It wasn’t English or a language that I knew, but something altogether different. It bubbled forth and spilled out of me. It sounded like “Sundaya-kasho-run-daya sho-ko-tototo”. Even all this time later, I can still repeat those words and feel the familiarity wash over me. 

I gasped.

The music was blaring from the front, under dim lights, and I could feel the fuzzy reverb bouncing inside my chest. I was hot and sweaty and exhausted, but all of a sudden I felt alive. Given over to reckless abandon and joy. I stopped speaking, waited a few seconds, then tried to say something again. I tried to say “Is this for real?” but all I could say, in my state of exhilaration and rapturous wonder was “shandya-ra-so-tototo-shun-da”.

After that night, I would speak in tongues often. I could conjure up this heavenly language in a heartbeat. I would start praying “I love you father- you are so perfect and good, you are the shunda-ra-saka- to-to-to…” and off I went. It was a seamless transition between my worldly, untamed tongue into my redeemed, holy tongue.

When I was at home, on the bus, in line at the supermarket- everywhere. My Pastor told me a story of a man who went and visited a pastor in Africa. The man greeted him, and they spent several days together. While the Pastor was friendly and conversant, the man noticed that whenever he wasn’t speaking out loud, his lips would always be moving- all throughout the day. Finally the man asked the Pastor what he was doing, and the Pastor replied that every second of every day that he wasn’t talking to people he was speaking in tongues quietly and talking to God.

That story resonated with me, and that’s who I wanted to be.

I wanted to be that kind of person, and for a while, three or four months, I felt like I was living it. 

On one level, in one particular way, it was the nearest I ever “felt” to God. So many burdens lifted- so many of the old aches, scars, and spiritual cigarette burns began to heal and clear up. I began to engage with the church again. Whereas before I was sullen and quiet in worship, now I was bouncing up in down on my feet in the front row- hands raised high. In fact, I even grabbed a flag from the bin up front and started waving it until my arms were spent, speaking in tongues between sets.

I would participate in fire tunnels and when it was my turn to pray and prophecy, I would speak in tongues and people I touched would fall to the floor. Sometimes the pastor would announced that God told him to cancel the sermon because he wanted us to pray and worship, and I was all for it. Other times he announced that there were demons in the room, and that our words were weapons and we’d all start speaking in tongues until he announced they were gone.

It was a sacred and awesome power. I witnessed and shared my faith more, speaking in tongues before and after the encounters. I began going to all-night prayer meetings because I knew that I could just sit in a corner and speak in tongues, and the time would fly as I connected to God, blessed by these charisms that he had bestowed upon me.

Most importantly, though, I felt saved. I felt like a child of God. I didn’t feel like a disappointment to him, and in that period, I was able to “forgive God” for how I felt deserted and unloved because he never spoke to me. 

But slowly, things started to shift. I realized after a few months that the elated feelings began to fade and that the high I was riding was beginning to level out. I thought that If I was speaking directly to God in a language that only him and I understood, that surely that would be more than sufficient to keep me in a state of peace and worship-that I wouldn’t experience the emotional and spiritual lows and highs, but rather would always be high. 

And yet here I was, falling….falling….falling.

Coupled with this is that I realized that my tongues-vocabulary wasn’t very big. I would essentially say the same 20 words over and over again, just in different arrangements and sequences. 

I brought this to the attention of my Pastor, and he told me that even though I was saying “Shundara” over and over again because it was a private prayer language, each time I said it, it meant something different. And so even though it sounded to me like I was saying the same phrase repeatedly, in reality, I was not, and in fact was having extended conversations in spiritual realm.

This whole process continued for a year, a slow decline into uncertainty and uncomfortable realities. I could still speak in tongues, but it had none of the energy, vitality, and rush that it had once brought me. While speaking in these tongues brought me a small comfort, in some ways I began to grow disillusioned with them because they seemed more forced as time went on, and none of that emotional spark was there. I didn’t feel like I was talking with God in a private prayer language- it just felt like I was saying “shundara” a lot, over and over, without that connection to something deeper and more profound.

[Note, I’m skipping tons of story here which relates to this, but long story short, I began to realize that much of the teaching from the pulpit was deceptive in nature and was more imaginative than biblical. I was becoming increasingly alarmed at some of the things that the Pastor said and taught, which I believe did not line up with the scriptures. (His hero was Todd Bently). Through a bible study at another college I began to learn enough about basic theology to know that not all was well. I left the Church I had been attending for years, after a showdown in the sanctuary with my Pastor after said something very heretical., and move dto another city.

I arrived in my new city a bruised and battered reed. I felt lied to, betrayed, burned, and keenly aware of my own ignorance. I felt far from God and felt like I really didn’t know him- that I only knew him emotionally and experimentally, but not intellectually or theologically.

I knew how he made me felt during worship, but not what my worship meant to him.

I knew how I liked to think about him and describe him, but not how he described himself.

I eventually began working the night shift at a local retail store stocking shelves. The job was simple enough and so to pass the time, I would load my iPod. I would scour iTunes and the internet and would load up hundreds of hours of sermons at a time and would play them all night. 

It didn’t matter who it was- I didn’t know who was good or bad, who was sound or unsound. I listened to everyone across the spectrum, from seeker-sensitive pastors to latter-rain prophetesses, to independent fundamental baptists, usually for four to six hours a night. I listened to hundreds of sermons from Steven Anderson and Hyles Anderson chapel services. I listened to all the big names in Pentacostalism. I listened to dozens of Roman Catholic homilies as well. The other hours I would listen to the audio version of the Bible.

I did this for nearly five years.

Sometimes I would listen to the Bible for the whole week, about 36 hours. Other times, I would load up Lutheran homilies, which are about 15-20 minutes each, and would listen to five years of that pastor’s sermons in a matter of days, burning through whole church catalogues on 1.5x speed.

Other times I would load up lecture series from Christian universities and would listen to 25 lectures on “Christian life on earth church history” or 18 lectures on” Reformed apologetics.” Still, other times, I said to myself, “I want to listen to the Book of Galatians today,” and then loop it for the next 6 hours.

I listened to thousands upon thousands of Bible and sermons in this time frame, and it didn’t take long for my life to change. As it relates to this story, I very quickly began to gravitate toward reformed preachers and teachers, men like John Piper, Matt Chandler, R.C Sproul, James White, Phil Johnson and most importantly John MacArthur. [the last sermon marathon I listened to was about 30 years of GTY sermons, all the way from the beginning, which took over a year.

I drifted away from the Joyce Meyers, Rick Warrens, Jack Schapps and Jack Hyles of the world and clung to those guys. 

These were men whose sermons most closely reflected what I was hearing from the Bible. It seemed they took it extremely seriously and took the greatest pains to exegete the texts rather than prooftexts to score points. That’s what really stuck out to me. And these were mostly men who, to varying degrees, did not believe that the gift of tongues was active and present today, or if it was, was in qualified terms. That they were mostly all cessasionists and were able to argue and articulate why was incredibly disturbing and challenging for me. 

In fact, early on I was outright hostile to this part of their beliefs, believing them pretty knowledgeable on most things, but definitely missing it on this one. This was a difficult spot to be in. These were my heroes, and yet they were saying that what I was experiencing was not legitimate. [These men’s teaching is also how I transitioned from a hyper-charismatic arminian belief system to reformed doctrines of grace]

I began to do research and investigating the glossolalia. I had in this time developed the ability to study and exegete the biblical texts, found their argumentation extremely compelling.

I listened to the best defenses and argumentation for speaking in tongues, desperately wanting them to offer an excellent refutation and positive presentation of why, biblically, they were still for today.

What I found crushed me. My speaking in-tongues aside, from my perspective, had nothing to offer. They were soundly refuted. The arguments that I used to regurgitate for speaking in tongues seemed to me all of a sudden silly and a little bit embarrassing. I understood what tongues were in the Bible in that time frame and how they are vastly different than how they are practiced now. In short, I became convinced from the biblical evidence that speaking in tongues was an early Christian phenomena, a known language, that was unique to that period and not in play today. 

It was a painful time of self-examination and self-doubt as I desperately tried to search my heart and figure out what was going on and how I had gotten there.

And so what was my experience?

Some people say it’s demonic. Others say it’s emotional hysteria. I look back at myself, all my friends and my entire former church, many of whom spoke in tongues, and at this point I don’t believe it was demonic. 

Was I caught up in the moment and, due to emotional manipulation, worked myself up to the point where it burst forth? Was it a psychosomatic reflex- my body birthing what my mind wanted so badly? I think it’s likely some of that.

In retrospect, I can see how maybe that initial gift of tongues may have been brought about by a heightened emotional state, but afterward? On the bus? At work? Was I that self-deceived?

I have come to terms with the fact that I was, and it probably was a learned behavior stemming from the pressure I was under and the unyielding desire to fit in and experience God, coupled with my own flesh. I think I was encouraged to produce sounds that my brain could then take hold of in an unconscious way and create strings of syllables to speak forth, and once I learned how to do that, I was able to keep it up, reinforced through repetition, I think that might account for the riffs and improvisations that I tended to use. I think that’s probably about it.

The point is this:I became convinced that it was not for today, and because I am committed to binding my conscience to the word of God, I’ve stopped speaking in them. 

It was an achingly hard thing to do- when everything in your experience tells you that it is good and right, and holy, and an angelic prayer language to the creator of the world himself. When you can still say and speak them. But have to take that and say “regardless of what my feelings, desires and experiences tell me, I have a higher authority and I must be obedient to it.”

It’s been about six years (Edit. Now sixteen years) since I’ve spoken in tongues, and I have no plans to ever try to speak in them again. In the years since, any and all desire to speak in them has vanished. I don’t think of them as a private prayer language that I let go cold and die from disuse but rather as a childish thing from another life that I’ve shrugged off and have been set free from.

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2 thoughts on “How I Learned to Speak in Tongues (And Then Never Do It Again)

  1. I’m sure there are multitudes of believers who’ve felt disappointment and failure at not being able to prophesy or speak in tongues in the face of heavy-handed pressure from blind guides.

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