Discernment

Several months ago a friend asked me when the last time I’d read 1 Corinthians 14 was. We were having a conversation about spiritual gifts, especially tongues. When I was 19 a friend of mine and I did an in depth study of 1 Corinthians and concluded that there was no way tongues had “ceased.” However, neither of us had ever experienced it for ourselves. So my attitude from that time had been, “God, if you want to commune with me in this way, I am willing.” However, at my friend’s urging I re-opened 1 Corinthians 14 and was immediately convicted by the first verse.

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 1 Corinthians 14:1

“Earnestly desire” certainly did not describe my attitude towards the spiritual gifts. This began a change in our congregation’s expectations for corporate and personal worship.

On Pentecost of this year (I found the timing significant), a close friend of mine and I spoke in tongues for the first (and so far only) time. I cannot tell you what transpired exactly, although I have a guess, but I can tell you that it was without a doubt a move of the Holy Spirit upon me. My overwhelming impression was that what I experienced is described by Paul in his letter to the disciples in Rome:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:26

It had never previously occurred to me that the Spirit might speak those groanings through my vocal cords, but there is no better way to describe what poured out of me. I would say “uncontrollably” because in a sense that is how it felt, but I was very aware that while a torrent of groanings or words in a different language were rushing out of my inner man, I could definitely have quenched that flow. It was if I was a fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and words were the water gushing out of me.

Paul said, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself,” and “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” My conclusion has been that in my weakness, the Spirit prayed through my spirit for the building up of my inner man in ways that with my mind I am incapable of. I pray regularly with my mind; I have spent my life building up my mind, but my spirit had never before received intentional ministry.

In my experience this overwhelming, unmistakable action of the Holy Spirit has been rare. More often He seems to interact with me or with us in a way that is aptly described as a still, small voice. So still and so small that it is difficult to know whether it is the voice of your mind or the voice of His Spirit speaking. It is at these times that I desperately wish for a more powerful discernment.

The discerning person can tell, for example, when prayer is not genuine contact with God but a conversation with oneself, when apparent humility is actually a twisted form of pride; when a vision is really an hallucination and an ecstasy a psychosomatic disturbance; when inspirations are projections of suspect desires and when a vocation to celibacy is more a flight from intimacy than a call from God.[1]

I have begun to notice, however, that when this still, small voice speaks there is not a doubt but a knowing that God’s Spirit just communicated and about what He said.


[1] Sandra Schneiders, “Spiritual Discernment in the Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena”

12 thoughts on “Discernment

  1. When the tongues began were you attempting to formulate English words, but were surprised that other than English came out?

  2. No, actually it was the opposite. I was instructed to speak anything other than English. I began speaking a sentence in Hebrew, and then the person I was with said it couldn’t be a language that held sense for me.

    This was a very difficult moment for me. I had to consciously let go of my mental control. And I am extremely in control, and therefore suspicious of emotional experiences because I am aware of my ability to allow or prevent them. When I made the internal decision to let go, and spoke the first nonsense syllable, however, the Spirit overwhelmed me and words/syllables that were not from my mind ripped out. It was a physical sensation as if the fountains of the deep erupted from within my chest.

    I would not have been able to make this decision to let go, except for a previous experience. A year and half before I was praying with a group of close friends and had a distinct awareness of the glory of the Lord descending. Then something, I had no idea what, began to happen; I was frightened by the sudden awareness of losing control, and I shut down the opening channel. I deeply regretted this, but it wasn’t as if I considered and made a decision, I was surprised, suddenly scared and reacted instinctively. I had not been expecting anything and when the Spirit moved to take control, I was not prepared for something outside of my comprehension. But I covenanted with God never again to quench His Spirit. To this day I don’t know what exactly God was about to do, but I do know that it is the only time in my life that I have knowingly quenched Him.

    So on Shavuot of this year, I took a step of faith; what for me was a huge step, and He responded.

  3. Hello Nate,

    My first experience with glossolalia was similar to yours. I was told to speak “in faith” and allow the Spirit to formulate my utterances. I remember how ecstatic I was over the experience as I spent the rest of the evening “speaking in tongues” and nearly fell asleep doing the same.

    Glossolalia came to me as “evidence” for the baptism by the Spirit; hence, upon its start, I believed that I would always be able to practice it. The morning after my Spirit baptism, I immediately tried to speak in tongues and found myself, to my great relief, still able to formulate the utterances.

    To this day I can “speak in tongues” on cue. I do not believe that the practice is Spirit-inspired. After nearly two years of daily glossolalia (my private “prayer language” for “praying in the Spirit”), my doubts over the practice got the best of me. Initially I feared demonic influence. “What was I actually speaking? Could I be citing cures to God?” Later my experience in the Assembly of God denomination made me question the entire Pentecostal “gift revival.” I stopped the practice.

    Later I read McArthur’s Charismatic Chaos. I recommend this book. He has a chapter on the psychology of tongues that is worth its weight in gold. Glossolalia is not a uniquely Christian practice. It is evident historically among various Jewish sects, the gnostics, and within the mystery cults. Modern day analogues include, but are not limited to, the Muslim Sufis, Hindus, various cults (former Way International), and Buddhist monks.

    Glossolalia is a form of cognitive catharsis. One allows her brain to tap into the “background” noise of one’s own subconscious creation. It might be a healthy practice of itself, but the theological weight placed on it is surely a form of abuse.

  4. Thanks for relating your experience, Peter. I’m not sure what weight to give the testimony of an agnostic on this topic. You reject a presupposition I consider axiomatic. Nevertheless, while I’m aware of the cross socio-religious existence of glossolalia I consider it to be an example of the efforts of evil spirits, who very purposefully work at counterfeiting the authentic experience of God’s Spirit.

    One reason I am certain of the authenticity of what I experienced is precisely the fact that I cannot duplicate it. This was no subconcious projection. Nor was it congnitive catharsis. In fact, I did not experience emotional or intellectual elation; it seemed to serve no cognitive purpose, a fact I reflected on that day.

    I agree that the theological significance given to “tongues” in some circles is abusive. However, I cannot deny that the existence of tongues is Scripturally described and proscribed by that authoritative text.

    Incidentally, do you currently hold to a tripartate anthropology?

  5. Hello Nate,

    I do not consider tripartite anthropologies consistent with all biblical representations of humanity. The Hebrew Scriptures teach a monistic dicthotomy of body (basar/soma) and soul (nepesh/psyuche/anime) in which any portion of the human monad is first incapable of survival without the other (hence is incomplete) and is second, capable of representing the whole of a person through singular representation. Isaiah 26 may constitute an exception to the generally consistent fabric of the Hebrew Scriptures on this topic.

    The Greek Scriptures are less clear on this matter. Hellenism influences many aspects of the Greek Scriptures. From genre (travel narratives of the Gospels and Acts) to didactic content–Hellenism permeates the Greek Scriptures. This does not vilify them nor diminish any possible inspiration any more than the cultural representations in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Nehemiah is written in the Persian royal genre of first-person autobiographic memoir). Yet the influence of Hellenistic thinking affected Jewish anthropologies, and the Greek Scriptures appear to reflect these influences.

  6. I find it interesting that as an atheist of one year, and although I quit speaking in tongues at least over two or three years, I can still speak in tongues just as fluently as the day I started. Of course, if Nate can’t trust the testimony of an agnostic, I am sure it’s safe to say that he definitely won’t accept a strong atheist’s.

    Wishing all of you a happy holiday season!

  7. I find it interesting that a post on tongues has prompted both of you to comment.

    Can speaking in tongues be done fluently? Just kidding. Anyway, my friends of the wandering heart, I can’t speak in tongues.

    I’m still trying to decipher what your thoughts on the nature of man are, Peter, after that last comment.

  8. Nate,
    I happen to still read your blog, for lots of reasons. I just never comment as I have no dog in the fight, so to speak. There would be no point for me to stir the pot. Except here, as I use to speak in tongues when I was a Charismatic. I still find the experience intriguing.

    Yes, I admit that I still stop by because I think that one day something is going to click for you and you will realize that Christianity, or whatever religion you label yourself, isn’t tenable, that there really isn’t a solid rock on which you stand. Maybe it’s wasted hope, but it’s there. I believe this because I have always respected you as a very intelligent person. You have been gifted in so many ways. But I am sure you think the same for me and Peter.

    Anyways, there was an article in the latest issue of Free Inquiry I was going to recommend to you titled, “Religious Belief and the Logic of Historical Inquiry” by Van A. Harvey. But this article isn’t available online yet. Harvey does have several books available over on Amazon, though.

  9. Hello Nate,

    The Bible does not give a single, consistent snapshot of belief in an afterlife. Some portions of the Bible suggest belief in the innate immortality of the individual while others seem to preclude the possibility of life beyond the grave. And, there are several perspectives in the Bible that fall into pales bordered by these two termini.

    The earliest biblical witnesses manifest denial (or at least lack of evidence for) of individual immortanity (viz., the immortality of the soul) and resurrection. Later witnesses suggest limited acquiescence to the possibility for a nebulously pneumatic post-mortem existence. Still later writtings introduce the idea of individual resurrection for some individuals. By the time of the New Testament writings we find the Hellensitic idea of innate, individual immortality and a less-than-Hellenistic idea of resurrection of the body.

    What do I believe? I see that the Bible itself, seen as a monolith, represents a wide range of ideas on this question. I also hold to a wide range of ideas. I tend to be a monist who denies that humanity has a non-physical spirital component. Note, though, that I was a monist as a bible-believer too. I hold to several possibilities.

  10. Hi Peter. Torah is the earliest textual witness, in that Jacob insisted his bones be buried in the Land of his Forefathers, not Egypt. Joseph also follows suit.

    Does it not suggest that they had future expectation for their bones? If their expectation was only decomposition, why all the trouble of those burials?

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