Question: What is the benefit of speaking in tongues?
To understand the benefit of speaking in tongues, we must first begin by looking at what the scriptures teach us about the purpose of this gift. Nowadays, some of the teachings of this gift are often misused and not intended in scripture.
These misunderstandings state that you must speak in a tongue as a sign of true salvation, speaking in tongues is a sign that you have the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues help you in your private prayer life, that tongues are a gift for everyone and that we must all seek it and if we seek it enough then God will give it to us.
Now let us look at the scriptures to understand the purpose and benefit of this gift properly. The Apostle Paul writes 1 Corinthians 14 to address such a problem. He was addressing issues of disorder and misunderstanding of the gift of tongues. The way this gift was used in the Corinth church was also causing division, so he goes on to instruct on the proper way to use this gift and its benefit.
Often we pursue this gift of tongues because we think this is the greatest gift, but the Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 14:1, “Pursue love”, and then “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts”. We tend to skip the first and most important command in this passage, which is to “pursue love.” We are too eager for a gift that will only self-satisfy us. Next, the Apostle Paul says “prophecy” is better than tongues unless someone interprets it. Prophecy in terms of proclaiming and explaining the written word of God. 1 Corinthians 14:5–6 “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”
The point the Apostle Paul makes in this chapter is that all of the “spiritual gifts” are for the benefit of others. 1 Corinthians 14:3-5 says, “On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.” Even in Acts 1:6-8, Jesus tells the disciples that they would soon receive the power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them – and then he goes on to say the reason for this gift, and that is to be a witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
So the reason and benefit of the gift is to “be a witness”, “to upbuild another person”, “to encourage one another”, and “for the consolation of one another.” In other words, the gifts are to be used to bless someone else. It is for the common benefit of one another and for the witness of the gospel. This is the ultimate benefit of the gift of tongues. If no one understands what you say, how can it be helpful to someone else?
Now many say the benefit of the gift of tongues is that it is to be private prayer language and that it edifies oneself. This thinking is based on 1 Corinthians 14:2 “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” Then again, in verse 4, we read, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.” These passages are often used as evidence to prove that speaking in tongues is a private prayer language that helps build an individual up. The problem with assigning this interpretation is that the passage’s context needs to be considered. What is the context of the passages? As stated earlier, all the giftings are not for personal benefits; instead, it is for the benefit of others.
That is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:6-12, “Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.”
The whole point is to bless one another. What edifies us and builds us up is not a private prayer language that no one understands, not even the one who utters them; then how can this be beneficial? What benefits us is our relationship with Christ through reading and meditating on His word, having fellowship with the Holy Spirit and finding your treasure, joy and pleasure in Christ alone. This heart change and attitude glorifies God and builds you into a mature Christian walking in the ways of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 14:13–17 says, “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.”
It is good to be eager for the manifestations of the Spirit, but it must be for the right reasons, not for puffing oneself up or for selfish reasons, but instead for the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ, which is the Church. Amen!
If a tongue is spoken (a known existing language), it must also be interpreted to be beneficial. If no one can interpret, we are to keep silent. Above all this, we should seek the gift of prophecy because it is profitable to bring encouragement, illumination of the word of God, uplifting, and consolation.
John Calvin expounds the following verses this way.
(1 Corinthians 14:2 ). He speaketh in the Spirit—that is, “by a spiritual gift, (for in this way I interpret it along with Chrysostom.) He speaketh mysteries and hidden things, and things, therefore, that are of no profit.” Chrysostom understands mysteries here in a good sense, as meaning—special revelations from God. I understand the term, however, in a bad sense, as meaning—dark sayings, that are obscure and involved, as if he had said, “He speaks what no one understands.” (435-436)
(1 Corinthians 14:4). He that speaketh in another tongue, edifieth himself. In place of what he had said before—that he speaketh unto God, he now says—he speaketh to himself. But whatever is done in the Church, ought to be for the common benefit. Away, then, with that misdirected ambition, which gives occasion for the advantage of the people generally being hindered! Besides, Paul speaks by way of concession: for when ambition makes use of such empty vauntings, there is inwardly no desire of doing good; but Paul does, in effect, order away from the common society of believers those men of mere show, who look only to themselves.
(1 Corinthians 14:5). I would that ye all spake with tongues. Again he declares that he does not give such a preference to prophecy, as not to leave some place for foreign tongues. This must be carefully observed. For God has conferred nothing upon his Church in vain, and languages were of some benefit. Hence, although the Corinthians, by a misdirected eagerness for show, had rendered that gift partly useless and worthless, and partly even injurious, yet Paul, nevertheless, commends the use of tongues. So far is he from wishing them abolished or thrown away. At the present day, while a knowledge of languages is more than simply necessary, and while God has at this time, in his wonderful kindness, brought them forward from darkness into light, there are at present great theologians, who declaim against them with furious zeal. As it is certain, that the Holy Spirit has here honoured the use of tongues with never-dying praise, we may very readily gather, what is the kind of spirit that actuates those reformers,2 who level as many reproaches as they can against the pursuit of them. At the same time the cases are very different. For Paul takes in languages of any sort—such as served merely for the publication of the gospel among all nations. They, on the other hand, condemn those languages, from which, as fountains, the pure truth of scripture is to be drawn. An exception is added—that we must not be so taken up with the use of languages, as to treat with neglect prophecy, which ought to have the first place.
Unless he interpret. For if interpretation is added, there will then be prophecy. You must not, however, understand Paul to give liberty here to any one to take up the time of the Church to no profit by muttering words in a foreign tongue. For how ridiculous it were, to repeat the same thing in a variety of languages without any necessity! But it often happens, that the use of a foreign tongue is seasonable. In short, let us simply have an eye to this as our end—that edification may redound to the Church.
John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 435–437.
In conclusion, the gift of tongues is only for some. 1 Corinthians 12:30 clearly teaches that not all speak in tongues. Even if they do, it must be accompanied by interpretation or they should pray that he or she may interpret. It is distributed as the Holy Spirit wills (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Seek the higher gifts of prophecy and all those mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31, which are beneficial for the upbuilding of one another. Tongues is a gift that can be powerful; if accompanied by someone who has the gift of interpretation. Otherwise, you are to keep silent. Amen!