The people at Credo Magazine recently asked me to write a short answer to the question: Should a Christian Pray in Tongues? What follows isn’t substantially different from what I’ve written before on this subject, but I thought this summary statement might be helpful. You can read the entire issue of Credo Mag on the topic of prayer at http://www.credomag.com.
My short answer is: If you believe the gift of speaking in tongues is still available to the church today and that the Spirit has granted it to you (1 Cor. 12:11), Yes. This does not mean that all Christians should or will pray in tongues, for Paul is clear that no particular spiritual gift is given to every believer (1 Cor. 12:28-31).
That Paul clearly understood tongues to be a form of prayer is seen from his description of it in 1 Corinthians 14:2 (“for one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God”), 14:14a (“for if I pray in a tongue”), and 14:28 (in the absence of interpretation the Christian is to speak in tongues “to God”). And according to 14:16, prayer in tongues is a perfectly legitimate way in which to express heartfelt gratitude to the Lord.
Furthermore, we know that praying in tongues was a staple experience in Paul’s private devotional life. This is clear from at least three texts.
First, in describing his own gift of speaking in tongues, Paul says “my spirit prays” (1 Cor. 14:14) but my mind is “unfruitful”.
Many insist that if one’s mind is not engaged in such a way that the believer can rationally and cognitively grasp what is occurring, the experience, whatever its nature may be, is useless. Paul strongly disagrees. Having asserted that his mind is not fruitful when he prays in tongues, many would think his next step would be to repudiate the use of tongues altogether. After all, what possible benefit can there be in a spiritual experience that one’s mind can’t comprehend? At the very least one would expect Paul to say something to minimize its importance so as to render it trite, at least in comparison with other gifts. But he does no such thing.
In view of what has just been said in v. 14, he asks the question in v. 15a, “What am I to do?” His answer is that he is determined to do both! “I will pray with my spirit, i.e., I will pray in tongues, and I will pray with my mind, i.e., I will pray in Greek so that others who speak and understand Greek can profit from what I say.” Clearly, Paul believed that a spiritual experience which was beyond the grasp of his mind was yet profoundly profitable. He believed that it wasn’t absolutely necessary for an experience to be rationally cognitive for it to be spiritually beneficial and glorifying to God.
A second indication that Paul prayed in tongues in private devotions is found in 1 Cor. 14:18-19. Paul has said that tongues-speech in the public gathering of the church is prohibited unless there is an interpretation. Since the purpose of such meetings is the edification of other believers, Paul prefers to speak in a language all can understand. Consequently, he rarely speaks in tongues in a public setting. But if Paul speaks in tongues more frequently and fervently than anyone else (“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you”, v. 18), yet in church almost never does (preferring there to speak in a way all can understand), where does he exercise this spiritual gift? The only possible answer is that Paul utilized this gift in private, in the context of his personal, devotional intimacy with God.
Third and finally, this interpretation is confirmed by 1 Corinthians 14:28 where Paul gives instruction on what to do in the absence of interpretation: let him (the tongues-speaker) “speak to himself and to God.” Where? Given the explicit prohibition of uninterpreted tongues-speech “in church” (v. 28) it seems likely Paul had in mind prayer in tongues in private—in a context other than the corporate gathering.
So, should a Christian pray in tongues? If he/she has this spiritual gift, of course!