Praying in Unknown Tongues
Speaking and praying in tongues is a topic in Christianity that’s highly controversial and widely misunderstood. People have developed strongly held beliefs about tongues without knowing or understanding what the Bible says about the topic.
I hope to provide some clarity on this complex topic, and I encourage you to meditate on the Bible verses shared, and seek God in prayer.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about speaking and praying in tongues is that it’s something you need to experience. You can hear sermons and read about the topic, which is great. But nothing compares to your personal experience.
Praying in unknown tongues, or tongues for personal edification, is one type of tongue that the Bible talks about. It’s also what most people refer to when they say they speak or pray in tongues.
The other types of tongues are tongues as a sign to unbelievers, tongues for interpretation, and intercessory tongues.
Each one has a unique purpose and works in a different manner.
This article focuses on the unknown tongues because it’s the most common form of the gift we see and experience today. I will note that I’ve seen and heard about every type of speaking in tongues.
What the Bible says
“For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.”1 Corinthians 14:2 KJV
This first verse explains one of the most important facts about speaking in an unknown tongue. When you do this, you aren’t speaking to other people, or giving a message to the church. You are only speaking or praying to God, and no one is going to understand you.
What are the mysteries we’re speaking about? What is the purpose of this?
When we speak in unknown tongues, the Holy Spirit is expressing mysteries through our spirit. We allow the Holy Spirit to bring hidden revelation, knowledge, insight, and understanding to us.
Jesus said there are mysteries of the Kingdom of God, mysteries of Christ, and mysteries of the Gospel (Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10; Eph. 1:9; Eph. 6:19; Col. 1:26).
When we speak in tongues, we speak mysteries that can unlock divine revelations about Christ and His Kingdom. It’s no wonder why the devil wants to forbid people from speaking in tongues and cause strife and division in the church.
One of the reasons Paul authored 13 books in the New Testament was because he prayed in tongues more than anyone else. He spoke more mysteries in the Spirit, and therefore he developed a deeper revelation of the mysteries of God and His Kingdom. What Paul received and wrote in the Bible wasn’t taught to him by other people, and he didn’t receive it through his human understanding. It was a divine miracle he received from God, through the Holy Spirit.
This is much different compared to what we see in Acts 2 when the disciples are speaking in tongues. In that instance, people are hearing them speak in tongues and they hear their own language. That example is a sign to unbelievers and doesn’t require an interpretation.
“He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself.”1 Corinthians 14:4 KJV
This next verse explains the purpose of praying in unknown tongues—it brings personal edification.
Personal edification means to build – properly, to build a house; to edify – literally to, “build someone up,” and help them to stand, be strong, and sturdy. You have a spirit that can be either weak or strong. Praying in an unknown tongue is how you strengthen yourself spiritually.
“But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit.”Jude 1:20 NKJV
Jude shares the same message—praying in the Spirit is how you build yourself up and become spiritually strong.
“For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”1 Corinthians 14:14-15 KJV
In this verse, Paul explains that when we pray in an unknown tongue, we don’t gain any understanding. That doesn’t mean it’s pointless, because he continues on that he will pray in the Spirit. He will also pray in his native language. Both are beneficial for different reasons.
“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”1 Corinthians 14:27-28 KJV
This verse explains how we should conduct ourselves in church.
If you’re speaking in an unknown tongue and there’s no interpretation of what you’re saying, it has no benefit at church. That will only cause confusion and disorder.
It would be the same if someone went to an English-speaking church and delivered a message in Korean. If no one understands the message, it’s better to not share it.
Does that mean speaking and praying in an unknown tongue isn’t real and people are just talking nonsense? Not necessarily. Paul instructs us to not distract people and only communicate to God.
I’ve heard about some churches that tell their congregation that they’re not saved if they don’t speak in tongues. I’ve never heard that taught, but it’s not true at all. False teaching like that can cause some people to fake speaking in tongues, or copy what they hear other people saying.
I know from personal experience that praying in unknown tongues is real. I’ve felt and experienced the benefits of it—mainly personal edification and spiritual strength.
People do fake the gift, but that doesn’t mean the gift is fake.
How do you pray in unknown tongues?
Speaking in tongues is a sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the book of Acts, people speaking in tongues was a sign that they had received the Holy Spirit. This is a different experience than salvation.
“And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”Acts 2:4 KJV
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.”Acts 10:44-46 NKJV
“Then Paul said, ‘John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.”Acts 19:4-6 NKJV
The explanation in Acts 19 is the clearest. Paul finds a group of disciples (people who believed in Jesus and were baptized) but they hadn’t received or even heard of the Holy Spirit.
Paul lays his hands on them and they’re baptized in the Holy Ghost. Then they start speaking in tongues.
If you want to pray in unknown tongues, you need to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. You first need to believe in Jesus, and ask the Father for the gift of His Holy Spirit. Believe that He is faithful and will answer your prayer.
“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”Luke 11:13 NKJV
Then, you should have another believer lay their hands on you and pray for you to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. The Bible is clear that someone laying hands on you is key to receiving a spiritual gift.
Speaking in unknown tongues is a gift that you access by faith. You need to believe and expect to receive it from God. This may not happen right away. The disciples were waiting and praying for 10 days before the Holy Spirit came upon them. I’ve read stories about Christians praying and waiting to be baptized in the Holy Spirit for years before it happened.
If you want to learn more about this topic, I recommend reading The Walk of the Spirit—The Walk of Power, written by Dave Roberson.
This book is a deep dive into the details and purpose of praying in tongues.