The church is full of those who won’t touch glossolalia with a ten foot pole. Sometimes it’s a twenty foot pole. The apostle Paul asks, “Do all speak in tongues?”, with the rhetorical answer being of course, “No”. And of course some do not. A position that states that NOBODY can is hokey. The traditional pentecostal position that everyone MUST I also find equally hokey. But listen to what Merton has to say about praying to God in words that cannot be uttered:
When what we say is meant for no one else but Him, it can hardly be said in language. What is not meant to be related is not even experienced on a level that can be clearly analyzed. We know that it must not be told, because it cannot. But before we come to that which is unspeakable and unthinkable, the spirit hovers on the frontiers of language, wondering whether or not to stay on its own side of the border, in order to have something to bring back to other men. This is the test of those who wish to cross the frontier. If they are not ready to leave their own ideas and their own words behind them, they cannot travel further.
-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.16 Sec.2
Pentecostals would call this a “personal prayer language”. Some scoff at the term, but I think it’s not too problematic. Other traditions acknowledge this very phenomenon, they just don’t classify it as tongues proper.
I believe that if you use the above definition (what Merton is talking about), any Christian with a prayer life and in some level of personal communion with the holy spirit actually can, and does speak in tongues. It might be inaudible. It’s not meant for anyone but the Lord anyway. Taking these “words”, raising the volume and making it a membership requirement (as it is in the Assemby of God, Foursquare, and other denominations) in my opinion misses the point and is unnecessarily exclusive.
On the other hand, I am not a cessastionist. I think speaking on tongues (of the out-loud corporate variety) is still a very possible spiritual gift that God may choose to give someone. If he/she has received, then they should speak. But if we’re talking about the unutterable words of communion between us and God himself, that is actually something else. Confusing these two has been, I believe, a major source of chaos and misunderstanding between Christian traditions in the past century.
It is best, therefore, to let the psychological conscience alone when we are at prayer. The less we tinker with it the better. The reason why so many religious people believe they cannot meditate is that they think meditation consists in having religious emotions, thoughts, or affections of which one is, oneself, acutely aware. As soon as they start to meditate, they begin to look into the psychological conscience to find out if they are experiencing anything worthwhile. They find little or nothing. They either strain themselves to produce some interior experience, or else they give up in disgust.
-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.3 Sec.6
I remember doing exactly this when I was in college. I would get up at some ungodly hour meet with the hard-core prayer warriors at the church several days a week. After pushing through this for about a month, I gave up in disgust. In hindsight now, my motives were whack from the start. It would have been better to stay in bed.
Doug Wilson is a local pastor, author of many books, and regular blogger. I’ve been reading Doug for a couple years now (and have even visited his church a few times). He represents a particular flavor of “reformed” Christian theology, along with some of his peers, such as Peter Leithart. It’s not so much Doug that I’m attached to. I’m really much more weary now of following any particular personality. I’m attracted to what he stands for and teaches about God and how to live the Christian life. There are a host of things that I agree with and I’ll highlight them in a later post.
I’ve hesitated several years in putting this list together. It’s changed over time. The reformed view is different than what I’m used to in many ways. I wanted to make sure I understood what was going on before I opened my big mouth. These guys are really smart. Am I just stupid if they say something I don’t agree with? I wanted to make sure. A lot of things I thought might be problems have turned out not to be. I think I finally have a pretty good idea. I’ll run through this in maybe 3 posts. This is all to try and solidify in my mind what I believe.
1. Focus on the corporate (church) relationship to Jesus VS. the individual personal relationship to God.
I am fond of telling people that Christianity is not a relationship, it is a religion. Of course, after having made the point, I hasten to add that it is a covenantal religion with a covenantal relationship at the heart of it. God promises that we will be His people, and He will be our God. But this is not what the religion of revivalism demands. Revivalism demands that there be what is called “a personal relationship.” And of course, we must be careful here. Each believer is a person, created in the image of God, and God has poured out His Spirit into the hearts of believers, causing them to cry out, Abba, Father. In a profound sense, this is a personal relationship. But this is not what revivalism means by “personal relationship.”
In revivalism, this personal relationship is isolated and individualistic. In the orthodox Christian faith, our personal relationship is covenantal and connected. God never establishes Himself as an individual’s Father without simultaneously giving that person countless brothers and sisters. This is another way of saying that there is no salvation outside the Church. Note the difference it makes in the nature of devotion – one emphasizes a personal “quiet time” while the other emphasizes corporate worship.
Now, here is the problem I have with this: It serves to explicitly deemphasize personal prayer and devotion. In the larger discourse he points out problems that can arise from personal quiet time. OK fine. But if there is anything I have learned in my journey following Jesus, it is that personal “quiet time” is actually very very important. How do I know? Because the amount I sin is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend alone talking to Jesus. It is NOT directly related to the amount of time I spend at church, in corporate worship services, in ministry or service, or fellowshipping with believers. Those things can help, but the prayer and personal devotion to Jesus is by far the most substantial element in my walk with the Lord. It is the thing that gives me the most peace (and I’ll say it again) the thing that stops me from sinning. Hard heart? Bad attitude? Lustful thoughts? Jealously? Take them to Jesus. He is the great redeemer and intercessor and HE alone can renew our minds and change our hearts.
I don’t say any of this to diminish our relationship with our brothers and sisters in the church. I have a new found respect for the Christian community since studying the reformed way. I think both are critical. I’ve heard taught in my charismatic background that spending personal time with Jesus every day is what recharges us to live righteously each day. Doug teaches that it is our participation in corporate worship every Sunday that recharges us to live righteously the next 6 days of the week. I disagree. I think we (sinful man) is quick to take this as a license to be LAZY. I think that personal time of devotion and prayer is not to be minimized. If you look at the Saints and heroes of the faith, all of them, not just the contemplative ones, would agree with this. I think if questioned about it, Doug would say that he isn’t trying to minimizing personal devotion, just redefining it’s place in our lives. It’s a reaction to “every man is an island”. Sorry, I have to move it to a more prominent place when I describe the church.
So what is the source of this? I’m putting my own personal experience against a (particular way of interpreting) scripture. Oh, that’s a quick way to get into trouble! True, but I don’t think Psalm 119 should have been any shorter than it is. Our personal connection to Jesus is vital.