An American Christian Chapter XVI — The Gifts of the Spirit
I was eleven years old when I last remember feeling shame for not receiving the gift of tongues.
I was standing at the front of the sanctuary at kid’s camp lined up alongside several of my friends and acquaintances. I peeked to my left and then to my right. I was the only one not mumbling under their breath or lying on the floor. Hot embarrassment flooded over me. Was I a bad Christian? Did I do something wrong? I must have sin in my heart.
The children’s evangelist who had been talking about chocolate chip cookies made with real butter not twenty minutes prior was walking back and forth, sweat dripping from his furrowed brow. He was gentle and soft-spoken, but during this alter time, he was boisterous and pronounced. His demeanor was still kind, but the playfulness had vanished. He prayed, alternating between English and tongues, his large frame never quite out of sight.
I tried with all my might. I opened my mouth, and nothing but ragged breath came out. I was furious at myself while simultaneously sick to my stomach. Why wasn’t this happening for me? It certainly was for my friend on the left. He had only been there for a few minutes, but I could hear the whispers of an unknown language pouring from him.
I felt awful. It was the second night of camp and not my first time asking to receive the Holy Spirit. I knew that I was supposed to because I had been taught so by my Pentecostal church leaders my entire life. It was the basis of our branch of Christianity.
Eventually, I left the altar and sat down to cry. I was dumbfounded as to why it wasn’t happening for me and could only conclude that it was because I wasn’t a good enough Christian.
I wasn’t much for devotions; I found them to hinder the limited time I already had in my life between school, soccer practice, working for my dad, and church. But I had read the Bible from cover to cover, an accomplishment I was quite proud of but tried not to boast about. I memorized scripture, I went to a Christian school, and I only listened to Christian music. None of this was enough. I had let God down in some area of my life, and He was disappointed in me.
It was the only explanation.
Eventually, a youth leader asked me if I was ok, so I feigned being homesick to save face. There was nothing quite as embarrassing as being the homesick kid at camp, except for being the kid who wasn’t dripping in rollicking spirituality. I went home after that week feeling guilt and shame for yet another camp experience wasted. What was camp for if not to come back, filled with the Holy Spirit, ready to take your campus/family/peer group for God?
When I was old enough to be in the youth group, I was determined to be a little zealot no matter what it took. Those that were dedicated to the church and its teachings were always favored. Despite my youth pastor's openness and sincerity, I felt enormous pressure from the Joneses and other prominent families and youth leaders. To be a part of the church and involved as I was, I still felt like an outsider for not loudly speaking spiritual gibberish or manifesting any of the other gifts of the Spirit. I had gotten pretty good at falling when being prayed for at the altar, but it never seemed to be enough. It always felt like a performance.
Probably because it was.
I don’t recall for certain my exact age or from what experience, but finally, I had had enough. I was going to speak this weird language no matter what. So, another camp and another alter call, I stood there, stubborn and unwavering. When yet again, nothing happened, I decided to make it up. I started repeating sounds of other people’s tongues, and before I knew it, I was speaking in a believable, albeit entirely concocted spiritual language.
I soon confessed to some church leader, who then told me it was all ok because it was just allowing the Holy Spirit to pray through me. The fact that I fabricated the whole thing didn’t matter because it “came from the right place,” and that allowed the Holy Spirit to work through me. So, for the next ~fifteen years~ I readily whipped out my false noises whenever I didn’t know what to pray. I became so good at it that I convinced myself that my version of tongues was real.
While common in pentecostal and charismatic circles, Glossolalia can be quite shocking to hear outside those environments. Originally, the gift of tongues was described as people speaking the native languages of the present gentiles. Basically, someone speaking to you in your native language without knowing what they were saying and having never learned how to speak it.
There are also historical accounts, especially in Greco-Roman texts, of deities and other supernatural beings speaking in divine languages unfamiliar to humans.
This is where things shift.
On the one hand, the gift of tongues is described as a divine language that the Holy Spirit uses to pray through you. On the other, it’s the speaking of earthly languages foreign to you for the benefit of others. There’s also the interpretation of tongues, often first recited by an old man in the congregation during a lull in worship, then interpreted by an even older man a moment later.
(Occasionally, it’s an old woman, but that’s only if the charismatic church you’re attending happens to believe it's ok for women to speak. Forget about people who are gender-neutral, trans, or queer. They were already kicked out, and it would be an extreme heresy for any non-cis heteronormative person to try.)
I’ve witnessed and experienced it as a divine language, but never as a human language. I’ve witnessed an interpretation many times as well. The interpretations were always the same, always aligned with a similar theme or point. To be frank, they all made God sound like a whiny adolescent throwing a tantrum or crying over an unreturned crush on a classmate.
I’m not going to use this chapter to disprove glossolalia as a form of divine prayer. However, I will take the time to dismantle the concept that the gift of tongues is a universal spiritual gift meant for all who believe. This idea is baseless and destructive to those who feel pressured to speak a holy language.
My own trauma with glossolalia aside, there are endless stories throughout the world of those who also suffered from the same pressure. For some of us, it was harmless. A simple idea that just didn’t work out. For others, it involved years of hiding, fear, anxiety, and resentment. Unfortunately, the gift of tongues is just one of many.
To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues
1 Corinthians 12:8–10, NIV
But wait! We can’t forget the gifts as interpreted by Paul the Apostle in Romans Chapter 12
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Romans 12:6–8, NIV
It gets confusing. According to the New Testament, there are also separate roles for members of The Church: Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor, and Teacher.
Romans 12 was taught profusely in GTC, but it was also foundational to the program's structure. We were all separated into categories based on the gifts that we, and more so our leaders, thought we fit. To those that best emulated Devon and Lauren, it was clear that their gifts were leadership, teaching, and prophesy. To the others, it was mostly giving, encouragement, and mercy. Serving was saved for those they didn’t really connect with or straight up just didn’t like. This just so happened to involve a lot of physical labor and coming in to do menial tasks during off time.
Whether this was always done on purpose or not, I can’t say, but I know that it certainly was the case for several people. I drifted in and out of this category depending on Devon’s ever-shifting disposition towards me, as well as my own subservient behavior.
There were many instances of others who felt they had a duty to prophesy or speak a word of knowledge/wisdom, but it was to go through the filter of leadership first. This isn’t a bad thing by any means. People often thought they heard the voice of God, then went on to say some batshit crazy stuff*. As always, though, there’s an addendum to this rule; It depended on whether the leader you spoke to thought fondly of you or not.
The students that were a little off, a bit weird, looked poor, or otherwise weren’t a part of the inner social circle curiously never seemed to have those gifts.
The Joneses all did, though, and it was always applied with the utmost magnitude.
*It doesn’t take more than a two-word Google search to see mountains of videos of Christians claiming to be able to prophesy accurately. From stupid, false, and aggravating “words” about someone’s life and future (see Dale Gentry in Chapter XI) to Christian nationalists fueling conspiracy theories, proclaiming Donald Trump, the real winner of the 2020 election.
For my entire life in the church, no matter where I was attending, the gifts of the spirit were taught, celebrated, and used as a form of social status. Speaking in tongues loudly and openly made you stand out from the more timid or casual congregants; It let everyone know exactly how “on fire” for God you were.
It was just the starting level, though.
You needed to give words of wisdom that the church leadership found compelling enough to climb higher in the ranks of faux spirituality. Words of wisdom were, of course, meaningless if you weren’t liked by leadership, but the fact remains.
Most of us plebians spent our time manifesting the gift of service. There was always something to volunteer for, always something to spend a large chunk of unpaid time doing. If you were skilled in a trade that the church found valuable, well, then you might just climb those social ranks faster. Of course, if that particular skill was no longer needed, unless you made an impression, neither were you.
Except to fill a seat and a coffer.
I believe people possess certain traits, although a more accurate observation might be a personality type rather than a spiritually ambiguous gift. Someone with the gift of Evangelism could easily just be a charismatic extrovert. In contrast, someone with the gift of prophecy is probably no more than a patient observer with an intuitive mind.
I can’t be the leading authority on debunking claims of spiritual gifts. There are things in this world that cannot be explained yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.
The equation of [unexplained phenomenon] + [lack of scientific explanation]= God is a primitive and dense perspective. Something humanity and the over-arching Church have battled with since the beginning of human life on earth.
When Galileo began pushing and defending heliocentrism over geocentrism, he was asked to recant his statements. Years later, he was asked by the Pope to write a book showing both his theory of heliocentrism and the Churches' “biblical understanding” of geocentrism. His writing offended the Pope, and He was soon brought to trial before an Inquisitor and found “vehemently suspect of heresy." He was then placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
All for the travesty of disagreeing with the Church’s perspective of science. Because he said, the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Because the Church's literal translation of the Bible was something that shouldn’t have been taken literally in the first place.
So, what the hell does any of this have to do with speaking in tongues? Everything.
Christianity as a whole is defiantly against its members, educating themselves outside of what has been deemed acceptable by the Church, writ large. This includes anything that would push against the narrative that “the gift of tongues is for everyone.”
Because if it’s not for everyone, then it means they’ve interpreted the Bible wrong, and if they’ve interpreted it wrong there, then they’ve interpreted it wrong elsewhere too. This is why you can’t swing a dead cat with it bouncing off another denomination.
The argument of whether glossolalia is a real, spiritual phenomenon or if it’s another form of manifesting your beliefs, I cannot fully say. From my own personal experience and the accounts of many others, it’s the latter. And If I can fool myself and so many spiritually connected people with my false manifestations, then I can’t say I have much faith in it as anything more.
Speaking in tongues is just another form of meditation. It’s why it calms your mind and helps you focus. You are repeating a mantra, a practice that predates glossolalia by about three and half millennia.
However, If this helps you in your spiritual life, who am I to judge or try and disprove? Do what works for you, but don’t do it because an out-of-touch Christian leader told you to.