In the Bible we read that speaking in tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit. What is speaking in tongues? Does it still happen today?

In the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, the early ancestors lose the spirit of God through their pride. The confusion of languages leads to the division and isolation of the one person from the other and from God (Genesis 11:1-9). Christ’s incarnation provides the ‘repair work’ for the Holy Spirit to return to God’s people. At Pentecost, tongues of fire sit on each of the Apostles, and what they say can be understood by each person hearing, in their own language. The Holy Spirit is at work, undoing the curse of Babel.

New Picture (6)

In the Acts of the Apostles we learn about how the Holy Spirit acts in the early Church. It transforms the scared, illiterate apostles into eloquent and bold preachers of the Gospel, giving them wisdom (Acts 6:3), the power to heal (Acts 3:2-7) and prophecy (Acts 21:10).The Holy Spirit also gives some of the first Christians the power to speak in tongues (Acts 19:6), a gift otherwise known as glossolalia.

When these people speak in tongues, they are in prayerful ecstasy expressing unintelligible words. Someone else, with a separate gift, is needed to interpret what they are saying. The lesson to be learnt is that the faithful should pray not so much externally, but in spirit, from the depths of the heart


The gift to speak in tongues soon begins to disappear, as it is no longer helpful in the edification of the Church. Two decades after Pentecost, St Paul is encouraging the Corinthians not to put too much emphasis on this gift, but instead to strive to edify others: “I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19). After New Testament times, glossolalia begins to phase out. The Church Fathers don’t really mention it.

In more recent times, glossolalia seems to have made a comeback in some groups, especially the Pentecostals. How much is this the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Is it like the glossolalia of the New Testament? It is difficult to say. Does it edify the faithful?

The Orthodox Christian experience is that the Holy Spirit comes to those who cultivate their hearts in order to receive It. Indeed, we all receive the Holy Spirit at our Baptism and Chrismation, but unless it is cultivated, it remains an ineffective spark. This spark alights when we purify our hearts through the Christian struggle. This spark then becomes a flame that lightens and warms those around us.

We have contemporary examples of people filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. St Porphyrios, for example, had gifts where he could transcend space, time and matter, in order to help those in need. He humbly recounts that these gifts were a result of his obedience to his elders.

Let us too focus on cultivating the gifts that will edify each other.

† Fr G. L.

[i] Archimandrite Zacharias. The hidden man of the heart: the cultivation of the heart in Orthodox Christian anthropology. Chapter 15, On the gift of speaking in tongues. Mount Thabor Publishing; 2008.