I remember the first few times hearing about a heavenly prayer language. Some called it praying, or speaking, in tongues. Not long after coming to faith in Christ, a group of friends took me to a few meetings where this would be happening. We gathered in homes, the forest, and a local church to experience these supposed, Holy-Spirit-induced prayers. What I witnessed was fairly similar: various individuals caught in a trance-like state, speaking, or praying (I wasn’t sure), out loud using non-language noises in somewhat of a repeated fashion. The prayers/noises sounded something like, “Hasha-batta, kala-hasha, nashta-kala, hasha-batta..”
Subsequent to that, others reported that they were having similar experiences during private prayer to God. They said that the Holy Spirit gave them an ability to pray in non-language sounds as a means of infusing their prayers, and encouraged me to seek this out. About one year later, I observed some of the same, a supposed Holy-Spirit-infused prayer language, while attending one of the largest, and most well-known charismatic churches in the nation. These were some of my first experiences with this prayer language phenomena. I soon discovered that it is a widely practiced phenomena (in various forms) both inside and outside Christendom.
I, like many, began to ask: Is this prayer phenomena in Scripture? And, if so, what does Scripture say about it?
Today’s post will not attempt to exhaustively answer those questions. Nate Busenitz has thoroughly demonstrated, for example, that the gift of “tongues” was the miraculous ability to speak a previously unlearned foreign language during the foundation, apostolic days of the church. Additionally, it’s been shown that Scripture does not support the idea of an angelic language or multiple different kinds of spiritual gifts called tongues.
Instead, this post will briefly look at the idea of praying in a supposed Spirit-induced, heavenly and/or angelic prayer language as it pertains to prayer. To do so, we will look at one verse: “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt 6:7).
The word translated “meaningless repetition,” is from the Greek verb, battalogeo. Similar to the TDNT (1:597), A.T. Robertson comments that the word carries the idea of “stammerers who repeat the words,” “babbling or chattering,” “empty repetition” (Matt 6:6). John Nolland says it’s the idea of the repetition of either intelligible or unintelligible sounds in order to multiply effectiveness (Quoted by Osborne, Matthew, 226). Many commentators agree that the prefix, “batta,” is onomatopoetic. In other words, the prefix sounds similar to the thing it describes: prayers sounding something like, “batta, batta.” Being onomatopoetic does not mean that the word exhaustively covers everything which it describes, but the general idea.
Christ prohibits praying in such a way for two reasons. First, because it is characteristic of Gentiles (Matt 6:7). Praying in a way that piles up language, or non-language, unintelligible, or babbling sounds is prayer characteristic of those who do not know God. Second, because our heavenly Father already knows what we need before we think to pray about it (Matt 6:8).
What are some examples of babbling prayer, characteristic of the Gentiles?
We could talk about Buddhist prayer wheels, the Roman Catholic practice of prayer candles, Ave Maria’s and Pater Noster’s, and prayers of the Rosary, for example. We could also discuss the Greek culture in which similar things were observed (and what the Apostle Paul corrects in 1 Corinthians 12-14). At various points in Phaedrus, for example, Socrates is praising the idea of ecstatic mania. A form of non-language, ecstatic prayer was reported to have been practiced through out-of-their-mind, ecstatic oracalers at Delphi and Dodona. (http://sparks.eserver.org/books/plato-phaedrus.pdf, 7). Many more examples could be cited of ancient and contemporary pagan practice.
But more to the point: When Christ forbids such prayer, we would have to include the popular idea of speaking in tongues as a private or heavenly prayer language. As it pertains to the idea of a Spirit-given prayer language, whether heavenly, angelic, or something else, Christ’s command is clarifying: God’s people are not to pray in such a way that resembles babbling repetition of sounds, whether they are supposed to be intelligible or not. He forbids the act of praying in a way, for example, that would resemble a prayer in the form of, “Batta, batta.” Instead, biblical prayer is to have normal, human intelligibility.
In prayer, we need not seek anything beyond simple language expression. Thus, we need not feel the need to rev up our spiritual engine in order to perform at some higher level. We need not seek supposed higher blessings or baptisms of the Spirit to attain elevated spiritual experience so that God takes notice or we perceive ourselves on a higher plane. Christian prayer is simply a natural, genuine, intelligible communication to God.
As such, prayer is something available to every single one of God’s people: those eloquent in speech, those not; those who have much to say, those who do not; those with many degrees, those with none; the young, the old, and of every language and articulateness.
Eight brief, closing remarks are needed.
First, the biblical spiritual gift often associated with a tongues-type prayer language is better called “languages.” The biblical gift of languages was the miraculous ability to speak an unlearned language that is known by others for the purpose of exalting Christ and building up others during the foundational, apostolic era of the church. This gift ceased with the apostolic era in the first century as the church foundation was established in Christ’s progressive building of the church (Matt 16:18).
Second, there are various arguments against this position. For example, on one occasion I was faced with an argument along these lines: “I’ve seen/experienced the speaking in tongues as a prayer language. You cannot say it did not happen. It did happen, therefore, it’s something we should pursue. If I experience it, you cannot deny it. I see a giraffe out my window, for example, you cannot tell me it’s not a giraffe.”
But the argument fails on the grounds that experience is superior to Scripture. The unspoken reasoning is: “I saw/experienced/heard X, therefore, X is true and should be pursued as a practice of our faith.” But the biblical reasoning must go: “Though I saw/experienced/heard X, I must rigorously test it up against a hermeneutically sound interpretation of Scripture. If X conflicts, it is X that is abandoned as a practice of our faith, not Scripture. Scripture alone is the authority.” Put another way for the sake of argument: “I think I saw a giraffe. Scripture says that giraffes do not exist. Therefore, I saw something, but it was not a giraffe.”
Though we may experience interesting spiritual phenomena, if it is not supported by a sound interpretation of Scripture, then it is not to be pursued as something of the Christian faith.
Third, many who practice this do not suppose they’re engaging in a Gentile/pagan practice (Matt 6:7). Instead, they presume to feel close to God. However, regardless of feeling, Scripture, not feelings, determines true spirituality and what closeness to God means. But we can go to Scripture to learn how to express closeness to God. In portions of the Psalms, for example, we can observe some of the most profound, genuine experiences of closeness to God. As such, they are expressed and inspired in normal, intelligible, human language.
Fourth, some have said, “But the practice of a private, heavenly, or angelic, prayer language is spoken of in 1 Corinthians 14.” But in that passage, the Apostle is correcting non-language, unintelligible utterance and the abuse of the language gift.
Fifth, an additional argument goes: “This private tongues prayer language is not hurting anyone. It’s between me and God, therefore, what’s the problem?” But, we are not to justify an act on whether or not we perceive benefit or injury. An action is right or wrong on the basis of God’s word. If God’s word forbids something, then we are to follow in step, for his glory and his honor, regardless of how we perceive it may or may not hurt others, or how it may or may not make us feel.
Sixth, some suppose that the Holy Spirit is giving them profound words; words of heaven which are too spiritually superior for known human language. But there are no more profound words given by the Holy Spirit than what he has already given us in God-given, sacred Scripture in normal, human intelligibility. If someone desires to pray and speak lofty, spiritual words to God, we have the Psalms, for example, which contain many model prayers expressing profound love for God. On top of that, every single word in the 150 Psalms was inspired in an intelligible language by the Holy Spirit (normal intelligibility, with noun-verb-object, structure). Furthermore, when we observe the prayers of Scripture (i.e. 1 Kings 8, John 17), in every instance, whether Christ or others, individuals are praying in normal, human intelligibility.
Similarly, there is no instance of a heavenly-type prayer language in Scripture. If such a thing were to exist, we would expect to observe it in various charged moments of redemptive history, such as Jesus in his emotional high priestly prayer of John 17 or his distraught prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane or David upon hearing the Davidic Covenant or Psalm 119 or Lamentations, to name a few examples. But we do not. And we can rest confident that the most profound expressions of worship to God are to be done in God-given, human languages with normal intelligibility.
Seventh, being created in the image of God is telling. From the dawn of creation, we notice that one of humanity’s image-bearing attributes is rational, intelligible language. The first humans interact with God in their pre-Fall state using that God-given gift. We can expect, as observed all the way to Christ’s incarnation and into heaven, that intelligible language will be the way to interact with God.
Eighth, the question often goes: “If this is not from God, then from where does this phenomena originate?” Perhaps the power of the flesh showing itself in an individual wanting a memorable spiritual experience. Or, perhaps, an individual wanting to be close to God, but mistaking what that looks like. And in some cases, we must not rule out Satan (2 Cor 11:14-15).
So, though we might practice speaking in tongues as a private, heavenly language, such a thing is not from God since Scripture does not support it. Thus, it is not to be pursued by believers. In fact, the ideas of things like non-language prayer, heavenly language prayer, or prayer sounding something like, “Batta, batta,” is what Christ forbids, in part, because it characterizes the pagans who do not know God.
As Charles Quarles writes: “Although many modern Christians address God in an ecstatic ‘prayer language,’ the practice has no root in the teaching or example of Jesus. Jesus seems to have viewed such practices in paganism as inappropriate for his disciples” (Sermon on the Mount, 184).
Finally, think of it this way. Picture yourself standing in front of Christ seated on his throne in heaven. What would you say? We would be on our knees, humbled, in awe, in worship, saying, if we could say anything at all, something like, “Oh Lord! Thank you! Thank you for dying on the cross! I love you!”
We would not begin speaking to him in a non-language babble. Let’s remember that prayer is the great privilege of speaking to His Majesty; the risen Christ who is seated on his throne in heaven, reigning as our Sovereign Lord. We are not physically there. But we get to speak to him nonetheless. This is to be an action of humbled, human intelligibility.
So let’s enjoy communing with our good God in prayer. We can simply, and reverently, speak to him with simple language. Doing so ascends to the highest form of spirituality.