Does praying in tongues keep the devil from eavesdropping?

Q. I’m reading a book on prayer and one thing it says is that speaking in tongues is a purer form of worship because it excludes our carnal thoughts. It says that another benefit is that Satan will not understand the language. Wouldn’t Satan be well versed in all languages?

When it comes to questions like this, I think it’s important to follow the principle, “Do not go beyond what is written,” as Paul advised the Corinthians. He meant not to select or reject teachers based on issues that the Scriptures do not identify as essential. But I think his advice captures equally well the importance of making the case for or against spiritual practices based on what the Bible actually says about them, not on anything the Bible doesn’t say.

The question here has to do with “speaking in tongues,” that is, speaking in a language that one has acquired directly as a gift from God, rather than through upbringing, immersion, or formal study.  This really is the “gift of languages,” and that is what I will call it in the rest of this post, since the Greek word for “tongue” and “language” is the same and the sense of the word in this context is clearly “language,” as in, “my mother tongue is English.”  I personally believe that this gift is attested not just in the Scriptures, but also throughout church history, and that it remains available to believers today.

Maronite Pentecost icon

As I understand it from Scripture, the gift of languages is given for at least threepurposes.  One is to allow the good news about Jesus to be proclaimed in a language that the hearers will understand, even if the messengers don’t know that language.  This happened most famously on the day of Pentecost, when “Jews from every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem and “each one heard their own language being spoken” as the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to speak those languages. But I’ve also heard present-day missionaries describe how, when they went to a region whose language or dialect they didn’t speak, their words supernaturally came out in the form their listeners could understand.

Another purpose for the gift of languages, according to the Bible, is to bring an authoritative word to a gathering of Jesus’ followers.  When a message is spoken in a language that is given as a supernatural gift, and it is then interpreted by someone who has that ability equally as a gift, this attests to the divine source of the message.  Even so, Paul tells the Corinthians, “The others should weigh carefully what is said,” testing it against the wisdom and teaching of the Scriptures before accepting it as a word from God.  I believe we are given an example of this process in the Old Testament when Daniel interprets the handwriting on the wall.

The third purpose for the gift of languages that I find explained in the Bible is for prayer.  I believe the rationale for this application of the gift is the same one that Paul gives in Romans in the case of prayer that takes the form of wordless yearning: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.”  In this case God gives not just the language, but the words themselves, as a spiritual gift that helps a person pray more effectively when they otherwise wouldn’t know what to pray for.

But notice what the Bible doesn’t say about this.  It doesn’t say anywhere that praying in a divinely granted language is some form of “secret code” between us and God that the devil can’t understand.  So I don’t think we should claim this as a benefit of the practice.  “Not going beyond what is written” in this case saves us from having to speculate about how many languages the devil understands and this frees our energies for reflection on what the Bible actually does say.

As for whether praying in a divinely granted language “excludes our carnal thoughts,” it makes sense that this would be the case, but we should not see this as an unmixed blessing.  Paul notes that “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”  In other words, because he does not understand the language he is speaking, he is not learning from the Holy Spirit’s example how to pray more genuinely and effectively in situations like the one he’s facing. 

Paul explains in his second letter to the Corinthians how important it is to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” While it might be advantageous in the short term, particularly in a dire situation that we don’t even know how to pray about, to bypass our carnal thoughts and immature tendencies, in the long term we are called to develop a spiritual mind and mature character.  In other words, if gifting us with a prayer language is one of the ways in which the “Spirit helps us in our weakness,” that should not be something that keeps us from ever addressing that weaknesses.  We need to take our carnal thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ, not continually bypass them.  But I think we’ll find that the more mature and obedient we become, the more we will follow Christ into situations where we desperately need His help–so there will be a positive self-reinforcing cycle here.

All things considered, I wouldn’t say from the Bible that praying in a divinely granted language is “purer” or “better” than other forms of prayer. But it is one genuine expression of a gift that God wants to be exercised by those to whom it is given to build up the whole body of Christ.

I hope this is helpful!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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