Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. – 1 Corinthians 14:13-19 ESV
Once again, Paul emphasizes the importance of the spiritual gifts as tools given by God for the mutual edification of the body of Christ. He indicates that a person who prays during worship using an unknown language may be giving thanks to God, but the rest of the congregation will not be built up. They will not understand what is being said, so they will be unable to join in thanksgiving. In fact, Paul says that someone praying in a tongue has no idea what they are saying as well. “For if I pray in tongues, my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying” (1 Corinthians 14:14 NLT). That’s why Paul encourages those who say they have the gift of tongues to pray that they might also be given the ability to interpret what they are saying. The spiritual part of a believer’s life was not to be viewed as separate or distinct from their intellectual or cognitive capacities. God puts a high priority on knowledge. He wants us to know Him. He desires for us to know truth. He wants us to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19 ESV). Even Paul said, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death” (Philippians 3:10 NLT).
Earlier in this same letter, Paul spoke of the Spirit’s role in helping believers understand and comprehend the mind of God.
For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. – 1 Corinthians 2:10-13 NLT
The Spirit of God exists to make God known. He helps us understand those things given to us by God. Without the Spirit living within us, we would still be natural and not spiritual. And the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV).
So the Spirit within us is there to help us understand. And when the Spirit speaks through us by means of our gift, others should be able to understand as well. They should be drawn closer to God. But Paul indicates that the gift of tongues, without interpretation, is of no use to anyone. It may make the one speaking feel spiritual, but there is no benefit to their understanding. Underlying all of this is Paul’s emphasis on the content of the message. What is being said is far more important than the means or the method of delivery. That’s why he makes the very bold statement: “But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language” (1 Corinthians 14:19 NLT). He is discounting the validity of tongues as a gift, but he is elevating the priority of communication and edification.
One of the more difficult portions of this passage to understand is Paul’s claim, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Corinthians 14:18 ESV). Many in the charismatic movement who view tongues as ecstatic utterances and not actual languages, use this verse as proof that Paul used the gift of tongues in secret. But in every case where tongues is mentioned in the New Testament, it is in a corporate context. And it always involves unbelievers, such as on the day of Pentecost. Paul will even go on to clarify that “tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV). So what does Paul mean when he says that he speaks in tongues more than any of them. I think Paul is using sarcasm. He is actually saying that what they are claiming to be the gift of tongues is not tongues at all. Paul had evidently spoken in tongues before. And more than likely he did so in keeping with the New Testament criteria that it be done for the benefit of non-believers. More than likely Paul was given the use of tongues when he spoke in the synagogues in the towns he visited. There would have been non-Jews present who had become followers of Yahweh. They would have spoken other languages and it is likely that it was on those occasions that Paul spoke in tongues, using languages that would be understood by those present.
But the bottom line for Paul was using the gifts properly and in keeping with God’s design for them. If they did not benefit others, either the lost or other believers, they were being misused, even abused. Paul will go on to use an absurd example intended to show the danger of the Corinthian’s improper view of gifts. If one Sunday the entire congregation broke out in the gift of tongues and an unbeliever walked in the door, they would probably conclude that everyone had lost their minds. The disciples of Jesus got a similar response when they spoke in tongues at Pentecost. Some were amazed, others were perplexed, and then there were those who just accused them of being drunk. But Peter used the opportunity to share the gospel. The gift of tongues had a divine purpose. Any gift that does not edify is being misused. Any view of the gifts that emphasizes the emotions over spiritual edification is misguided and dangerous. There must be a benefit to the entire congregation. Which is why Paul said, “if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” (1 Corinthians 14:6 ESV). When we are operating in the power of the Spirit, it is for the benefit of all. It is for the building up of the body of Christ, not the individual.