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1 Corinthians 14:13-19 (ESV):

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 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. 16 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? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Verse 16 talks about the concept of "giving thanks [to God] with one's spirit" and verse 17 says "for you may be giving thanks well enough", which seems to indicate that the practice, in and of itself, is perfectly fine. However, the problem arises when this thanksgiving takes place in the presence of other people, who get no benefit from it because they are unable to understand what's being said (v16: "[...] when he does not know what you are saying"; v17: "[...] but the other person is not being built up"). To me, that's the reason why Paul, in verse 13, recommends that a person with the gift of tongues should pray for the gift of interpretation too, so that they may interpret what they themselves are saying for the benefit of others who may be listening.

However, this has an intriguing implication: if a person does not pray that they may interpret, then it follows that it's entirely possible for a person to have the gift of tongues but be lacking the gift of interpretation (because they haven't prayed for it yet). Such a person would be able to give thanks in an unknown tongue, but they wouldn't be able to interpret it, which means that they would not be able to understand what they themselves are saying and much less be able to interpret it for others. This corner case is what Paul appears to be describing in verse 14: "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful" (i.e. "I don't know what I'm saying").

Question: What's the value of giving thanks in an unknown tongue when the person doing the thanksgiving lacks the ability to interpret what they themselves are saying? Why would God give a person the ability to "give thanks in an unknown tongue" but withhold the gift of interpretation? Why not always give both gifts simultaneously and the problem is solved?

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  • Again, this is only a problem for those who believe (incorrectly I think) that the gift of tongues in Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14 are different. If they are the same, then this question does not arise.
    – Dottard
    May 6 at 21:12
  • There is no gift of interpretation of speaking in tongues. Acts 2:6 "Every man heard them speaking in HIS OWN LANGUAGE! Sorry but its -1 from me.
    – Adam
    May 6 at 21:16
  • @Dottard - If they are the same, then this question does not arise" - I don't see how the *then follows from the if. Can you develop the idea in an answer? May 6 at 21:18
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    Paul is regulating a misapprehension within the church. He speaks many languages in his travels. But he would rather say five comprehensible words than talk in an unknown tongue. And he shows the pointlessness of speaking words that make no sense to anybody. Yet, still, people persist in wanting to do so because they think it is "spiritual".
    – Nigel J
    May 7 at 1:16
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Paul is regulating a misapprehension within the church.

He speaks many languages in his travels.

But he would rather say five comprehensible words than talk in an unknown tongue.

And he shows the pointlessness of speaking words that make no sense to anybody.

Yet, still, people persist in wanting to do so because they think it is "spiritual".

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For a good back-ground on this question, see https://www.gotquestions.org/gift-interpreting-tongues.html as note by the OP in a comment above.

There are two broad classes of people who understand 1 Cor 14 differently:

  • That Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14 describe the same gift of tongues and thus, the person speaking understands what is being said ina foreign language.
  • That 1 Cor 14 describes a different gift of tongues from Acts 2. thus we would have Tongues #1 (as per acts 2) and Tongues #2 (as per 1 Cor 14). In this second interpretation, the speaker speaks an unintelligible language to both themselves and the hearers and must rely on someone to interpret it.

Both the attached link to "Got Questions" above and myself are of the view that the first understanding above is correct for the following reasons:

  • Having two different gifts, "Tongues #1 and Tongues #2", creates insuperable exegetical difficulties that do not exist in the text
  • Why would God give a gift that is of no value to either the person nor others - speaking an unintelligible language?
  • The gift of tongues in 1 Cor 14:22 is specifically given for reaching unconverted people with a message of the Gospel. Paul says that if people do not understand, then nothing should be said, V9. See also V17 & 19.

OK, so this leaves us with the "problem" of what 1 Cor 14:14 means:

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.

Paul here uses a personal construction that implies the whole group as he does in other places - that is, he talks about himself doing the action (which he obviously does NOT literally do) but uses it to describe the whole group. See Rom 3:9 and 6:15 for more examples of this type of expression. V15 uses a similar idiom.

Thus, Paul in 1 Cor 14:14 is saying (using Dottard's "Paraphrase") - if a person in church prays in a foreign tongue, then that is OK for the person but the rest of people's minds remain unedified.

There is also an element that we regularly pray "in the spirit" without using words but simply expressing feelings to God that cannot be put into words (see Rom 8:26).

Thus, Paul encourages this sort of practice in private, but in public settings, he want intelligible words only.

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    @Dottard...i refer you to read a little further down 1 Cor 14..."15What then shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. 16Otherwise, if you speak a blessing in spirit,b how can someone who is uninstructed say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?" I actually think vs 15 also means in private as well. The mind is to be used in both scenarios when praying.
    – Adam
    May 6 at 22:23
  • @Adam - agreed - good comment.
    – Dottard
    May 6 at 22:27
  • @Dottard - there is a third option: that in Acts 2 the speakers didn't know what they were saying. The listeners did. May 6 at 22:33
  • yes i think the key phrase in vs 15 is "how can someone who is uninstructed say Amen" ...to me this means that someone must understand what is being said. The interesting thing about God, irrespective of what may be percived useless babbling, God can read and knows what is in our minds. I dont think there is anything he cannot interpret because of that. Having said this however, what is the point of praying if we dont know what we are thinking or saying? How can we praise God in that manner or indeed ask him for help or guidance? I think prayer should have an intelligable purpose.
    – Adam
    May 6 at 22:34
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - so your are suggesting that Peter did not understand what he was preaching about?? That to me is a stretch. see the other question referenced earlier.
    – Dottard
    May 6 at 22:38
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Is there any value in “giving thanks with one's spirit” when the person doing the thanksgiving lacks the gift of interpretation of tongues?

While this may be an unpopular answer, no one now possesses such gifts the way they were initially bestowed by the apostles in the first century.

1 Corinthians 13:8: "[If] there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes [Scripture is complete], the partial will be done away" (emphasis added).

Paul has unequivocally declared that the end of spiritual gifts would soon arrive. By "soon" he meant this would occur at the completion of the Gospel "when the perfect comes." The unique gifts of prophecy, of tongues, and of certain knowledge (as Paul had) would all be "done away".

Naturally, that does not mean that God does not act on our behalf through prayer and supplication (earnest humility). And, it does not mean we cannot "prophesy" in the sense that, as we proclaim God's Word, we are "prophesying" to others about the Gospel. As well, all baptized Christians are saints, priests, prophets, and royalty (1 Peter):

1 Peter 2:9: "[Christians] are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light; for [we] once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now [we] are THE PEOPLE OF GOD..."

However, today, the special, profound gifts of the first century no longer exist as they once did, God's Message to humanity having been fully delivered.

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  • Hmmm, I am going to have to research this answer...I do not naturally agree that spiritual gifts have stopped, particularly since this sounds like justification for an incorrect interpretation for the timing of the millenium and that Jesus came the second time in A.D70.
    – Adam
    May 6 at 21:19
  • @Adam That is a good attitude: I'd like to hope I have the same. I suppose many of us have had "epiphanies" while reading Scripture. But that is not the same as the special knowledge given to the apostles and disciples (whom the apostles laid hands) to deliver the Gospel to us. Remember that there was no N/T in the first century before it was ever written. So, naturally, those like Paul, Mark, Luke, etc. had to have *special knowledge*, something that we do not possess. Just as with "prophecy" -- like Agabus in Acts 11 and especially Acts 21, he could predict the future while we cannot.
    – Xeno
    May 6 at 21:26
  • Ok I have read 1 Cor 13. It is talking about the everlasting nature of love...it has nothing to do with gifts of the spirit terminating before the end of time. It is simply making a comparison. Your answer and using this as a reference is absolutely not the context of this passage! -1
    – Adam
    May 6 at 21:26
  • @Adam Wow, guess I should have left this alone.
    – Xeno
    May 6 at 21:28
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    The problem with the idea that spiritual gifts were terminated in the 1st century presents a great problem with other gifts like love, Teaching, missionary activity, preaching, kindness, helpfulness, administration, etc, all of which are spiritual gift given to the church as listed in 1 Cor 12 & 13. I do not think that these gifts terminated in the 1st century.
    – Dottard
    May 6 at 21:42

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