In Greek, gossolalia, is the word often translated as "tongues," in the Bible. The modern translation of that word would be "languages." So, the gift of tongues is the gift of being able to speak in, and sometimes to understand and interpret, other languages. That is not normally anything special or supernatural, but the scripture talks about this gift of new languages as instantaneous and immediate – i.e., without having gone to school or lived in foreign lands. Let us look as the first instance of this gift with a contemporary translation:
And when the day of Pentecost arrived, the disciples were all in one place in one accord. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven like that of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them diverse languages in the likeness of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And living in Jerusalem there were Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. Now when this report went forth, the multitude came together, and were astounded, because every man heard the people speak in his native language And they were all amazed and marveled, saying one to another, Look! Aren't all these people who are speaking Galilaeans? Then how can we all hear what's being said in our own language from where we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and strangers from Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we hear them speak in our languages the wonderful works of God. – Acts 2: 1-11
[Acts chapter 2 is widely considered to be the beginning of the reverse of the curse of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, where God separated humanity into separate people groups by confusing their languages. He did this deed to prevent human attempts to reach heaven without attaining righteousness ]
Creative people long for inspiration. Jazz musicians strive for unique and creative improvisation – that unplanned and unrehearsed venture into the creative stratosphere which reaches into heaven for the something beyond itself. It reaches into the heavens to pull down the golden apples of life. It is often called 'the zone,' or 'the flow,' and musicians reach it when they are taken over by something larger than themselves in the service of music. It is spontaneous. It is "IT."
If all creativity comes from God and God is the author of creativity, then allowing the Holy Spirit to lay hold of you allows you to become a vessel of something larger than yourself. When musicians are in the zone, they are lost to themselves and are entranced by the music and the sounds and the joy takes over. You are no longer "self-conscious;" you are free from self-concern. And when you hit the high note, everyone in the audience knows if you've hit the zone or not. The beat and the flow are a bit of transcendence marked by meter and melody. It produces a shout, a clap, and a dance in those around who share in the experience while the musician ascends the air currents of his craft and touches the heights. If you've never heard and appreciated a group of musicians when they hit the zone together, then you've really missed the best part of modern music.
Tongues are like that. The gift of tongues is when you are yielded in thought and in mouth to the movement of the Holy Spirit. It is when the Holy Spirit gets a hold of you and speaks his words through you. The gift of the Spirit in languages is the Spirit himself in the midst of the congregation moving among the people.
Yielding control of yourself to God is a risky and scary thing. It goes against the grain of self-preservation. It assaults the human desire to look good in the eyes of others. It attacks the root of our insecure humanity and causes us to yield to God's control over our lives.
This freedom in God is the difference between playing the notes as written on the page of music and being free to take those notes as a jumping off point for a journey into the unknown territory of true inspiration. It is launching into the creative nature of the Almighty and yielding to him your desire for self-preservation. How can you think and speak in a language you do not know unless you let God do it through you? How do you hit the high note unless you let your fingers go and play notes not written on the page? Tongues represents not caring what anyone thinks of you anymore. It is launching yourself off the diving board into the arms of God and letting him take control.
For this reason, tongues is the most resisted of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is resisted viscerally because it represents the most serious threat to pride and social standing. It puts you in a place where you feel foolish and where your image in the community may be at risk. Paul talked about this extroverted abandon when he spoke of his poor reputation. He was considered nearly crazy by his opponents. To which he replied:
"If we are our of our minds, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us…" - 2 Corinthians 5:13,14
When King David danced before the Ark of God in worship [2 Samuel 6:12-23], his wife, Michal, was ashamed because it made him look "lower class," but David replied, that he was not ashamed to look like a fool before God. He was not concerned about himself; he was so lost in worship of God's goodness. Too often today, we see the religiously minded who care more about their appearance before men than they do about the glory of God. They sit frozen in their pews afraid to raise their hands in worship, to express praise of God with all their strength or to worship God with all their might [Deut. 6:5]. Not only do they not show exuberance when worshipping God, but they look down upon those who, like David, worship God with all their emotions, minds, and bodies unleashed. Yet these very religious statues, who refuse to praise God with all their strength in church, are the very same ones who will clap and shout and raise their hands at football games. They give more praise and honor to sports heroes and idols of men than they give to God. And one wonders why they resist the gift of languages? Isn't it obvious? They care more how they appear to men than the do to God.
The gifts of the Spirit are all available to us if we will yield our hearts and minds and wills over to the dominion of God. Do not listen to the religious, who would preserve decorum at the expense of surrender to the divine; for their goal is not how to approach God but how to control themselves and others and resist the dominion of God.
Surely these gifts can be misused by the immature, who take the evidence of God's presence as an excuse for self aggrandizement, [as 1 Cor. 11-14 points out], but the misuse of the gifts of God by the immature does not invalidate the gifts. It just means that the children have to grow up in wisdom and humility. Likewise, counterfeit tongues can appear as people yield themselves to demons instead of to God, as Paul also points out with ways to discern this false practice [1 Cor. 12;1-4]. But the existence of the counterfeit does nothing to invalidate the genuine. In fact the false proves the reality of the true, because Satan only opposes those things that are of God, and a counterfeit can only exist if there is a genuine to mimic.
Paul speaks of languages of men and angels. He speaks of languages that can be understood and interpreted by foreigners and languages that can only be interpreted by the Spirit of God. He speaks of languages where the speaker does not understand himself what he is saying – and hence the ecstatic nature of the gift which defies the human desire for control. These languages can be unknown to the speaker whether they are languages of men or of angels:
"Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in languages? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the languages of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." -1 Corinthians 12:30-13:1.
"Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a language do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a language build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in languages, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in languages, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in languages, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?" - 1 Corinthians 14:1-6.
Regardless of the type of language, human nature, fear and the desire of pride – these will resist yielding to the Spirit and will persecute those who yield themselves to the full dominion of God. Yes, discernment needs to be made for authenticity and for maturity in the use of the gifts, but those who oppose them entirely on the grounds of wanting to provide respectability for the church are in the end opposing the very Holy Spirit who wants free reign and dominion in His Church.
"So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues…" - 1 Corinthians 14:39, NRSV.
See also the article on why the gifts are for today.