Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I confess, I have a private prayer language

One of the controversies bubbling up in the Southern Baptist Convention has to do with "private prayer language." Steve McCoy recently revealed that NAMB is now asking about this in their applications for scholarships:
"Do you speak in an unknown tongue (glosolalia) or have a private prayer language?"
Well, I have a confession to make. I have a private prayer language. I didn't seek it. It didn't come in any kind of ecstatic jolt. I have had it for as long as I can remember. My private prayer language is the language I use when, well, praying in private.

Though all prayer ought to be authentic, there are appropriate differences that should characterize the way we pray in different settings. Our public prayer should employ different language than that offered in more intimate groups, and prayers offered in private should be different from both of these. Spurgeon recognized the difference between public and private prayer and devoted separate chapters to each in his Lectures to My Students.

When leading in public or corporate prayer one should remember that he is praying in behalf of those gathered. Corporate praise, corporate confession and petitions that are appropriate for the body in general should punctuate such praying. When leading a church in pastoral prayer, the minister, Spurgeon suggests, should consider the general needs and concerns that mark the congregation. "He should bring the joys and sorrows of his people alike before the throne of grace, and ask that the divine benediction may rest upon his flock...and that the forgiveness of God may be extended to their shortcomings and innumerable sins." Such prayers must seek to carry to the throne of grace all of those who are gathered for worship. Anything that would hinder spiritually minded people from following should be avoided.

In small groups, prayers can be more appropriately intimate and less formal than in larger gatherings. More personal needs can be specifically brought before the Lord and, given the nature of the relationships of those present, sins can be more specifically confessed and lamented. When families or spouses pray together, those issues that uniquely concern them are proper subjects of prayer. It is appropriate for four friends to pray together specifically about personal struggles and decisions in ways that would be inappropriate in a larger gathering.

When praying privately prayer can be completely intimate because it is completely private. This does not mean that it can be "cheeky" or flippant. God is still in heaven and we are still frail creatures of dust. But as children coming alone to a dearly loved and infinitely loving father, we may go to our God without regard of what others may think of our words or expressions. Our Lord prayed privately with words that were often not recorded and only partially recorded in Gethsemane. So it is with our own private prayers. They are characterized by expressions and language that is intimate and private. This is what D. M. M'Intyre means by the title of his book, The Hidden Life of Prayer.

Every Christian must pray this way, behind closed doors, if you will. Our Lord specifically instructs us to engage in private prayer. "But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:6). That is what I mean when I say that I have a "private prayer language." My prayers "behind the door" are intimate, personal and transparent. I confess specific sinful attitudes and thoughts that plague my heart. I say things that would be completely inappropriate for me to say in corporate or even small group prayer. Sometimes, I don't even know what to say and find myself wordless in the presence of God as I pour my heart out to Him. At such moments I take great comfort in knowing that "the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (Romans 8:26).

Now, for the record, my "private prayer language" is not any kind of ecstatic utterance. But it most definitely is private and intimate. It is not nearly as warm, consistent or vibrant as I want it to be and hope that it may yet become, but it is real. I am not a proponent of praying in a language that is unknown--which is typically what is meant by "private prayer language." But I would sooner rejoice that a brother is praying in private than to castigate him for doing so in a way that is unintelligible. Private, personal prayer is one of the chief means whereby our hearts are cultivated for godliness.

In this sense, every Christian should have a private prayer language. In fact, in my opinion anyone who doesn't should be disqualified from serving in any capacity in the SBC. Now there's a policy that surely every Southern Baptist can support!


Nathan White said...


Why the NAMB is asking that question is a little odd, for, as you demonstrated, labels don't always bring clarity.

It certainly becomes even more difficult to raise this question in light of the fact that a 'private prayer language' is foreign to scripture. No doubt that it is a modern construct that has kind of evolved. As we know from other fairly new doctrines and or terms (open theism, emergent, etc.), it's sometimes very difficult to nail down what exactly is meant when they are conveyed.

Very well put on prayer, it reminded me of a quote:

"What a man is on his knees before God, that he is -and nothing more." - Robert Murray M'Cheyne

scripturesearcher said...

I just wish more people prayed both privately and publicly and reading the Bible on a daily basis is the best place to learn how to get started.

DoGLover said...

Tom, I admit the title had me going for a bit. I appreciate your wit even while addressing such a vital issue in our day. I pray God will grant us all such a prayer language - to press into his throne of grace - not by emotional shortcuts, but by the power of his Spirit. said...

Provocative post and very good, pastoral words.

Mike McIlwain said...

Being one who has come out of pentecostalsim, you had me feeling some aprehension and concern for a moment. However, I do appreciate the wit-filled way that you have dealt with this subject.

While the information you shared is biblical and is something I know from scripture, I still needed to hear it again. Thanks for the challenge to all of us to spend intimate time with God in private.

Deb Jones said...

Hey there Tom!

I'm graduating in May and moving down to the Georgia/Chattanooga area, possibly. Surely your ministry needs an amateur accountant on its team! :)

It appears I also have a lot of blog catching up to do. School keeps me too busy! :) It's nice to be back to the old Founders blog though!

-Deb Jones (Marvin's daughter in case my absence made you forget! ;) )

Brother Bob said...

Excellent point, Tom!

GUNNY said...

Stop scaring folks like me with weak (and depraved) hearts!

You really had me going there, Tom.

J.D. Rector said...

Tom: As one who has been labeled a Charismatic-Calvinist, your post is very mind probing. Now, having made that confession in a very public blog forum is sure to get some comments, disapprovals, and prayers for me. Especially from some of my former seminary teachers. (Laughter... pun intended!)

I really think there is an undercurrent to "rid" our denomination of all charismatics and calvinists. I know this sounds very negative. However, the recent actions of what happened at Southwestern, the IMB new policies, and the NAMB, all stir that undercurrent tide.

I am still praying for a genuine Spirit-filled revival and spiritual awakening in our denomination and our country! And no... I don't believe a person HAS to speak or pray in tongues to be spirit-filled. That is contrary to what scripture teaches.

In God's Grace Alone,

willreformed said...

Brother Tom

Interesting post. Forgive me for saying it, but often times the SBC reminds me of Jesus words to the Pharisees Mt 23: 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing ia camel!

Churches full of unregenerate centered theology of salvation largely influenced by a heretic named Finney.....rampant biblical ignorance.....but boy, lets not have missionaries who have a private prayer language.

Your statement here "But I would sooner rejoice that a brother is praying in private than to castigate him for doing so in a way that is unintelligible" summarizes it beautifully for me.


Tom said...


I agree with you. Great quote by RMM.

Joe and Bob:


DogLover, Mike and Gunny,

Thanks for reading the whole post and not stopping with the title!


Your point is so important, and it is what makes people like me less than thrilled with all of the comparatively minor issues that are receiving top billing in our day. I would much rather we dealt the the logs in our eye before going after the specs in the eyes of others.


I don't know if the effort is concerted in any way, but no doubt some would like to see folks like you and me out of the SBC. I know because I get email from them fairly regularly. :-)

I hope you don't get attacked here. You shouldn't. As Will pointed out, we have enough serious concerns to keep us busy for years, if we will honestly own up to them.


Congratulations on your upcoming graduation! We can always use an accountant on our team. Maybe if we sign you up while you are an amateur we will still be able to afford you once you turn pro. :-) Tell your dad and mom hello for me.

SelahV said...

J.D. Rector: You said, "I really think there is an undercurrent to "rid" our denomination of all charismatics and calvinists."

Gosh I hope you're wrong. I rather like a lot of the Calvinists I've met and have some very charismatic friends I enjoy fellowshipping with. Being an unreformed Baptist believer who has the same kind of private prayer language as Tom, I can state right now I wouldn't vote for eliminating anyone. selahV

Tony said...

It is interesting that NAMB would focus on “private prayer language” but does not seem to have issues with the whole postmodern emergent movement, or should I say conversation. I know of at least one teacher at an SBC seminary, and many of the people that are at his church, that appears to endorse Open Theism.

So I guess the problem would only be if they talk about heresy in tongues while being baptized in a non-SBC church : )

J.D. Rector said...

Selahv, I too hope I am wrong.

Tom, thanks for your sweet spirit and encouragement. May your supportive dialogue and graciousness be multiplied many times over in our denomination!


Keith Crosby said...

Charismaticism is not a peripheral issue. There is no warrant in Scripture (when the passage is taken in context and not twisted or proof-texted) for a private prayer language. Those who have a private prayer language have a way of making it unprivate (why is that--Pride?). They seem to lack contentment keeping it private, as if God wasn't good enough to be the only Knower and Hearer. Then comes the next step on the slippery slope: extrabiblical revelation, a word from God that gets them around those pesky passages that they don't like... Let's not link Charistmatics and Calvinists (Calvin and Luther didn't Zikua prophets (sp)).

I have to confess---your post initially startled me.

Stephen Pruett said...

Nathan & Keith, "If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God." (1 Corinthians 14:28)." What is speaking (in tongues) to yourself and God, if not a private prayer language?

Stephen Pruett said...
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Stephen Pruett said...
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Stephen Pruett said...

Nathan & Keith, "If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God." (1 Corinthians 14:28)." What is speaking (in tongues) to yourself and God, if not a private prayer language?

Stephen Pruett said...

Nathan & Keith, "If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God." (1 Corinthians 14:28)." What is speaking (in tongues) to yourself and God, if not a private prayer language?

Stephen Pruett said...

Sorry for the multiple posts, I kept getting an error message!

pregador27 said...

It's funny, the NAMB is zeroing in on that question, but the SBC as a whole allows heretical emergent teachings. There seem many who want to oust "Calvinists" in the SBC, but don't mind those who reject Orthodox Christian doctrines. Not a good road. I'd rather have fellowship with someone speaking in an unknown prayer language (IN PRIVATE, not PUBLIC!) than have the SBC-approved theological dim-wits of the emergent "church."

GUNNY said...

My only thoughts on the private prayer language bit is that if you're going to police it's existence, at least be fair and put something about it in the Baptist Faith and Message.

If there's nothing in our doctrinal statement prohibiting it, it raises questions of overstepping one's bounds in cracking down on the practice.

Berean_believer said...

Thank you "Stephen" for bringing up 1 Corinthians 14:28, "but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God."...I must confessI am a Southern Baptist pastor who is both reformed and biblically charismatic.

G. Alford said...


Shouldn’t NAMB and IMB be asking all sponsors the same question before they accept their checks? It would seem appropriate to do so if one is to maintain their integrity in dealing with this issue…

If NAMB and IMB are unwilling to support or commission any Southern Baptist who prays in a PPL then they should not accept donations from individuals or Churches that either pray in a PPL or support those who do…

Grace to all,

Pastor Bob Farmer said...

Dear Dr. Tom,

you are a very naughty boy, posting such a provocative title. Don't you know you might cause some of our brethern to have as the southerner's say, "kiniptions".

Thank you for pointing out this truth. According to your post, I must admit I have a private prayer language too.

"I'd rather have one man praying than ten men preaching". C. H. Spurgeon.

Pastor Bob

Nathan White said...

Stephen Pruett,

Briefly, because I'm sure Tom didn't post this to debate a private prayer language, but to answer your question, which was: "1 Corinthians 14:28)What is speaking (in tongues) to yourself and God, if not a private prayer language?"

When I say that a PPL is not found in scripture, I do not mean that the concept itself cannot be thought up based on a particular text. I simply mean that, as it is commonly defined in our modern age, speaking in a foreign tongue to God is not something that is found or taught in scripture. I believe a proper exegesis of that text shows that a PPL is something forced into, not pulled out of, Paul's words.

Just because something is mentioned in word only does not give us the right to build a doctrine off of a particular statement. For example, using the type of exegesis used by many modern-day advocates of a PPL, we can use this same method with 1 Cor 15:29 and argue that 'baptizing for the dead' is indeed a doctrine taught in scripture. The Mormons do this with this verse, and many others use the same method of interpretation to do it with a PPL.

But, my point is not to argue or discuss this at all, I simply posted this to better communicate my position which I voiced earlier.

Reegz said...

Amen! Good points brought out in a great post! I totally grew up in "charismania" and was freed from it about 7 years ago. Praise God!!!!

Rhett said...

I confess, I'm probably the only (former) Pentecostal preacher that never has had a "private prayer language!!!"

It looks to me like most of the talking-heads in the SBC think our main problem consists of Calvinists, Calvinism, Winebibbers, and Charismatics.

Forget the gluttonous, apathetic, and often unregenerate membership.
Forget the shallow semi-pelagian anti-intellectual preaching, and the wholesale neglect of *Biblical evangelism* that is so common to many SBC churches...

Great Article.

jaredhanley said...

I would describe myself as third wave in regards to pneumatology and reformed in doctrine. I find that this is a good balance and one that I believe is the most biblical. Any close examination of the writings of Paul and of many other scriptures for that matter will prove the doctrines of grace; and a simple reading of the book of Acts will show that the average church is not anywhere close to where the early church was. Now, before you throw stones at me, I would like to say that I realize that the argument concerning signs and wonders and the gifts of the Spirit is not as simple as I just made it out to be. However, that is the path that I have chosen to walk over the past year or so. I have been finding the doctrines of grace more Biblical and challegning than I ever have. And I have also, subjectively if you will, felt that God is continually leading me to get outside the box so-to-speak and take risks concerning ministry towards others and love towards other people. I guess all that I'm really trying to say is that I think that we should come together and unite ourselves against theological liberalism regardless of our background. I think that's where Jesus wants us to be.