In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul informs us that speaking in tongues is a way in which we address God, and prophecy is a way in which God addresses us. If someone speaks in an unknown tongue when the church is gathered, those gathered must wait on the Spirit to give an interpretation of that tongue, so that we can add our ‘amen’ to the prayer.
We Charismatics tend to be very sloppy about speaking in tongues, assuming them to be a way in which God speaks to us, offering interpretations that are addressed from God to us. But this is contrary to the revelation of Scripture.
In as much as an ‘interpretation’ is addressed from God to us – and in my opinion, such ‘interpretations’ are not entirely devoid of accuracy, by any means – it is not in fact an interpretation of the tongue, but God’s answer to that prayer: a prophetic response to the tongue. In some circles, God’s response to the prayer is almost exclusively what is offered as the interpretation of the prayer itself.
If it is all a conversation between us and God anyway, why does it matter who is addressing whom, how? It matters for this reason: if we believe that tongues are God speaking to us, we are no more than instruments of his voice; but if tongues are, as the Bible tells us, us addressing God, then the interpretation reveals to us what is on our heart that we cannot express in words.
Again, in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul tells us that we pray with our spirit (in tongues) and with our mind (articulated in our own language, filtered through our understanding) – and that we need to do both. The interpretation of a tongue we utter helps us to move from not being able to articulate what is on our heart to being able to articulate what is on our heart. And so we grow in understanding of ourselves – discovering not what God is saying to us, as such, but what he has hidden in our heart – and grow in our understanding of how to pray. Before, we couldn’t put words to our prayer; now we can. And if we pray in tongues regularly, and the interpretations are of a similar theme, then we can see patterns, particular themes or concerns God has given to particular persons, as a gift to the church as a whole.
The public interpretation of a public tongue makes it possible for us to say ‘amen.’ Now, the ‘amen’ is an expression of standing with the one who prays. If someone prays, “Lord, I am afraid!” then for some the ‘amen’ will be “Lord, I am afraid, too!” and for others the ‘amen’ will be “Lord, I choose to stand with my brother who is afraid, to contend on their behalf for your love that drives out fear.” And so the ‘amen’ is not merely the formal linguistic indicator that the prayer has finished, letting everyone know that someone else can pray now; rather, it is an expression of belonging to one another.