My Spirit Prays but My Mind is Unfruitful


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

1 Corinthians 14:14

 The Difficulty

  1. Paul seems to suggest that praying in tongues involves only the spirit of the person
  2. This also seems to suggest that tongues are not understandable languages
  3. Third, it also suggests that the purpose of tongues is for prayer

Principle: Let the Bible interpret itself.


New Testament Context

In the New Testament, the most famous instance of the use of tongues is Acts 2. In that chapter the disciples have received power from on high and began to speak in other tongues (vv. 2 – 4). Most Bible students agree that in this instance the “tongues” they are speaking are foreign languages. We see many Jews from foreign lands hearing and understanding the disciples’ words in their own mother tongues (vv. 5 – 11).

The Greek word used for tongues is γλοσσα (glossa). It simply means language and according to Stron’gs Exhaustive Concordance, “specifically one acquired naturally”.

There are two other instances of its use in the NT. There is Acts 10, where Peter declares the word of God to a Gentile called Cornelius along with his household. During this sermon the Holy Spirit fell upon them, and they began to speak in tongues, glossa, magnifying God. Finally, in Acts 19 we read of Elders from the church of Ephesus who received the Holy Spirit after Paul laid his hands on them, and spoke in tongues, again, glossa, prophesying, or in other words, preaching (10:46). In every single case, then where the Holy Spirit gave the gift in the New Testament, the people are using it to magnify God, audibly, for the benefit of those they are speaking to. In other words, they are actually preaching to men, rather than praying to God.

Immediate Context

In the immediate context of the verse, that is, in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is addressing how the spiritual gift off tongues should be used. He stresses that the most useful gift when people meet in church is that of prophesy – not any preaching at all, but the inspired preaching – of the word of God (vv. 5, 29, 31).

From verses 10 – 13 Paul says when it comes to language there are two options: those we understand and can be blessed by, and those we do not understand, which are meaningless to us. People who speak to us in languages we do not understand are like barbarians to us. Therefore in seeking spiritual gifts the priority should be to bless others. Paul therefore says if your gift is the ability to speak in foreign languages, pray that you are also able to interpret it, so that you can be understood after you have spoken. It is then that he says, For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful (v 14).

In this verse Paul suggests that the person who has the gifts of tongues may not necessarily understand what they are saying when they speak. This is not out of place, as it is a spiritual activity. However, is Paul saying that we can use this gift in prayer? Many people who read this verse think so. But Paul never says that he does so. He merely says, hypothetically, if I pray this way, the result I expect is that I will not understand myself. The key word here is if.

It is the Greek conjunction εαν, which means if-possibly. It is used to denote hypothetical, or conditional situation. According to Helps Word Studies it refers to “a condition extending to its “spin-off” possibilities – i.e. that happen if the condition is actualized or is valid.”[1] Paul is not saying, “O, sometimes, I pray in tongues, and when I do, my spirit prays but I don’t understand”… no, he is saying “Were I to pray in tongues, my spirit might be praying, but my mind would not understand.” Paul NEVER claims to pray in tongues anywhere in the Bible, and NEVER suggests that that is its purpose.

Rather, Paul remains faithful to the Biblical view that tongues are for blessing other people by speaking to them the words of truth so that they might repent and magnify God. This is why he says “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers…” (v 22). He also says that only two or three people should speak in tongues, and there must be interpretation. Why? So that the unbelievers may understand, and repent. Afterall, that is why Jesus gave the gift. In Mark 16: 15 – 17 Jesus commanded His disciples, ““Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues;” Clearly, these gifts, including tongues, are aimed at making sure that those who will hear the message can accept it, repent and be drawn to Christ.


In summary, God does not give spiritual gifts for private use. Tongues are not for prayer. Neither does he give us spiritual gifts so we can wear then like necklaces and ornaments, to show the world that we are Christians, or, as some say, that we have received the Holy Spirit. However sincere we may be, let us be careful, and not cheapen the gifts. The gifts are meant for the edification of the church of God, and in the case of tongues particularly, they are meant for unbelievers who speak languages that we do not speak ourselves. God’s promise is that he will equip us spiritually to reach them in their own tongues, or languages.

Until next time, keep studying. Prove all things, and hold fast what is good!


[1] Helps Word Studies, 2011 by Helps Ministries, Inc.

mm aims to provide just such a critical examination of the ethics, customs, philosophies and theologies of our day, and not only do so on a theoretical level, but on a practical one. The aim is to provide tools for a more intelligent approach to faith and religion in a sea of popular confusion and error.