“God, You are sovereign and you know all things. Your love knows no bounds and is lavish. I am grateful for your love and grace in my life. I want to do your will and I want to know Your heart. When words fail me, hear my heart in prayer. Will you give me the gift of praying in tongues? If it’s your will… Amen.”
I felt a strange comfort when I first heard people praying in tongues around me. I was eight or maybe seven years old. My mom brought me to a revival at a local Korean church because some famous preacher from Korea came. It was rumored that the Holy Spirit was with him and he was slaying people in the Spirit. I didn’t understand too much because the Korean words being preached were unfamiliar. As I looked around that cavernous sanctuary, I saw all these people lying on the floor. The preacher was praying for people and then at the moment he would touch their forehead, they fell backwards into the arms of two people who were the designated catchers. They would gently lay the person down on the floor. I don’t know why, but I remember it being unusually warm in there and noisy. So many people saying what seemed like a Buddhist chant that my great-grandmother used to repeat. I looked around again and saw that my friend was getting prayed for and I saw him fall backward. I can’t remember if it was me or if it was my mom that initiated it, but all of the sudden, the preacher was in front of me. I don’t remember what he said or the questions he asked, but I felt the firm push of his hand on my forehead. I expected my eyes to close and my body to fall backward, but I didn’t. I faltered back and then gingerly walked back to my seat with the cacophony of prayers and shouts surrounding me.
Why hadn’t I been slain in the spirit? What was wrong with me? Did God’s spirit not want to be in me? Did I not believe enough? I walked away with the impression that I didn’t want it enough, or that I lacked enough faith. More than feeling rejected, I felt confused. Maybe I didn’t understand what the preacher was saying so it didn’t happen for me. To this day, I still wonder why it happened for so many, but not for me?
Many years later at a high school retreat, my very Presbyterian Korean church had several instances of praying in tongues, people being slain in the spirit and even some holy laughter. Again, I felt like an outsider. Why was my faith not enough for me to experience these apparent gifts of the Holy Spirit? I prayed every day to experience the Holy Spirit’s gifts also and I asked for God to increase my faith. I prayed that God would help me to get rid of any hidden sins in my heart. When it came time to graduate high school, I was whisked off to another retreat where two people with supposed gifts of prophecy prayed for me. One pastor gave me a verse – Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. ”
It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for because it seemed like a generic passage to me. The other person prayed furiously in tongues, but no one was there to interpret or tell me anything. That was the first time I prayed asking for God to give me the gift of tongues. These pastors and people looked like people who were anointed and highly spiritual. They were the ones chosen by God and I desperately wanted to be chosen.
Growing up with Buddhist grandparents that converted to Christianity later in life and somewhat Christian immigrant parents who really went to church for community and to be with other Koreans, I didn’t fully grasp the concept of religion and God. Going to church was the thing to do on a Sunday like going to Korean school was the thing to do Saturday mornings. You just did it. But I constantly felt conflicted.
When I got to college, it was the first time I had the choice to go to church on my own. It was scary to suddenly have a lot of freedom and I wanted to go with what I was used to. Campus ministry felt too wild and uncertain, but the English ministry of a Korean Presbyterian church felt familiar and safe and there was really only one big one that had a huge college ministry. I immediately got swallowed up in this church and did everything I could to seem like the perfect Christian. But there was one big thing that I felt was holding me back – I still couldn’t pray in tongues. It was a prayer that I prayed for so long and now, as a college student, I felt silly that I still had not received this gift. Again, I asked myself, “What’s wrong with me? Am I even saved? Is it because I was not slain in the Spirit? Did I miss God’s Spirit? Am I not Christian enough?” After a year of asking these same questions, I finally found the courage in me to ask one of the college ministry pastors about it. He simply said to me, “You should ask God to give it to you and He will give it to you.” Was it really that simple? Because I’ve been asking since I was a kid and still nothing. So I pressed the pastor, “What if you ask and you don’t receive this gift?” He looked at me and said, “I guess it wasn’t God’s will.” Up until a few years ago, I earnestly prayed for the gift of speaking in tongues. After some reflection this past year, I’ve come to the realization that this is an unanswered prayer.
In my wrestling with this unanswered prayer, I’ve grown a tremendous amount in my personal faith. Those questions I was asking myself? I found answers to them – unexpected answers. And the questions didn’t stop because the answers led to more questions. I sit in the tension of my many questions and it has not only drawn me closer to God, but it also revealed to me that my upbringing and my early faith experiences missed a lot about God and faith. I never picked up the Bible to read to see what it said for myself until a few years ago. I still have moments where I feel conflicted because it still sometimes seems that the Christianity I adopted rejects the very core of who I am and how God created me. The Korean part of me has been denied culturally as a Christian. There are certain traditions that our family shied away from practicing and participating in once we started going to church and it stopped completely when my grandparents adopted Christianity. I had to let go of my Korean-ness in order to be fully recognized as a Christian. Sometimes, the institution of church made it seem like God was saying to me, “You can’t be Korean and Christian. You have be one or the other. You choose.” God also created me to be outspoken and loud with a bent toward fighting injustice. Traits like that were fine if you didn’t identify as a woman. It always felt like I had to choose one or the other – that I couldn’t be both and still can’t be both. But I’ve finally started embracing the gifts that God has given me instead of wishing I had the gift that would make me fit in with a group of people who wanted me to conform not transform.
“God, You are sovereign and you know all things. Your love knows no bounds and is lavish. I am grateful for your love and grace in my life. I want to do your will and I want to know Your heart. When words fail me, hear my heart in prayer. Thank you for making me the way that you have made me and for the gifts that are unique to me. I want to change the world for You. Amen.”
Phyllis Myung is a writer, mom, wife, sister, daughter and friend. She primarily works as the director of children and youth at her church in Boston and is passionate about families, mental health awareness and hamburgers.