The Love in His Grief
How the Spirit Responds to Our Sin
You’ve done it again. Your conscience begins to stain. Here it is: that sin you vowed — you prayed — never to repeat. You feel the desperate urge to flee from yourself. You wonder, Does God feel the same?
You’ve read of that rocky ground that produces new life yet in the end falls away and dies (Matthew 13:20–21). You tremble at Demas, who, “in love with this present world,” deserted Paul to his apparent undoing (2 Timothy 4:10). You fear, after all your fighting, to finally fall prey to the sin at the door like Cain (Genesis 4:7). As Esau, do you wonder if you’ve sold your birthright so decisively that no power of tears can bring it back (Hebrews 12:17)? Was this your final chance? Will God leave you alone with your red stew?
Perhaps you wonder more specifically, Will he finally take his Spirit from me? You’ve already pled in David’s voice, “Cast me not away from your presence; and take not your Holy Spirit from me!” (Psalm 51:11). You wonder if you will end up being more Saul than David, for “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul” (1 Samuel 16:14). What makes you any different from him? You know for certain that if the Lord’s Spirit leaves you, you will leave the Lord.
And so it gets your attention afresh when you happen upon Paul’s command to the church at Ephesus: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4:30). Do all sins grieve the Holy Spirit of God? And can you finally grieve him to provoke his leaving you for good?
How We Grieve the Spirit
How do we grieve the Spirit of God? Do all sins grieve his heart the same?
Does grieving the Spirit entail sins like “lying to him” and “testing him,” as with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:3)? Does it mean “provoking him” with unbelief, like the wilderness generation (Hebrews 3:7–11)? To “resist him,” like Stephen’s hearers (Acts 7:51)? Is grieving the Spirit the same as quenching him (1 Thessalonians 5:19)?
Instead of first considering that grieving the Spirit means poking at him with our own personal, more isolated sins of thought and deed, it is worthwhile, especially in our day, to realize that the context of this command is primarily corporate. How we frustrate the Spirit’s work to unite his people is in view more than how we sin in the chambers of our mind or alone in our room (though we may rightly imagine these also grieve the Spirit).
Symphony of Unity
Consider the communal emphasis preceding the command.
The Spirit has now unveiled the “mystery of Christ” through the holy prophets and apostles to God’s people: “The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). Christ’s blood has brought the far-off Gentiles near, leaving in the place of two people (two enemies) one new man (Ephesians 2:15).
To protect God’s magnum opus of diverse harmony, the church herself has a part to play: “Maintain the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The Spirit unites us in one body, with one call, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one Father (4:4–6). We must not aggravate that work by slander, bitterness, corrupting talk, anger, and lovelessness against one another (Ephesians 4:25–29). We grieve the Spirit, most immediately, when we publish nasty tweets against each other, willfully misunderstand and gratify anger, backbite and gossip, neither seek forgiveness nor extend it.
This oneness (or not) plays out before more watching eyes than those of an unbelieving world. The hidden plan of God went public “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). We are placed on stage in a cosmic theater, before the eyes of the demonic forces and spiritual realms. The play is titled “The Manifold Wisdom of God,” and it stars one actress: the church. The theme of the play is God’s glory in the unity of his people.
How ugly, then, a shame for us, to refuse the union that the Spirit creates, that the blood of Christ purchased, that the Father planned before the foundation of the world. To sit on stage as devils and rogues, sneering as the church bites and devours one another. This, suffice it to say, grieves the Spirit.
Will He Ever Leave Us?
Can the Spirit be so grieved as to leave us? When Satan addresses us as Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed” (1 Samuel 4:21), is he right?
Individually, we can wonder, What of Saul or Samson, or those who “go on sinning” and so trample underfoot the Son of God, profane the blood of the covenant, and “outrage the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29)?
Corporately, we can wonder, What of the unbelieving Jews that Paul alludes to in giving us the command? “They rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them” (Isaiah 63:10). Will the Spirit who convicts and encourages us today become an enemy because of our sin?
Paul assures us, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). This is Paul’s second mention of this glory. Consider the first:
In [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13–14)
“After so many provocations, you would leave you — but God the Holy Spirit will not.”
If you have been indwelt, renewed, sealed by the Spirit, he will never leave you, nor us as a people. After so many provocations, you would leave you — but God the Holy Spirit will not. He is given as our down payment in a way Old Testament saints (and Israel at large) did not receive him. The Spirit came upon individuals, anointing them for kingship and other great feats, but he did not indwell them as promised in the new covenant (Ezekiel 36:27).
The apostate may outrage the Spirit and choose his darling sins over Jesus, but this proves he did not truly have the Spirit — for the Spirit seals us, marking us as God’s for the day of redemption, the day of Christ’s return.
So we grieve the Spirit of God by our sin, specifically our sins against the devil-shaming, God’s-wisdom-exalting unity of the gospel. But this is not a grief unto desertion. As God’s people, the Spirit is our guarantee until Jesus returns.
“As God’s people, the Spirit is our guarantee until Jesus returns.”
Perhaps one more question is in order: Does the Spirit dwell in us as we might dwell in a broken down, dirty motel? Is he only ever grieved by our sin?
Charles Spurgeon beautifully reminds us of the flower’s scent contained in the very word grief:
There is something very touching in this admonition, “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God.” It does not say, “Do not make him angry.” A more delicate and tender term is used — “Grieve him not.” . . . For grief is a sweet combination of anger and of love. It is anger, but all the gall is taken from it. Love sweetens the anger, and turns the edge of it, not against the person, but against the offense.
Don’t miss the point: the Spirit is a Person. The Spirit himself loves us (Romans 15:30). He inspires the word grief here to communicate this grand love, even in view of our sin. A disapproval that is wrapped in undying care. May we not grieve the love of the third person of the Trinity, who has sealed us irreversibly for the day of our Savior’s arrival.