One mark of a successful sermon is that it satisfactorily answers some questions while provoking still others. On Sunday I visited a little church in an eastern-Ontario village and heard just such a sermon. The pastor preached on Ephesians 4 as part of a series on the Christian’s identity in Christ, but as he continued through the text he was only barely able to speak to verse 30: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” I later found myself asking, What does it mean to grieve the Holy Spirit? My initial reaction to the word grieve in reference to the Holy Spirit was a negative one: Surely the Spirit of God does not actually grieve, does he? Perhaps this is a poor translation. Isn’t sorrow a too-human reaction to ascribe to the holy God? Doesn’t it diminish the Spirit to suggest that my sin can make him feel genuine sorrow?
Thankfully I take my entire theological library on the road with me thanks to the magic of Logos, so I was able to first meditate on the text and then to research it a little bit. What I found is that grieve is actually a very faithful rendering. It is, in fact, the preferred rendering of the word for every major translation, new or old, with the exception of the NLT which prefers the synonymous bring sorrow to. The Bible dictionaries agree: the Greek word λυπέω indicates grief, sorrow, and distress. So somehow our sin really can bring grief to God and, according to the immediate context, this is especially true for the sins of the mouth that cause disunity between believers.
Still, I was glad to see that Bryan Chapell sympathizes with my immediate, negative response to divine grief: “The words challenge our theology as much as they encourage our hearts. We are not accustomed to thinking of our thoughts and actions affecting God’s heart. There are even aspects of our theology that make us question whether it is proper to think this way. Yet the apostle under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit speaks with wonderful intimacy about the nature of our God and his heart for us.” We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is not a distant, abstract deity and certainly not an impersonal force. No, the Holy Spirit is a person, for only a genuine and personable being is capable of this kind of thinking, feeling, and emotion. In fact, when we understand that the Spirit is a person it should surprise us only if he would not or could not feel grief in the face of our sin. “There is some poignancy in the consideration that the Holy Spirit, the One who is our Comforter (John 14–16), is himself grieved by our sin.”
We do well, then, to consider the magnitude of our offences against God that they could move him to such sorrow. Sins that bring disunity to the church also bring grief to the Holy Spirit. Again, Chapell says, “The same Spirit who convicts my heart of sin, generates in me love for God, gives me new birth, provides my apprehension of the beauty of grace in the world, and seals my redemption until the coming of my Lord—this same Spirit who loves me so intimately and perfectly, I can cause to grieve.”
It is also worth noting what Paul does not say, for there is comfort to be had here. Paul does not threaten abandonment. Clinton Arnold makes this point and concludes “Under the new covenant, the Spirit does not depart when sin is committed. Instead, the Spirit deeply grieves over it. Paul presents this as a truth that should motivate believers not to indulge their sinful desires—whether this might be filthy talk, stealing, uncontrolled anger, lying, or any other vice.” The true believer does not need to fear that God will respond to sin by giving up and moving out. We are sealed by the Spirit for all eternity.
We grieve the Spirit when we sin and we especially grieve the Spirit when we sin in ways that cause discord, perhaps because unity is a special work of the Spirit (see John 17). The obvious and important application is this: “Not wanting to hurt [the Spirit] is strong motivation for not intending the harm of his people or purpose” (Chapell).