In Ephesians 4:30 the apostle writes to the church, “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.’’ Although Scripture does not elsewhere speak of “grieving the Spirit” in so many words, the idea is expressed more often in somewhat similar terms. In Isaiah 63:10 we read, “But they rebelled, and vexed his holy Spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy, and he fought against them.” In the above passage the word “vexed” may also be translated “grieved.” Other passages do not single out the holy Spirit but refer to the triune God as being grieved. In Psalm 78:40 the psalmist declares, “How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness and grieve him in the desert!” In Psalm 95:10 the Lord Himself declares through the mouth of the psalmist, “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” And again in the same connection, with a view to the same historical incident, this verse is quoted literally in Heb. 3:10, while in verse 17 of this same chapter the writer to the Hebrews adds, “But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcasses fell in the wilderness?” And finally it is said of the Lord Himself in Gen. 6:6, “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him at his heart.”
This latter passage may be excluded as far as the practical significance of our subject is concerned. However, it adds emphasis to the question which naturally arises in the consideration of our subject: How must it be explained that God can be grieved? Essentially it makes no difference whether one speaks of grieving the holy Spirit or of grieving God. The holy Spirit is the third person of the trinity and therefore truly God. And what affects the holy Spirit must necessarily affect the triune God. The difference pertains not to the grieving as such but to the mode of this grieving. However, as far as the above mentioned question is concerned, it makes no difference whether we speak of grieving the holy Spirit or of grieving God, as is evident from the fact that Scripture speaks of both.
The question how God can be grieved and wherein that divine grief consists is by no means a simple one and is not to be answered in an off-hand way. The question is certainly worthy of serious thought. Moreover, the more one attempts to find a solution, the more problems seem to arise. Hence, we would not even for one moment contend, nor would we have the reader think that any solution which we may offer is to be considered’ the final word on the subject. It would not be difficult to show that any solution which might be offered still leaves room for many questions, questions that are difficult to answer.
One’s first inclination, when faced by this question, is perhaps to explain it by simply saying that God is grieved just as we are. However, one immediately realizes that this will not do. For God is God! He is not a man that He should be subject to affliction, sorrow, grief or disappointment. Man may suffer loss but God cannot suffer loss. Man may suffer a wound either in his body or in his heart but God cannot be wounded. God is certainly, as far as these things are concerned, the untouchable one. He is that because He is absolutely Sovereign and Independent. He is in no sense of the word dependent upon His creatures. We cannot enrich Him, we cannot impoverish Him. We cannot add to His glory, we cannot detract from it. We cannot increase His blessedness nor can we decrease it. He is in Himself the ever blessed God. He is highly exalted above all that He has made and dwells in everlasting perfection. We are affected by time, condition and circumstance and our joy or sorrow depends largely upon them. This is not so however with the Lord. He is Himself, as the Sovereign, Independent and Infinite God, the source of all His perfect life and blessedness. Hence it must be clear that, from this point of view we cannot speak of grief in respect to God. It is impossible that God, Who is truly God, should ever suffer grief as we are caused to bear it.
Someone might suggest that this “grieving” does not have the same meaning when applied to the holy Spirit or to God as it does when applied to man. In the first place, the question arises, what meaning would it have then when applied to God? However it is evident, in the second place, that this same word is used in the original in both instances. In, the texts which we have quoted above the original uses more than one word for “grieved.” Yet, in every instance, we find that the same word is used with a view to man’s grief also. And, when in Ephesians 4:30 we are admonished to “grieve not the holy Spirit,” the original renders the word “grieve” as, “to make sorrowful, to affect with sadness, cause grief, to throw into sorrow.” Hence we find no solution here.
Most commentaries explain the expression as an anthropomorphism. Rather than to explain the term, we quote Barnes’ Notes where the idea is clearly expressed. He says, “We are not to suppose that the Holy Spirit literally endures grief or pain, at the conduct of men. The language is such as is fitted to describe what men endure, and is applied to him to denote that kind of conduct which is fitted to cause grief; and the meaning here is, ‘do not pursue such a course as is fitted in its own nature, to pain the benevolent heart of a holy being. Do not act towards the Holy Spirit in a manner which would produce pain in the bosom of a friend who loves you.’” Our objection to this view is that it does not do justice to the expression. Although it has significance for the believer, it nevertheless does not answer to any reality in God. When Scripture speaks anthropomorphistically of God’s hand or eye, there is an actual reality suggested. Here however, that is not true.
The editor of the Standard Bearer, in one of his meditations, gives another interpretation, (See Vol. 7 No. 19). He presents the view that, although the holy Spirit as the third person of the holy trinity cannot suffer and endure grief, this is not the case with the holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ in the Church. He says, (we translate from the Holland, H.D.W.), “As the Son of God could suffer, not in the divine nature but in the human nature, so can the holy Spirit as the Spirit of and in the church of Christ, be grieved.” Whether this view can be maintained in the face of all the questions that arise is yet to be seen. Personally we are convinced that it can stand a great deal of elucidation and is worthy of being further developed. We are attracted to this interpretation because it holds that this grieving is a reality not only with a view to him who grieves but also the holy Spirit Who is grieved. Whereas the anthropomorphistical view must necessarily deny any reality at all with a view to this grief on the part of the holy Spirit, the above mentioned view retains the basic implication that the holy Spirit can actually suffer, although not as the third person of the trinity but as the Spirit of Christ in the Church. In this light “the grieving” answers to a reality in God. Hence, when we become guilty of grieving the Spirit, we are not simply doing something that ordinarily would cause someone to suffer but actually does not affect the Spirit, but we are actually causing the holy Spirit to suffer; He is actually afflicted by our misconduct. Nevertheless, it is a question whether the analogy which the editor makes between the Son of God in the human nature and the holy Spirit in the Church will actually hold. With a view to the former, there is an actual union of the divine and human, natures. The Son of God actually assumed the human nature and He became true man. And although it was truly the Son of God that suffered, He nevertheless bore His suffering and endured His grief in His own personal human nature which He had assumed. With a view to the Holy Spirit in the church, the case is different. Although He has been, poured out in the Church and actually dwells in the heart of the individual believer, although He bears witness with our spirit and even prays for us with groanings that cannot be uttered, He nevertheless remains exclusively divine in His nature. He does not, as did the Son of God, enter into a personal union with the human nature. He does not possess a Personal human nature in which He can suffer. And therefore, unless the above reasoning is incorrect, the question as to wherein this grief consists, still remains, and especially so in the light of Genesis 6:6 where we read of God that “it grieved Him at His heart.”
There are also other questions that persist. And although we feel that it would be beneficial to reason “out loud” and “on paper” space will not permit in this instance. Moreover, we are not prepared to give a solution that is satisfactory in every respect. We are convinced however that the solution must not be sought by anthropomorphistically explaining the difficulty away. We believe that this grieving does in some way answer to an actual reality in God. We also suggest that, in the light of the last mentioned view, there is a third possibility, namely, to explain this grieving in a relative sense. Although in the absolute sense of the word God cannot suffer and endure grief because He is the most blessed God forever and ever, isn’t it possible that in a relative sense God can actually suffer grief with a view to a certain relationship which He has sovereignly assumed with a view to His creature and, more particularly, His people? And isn’t it possible that God can suffer with a view to a specific relationship without it actually affecting Him in His divine Being so as to cause Him to suffer loss, just because He is the Sovereign, Independent One? And doesn’t this seem the more possible in the light of the fact that, in every instance in which this grieving of God or the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Scripture, a very definite relationship with His creature is implied; and also in the light of the fact that all things, even sin, is made to serve the purpose of God’s eternal glory? How else can we explain God’s wrath and displeasure? If we hold to the fact that God is God we shall have to confess that God is pleased in His displeasure, paradoxical though this may seem.
We had intended to say something about the practical significance of this grieving of the Spirit. However, also here, space will not permit. We shall be content therefore if our writing has served in some small way to cause the reader to think about this deep spiritual reality. And so much more so if it might result in a clearer understanding of this thing which God has revealed concerning Himself.