Three Surprising Ways to Grieve the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is often described as light. He shines into the dark places of the heart and convicts us of sin (John 16:7-11). He is a lamp to illumine God’s word, teaching what is true and showing the truth to be precious (1 Cor. 2:6-16). And the Spirit throws a spotlight on Christ so that we can see his glory and be changed (John 16:14). That’s why 2 Corinthians 3:18 speaks of becoming more like Christ by beholding the glory of Christ. Just as Moses had his face transfigured when he saw the Lord’s glory on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:29; 2 Cor. 3:7), so will we be transformed when, by the Spirit, we behold God’s glory in the face of Christ.
The Spirit, then, is a light to us in three ways: by exposing our guilt, by illuminating the word of God, and by showing us Christ. Or to put it another way, as Divine Light, the Holy Spirit works to reveal sin, reveal the truth, and reveal glory. When we close our eyes to this light or disparage what we are meant to see by this brightness, we are guilty of resisting the Spirit (Acts 7:51), or quenching (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieving the Spirit (Eph. 4:30). There may be slight nuances among the three terms, but they are all speak of the same basic reality: refusing to see and to savor what the Spirit means to show us.
There are, then, at least three ways to grieve the Holy Spirit—three ways that may be surprising because they correspond to the three ways in which the Spirit acts as light to expose our guilt, illumine the word, and show us Christ.
First, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we use him to excuse our sinfulness. The Spirit is meant to be the source of conviction in the human hearts. How sad it is, therefore, when Christians try to use the Spirit to support ungodly behavior. We see it when people—whether genuinely deceived or purposeful charlatans—claim the leading of the Spirit as the reason for their unbiblical divorce, or for their financial impropriety, or for their new found sexual liberation. The Holy Spirit is always the Spirit of holiness. He means to show us our sin not to excuse it through subjective feelings, spontaneous impressions, and wish fulfillment disguised as enlightened spirituality. If the Holy Spirit is grieved when we turn from righteous into sin, how doubly grieved he must be when we claim the Spirit’s authority for such deliberate rebellion.
Second, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we pit him against the Scriptures. The Spirit works to reveal the truth of the word of God, not to lead us away from it. There is no place in the Christian life for supposing or suggesting that careful attention to the Bible is somehow antithetical to earnest devotion to the Holy Spirit. Anyone wishing to honor the Spirit would do well to honor the Scriptures he inspired and means to illuminate.
Sometimes Christians will cite the promise in John 16:13 that the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” as reason to expect that the third person of the Trinity will give us new insights not found in the Scripture. But the “truth” referred to in John 16 is the whole truth about everything bound up in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life. The Spirit will unpack the things that are to come, insofar as he will reveal to the apostles (see v. 12) the significance of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation. The Spirit, speaking for the Father and the Son, would help the apostles remember what Jesus said and understand the true meaning of who Jesus is and what he accomplished (John 14:26).
This means that the Spirit is responsible for the truths the apostles preached and that in turn were written down in what we now call the New Testament. We trust the Bible—and do not need to go beyond the Bible—because the apostles, and those under the umbrella of their authority, wrote the Bible by means of the Spirit’s revelation. The Bible is the Spirit’s book. To insist on exegetical precision, theological rigor, and careful attention to the word of God should never be denigrated as stuffing our heads full of knowledge, let alone as somehow opposed to the real work of the Spirit.
Third, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we suggest he is jealous of our focus on Christ. The Holy Spirit’s work is to serve. He speaks only what he hears (John 16:13). He declares what he is given; his mission is to glorify another (John 16:14). All three persons of the Trinity are fully God, yet in the divine economy the Son makes known the Father and the Spirit glorifies the Son. Yes, it is a terrible thing to be ignorant about the Spirit and unwise to overlook the indispensable role he plays in our lives. But we must not think we can focus on Christ too much, or that when we exalt Christ to the glory of God the Father that somehow the Spirit is sulking off in the corner. The Spirit means to shine a light on Christ; he is not envious to stand in the light himself.
Exulting in Christ, focusing on Christ, speaking much and singing often of Christ are not evidences of the Spirit’s dismissal but of the Spirit’s work. If the symbol of the church is the cross and not the dove, that’s because the Spirit would have it that way. As J. I. Packer puts it, “The Spirit’s message to us is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always, ‘Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him, and hear his word; go to him, and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace.’”
Again, to know nothing of the Holy Spirit is a serious mistake (cf. Acts 19:2). But when Christians lament an over-attentiveness to Christ or moan about too much emphasis on the cross, such protestations grieve the Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit is not waiting in the wings to be noticed and lauded. His work is not to shine brightly before us, but to shine a light on the glory of Christ. To behold the glory of God the Father in the face of Jesus Christ the Son is not to sideline the Holy Spirit; it is to celebrate his gracious work among us.
Whether we are talking about holiness, the Bible, or Jesus Christ, let us never set the Spirit against the very thing he means to accomplish. We do not honor the Spirit by trying to diminish what he seeks to exalt. And we do not stay in his step by pushing others (or ourselves) in the direction of the very things that grieve him most.