Grief seems like such a human emotion. So what does it mean when Paul writes, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (Eph 4:30)?
How can the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of the all-powerful, all-knowing creator—possibly grieve?
And what could make the Spirit grieve?
The short answer is the Holy Spirit cares about us and it saddens him when we act outside of his will. In this article, we’ll look at what the Bible is saying in Ephesians 4:30 and why it’s important for us to understand.
- What can we learn from different translations?
- Who is the Holy Spirit?
- Another passage to remember
- What do commentaries say?
- Implications for us
What can we learn about Ephesians 4:30 from different translations?
Often, when trying to understand what God is saying in a verse, it’s nice to look at several Bible translations to get a feel for how different scholars have looked at key words. You don’t need a degree in biblical languages to understand the key words of Scripture. The people who have translated and paraphrased the Bible have extensive experience in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. We can benefit from their experience to get an idea of what Paul was saying in Ephesians 4:30.
The key word for our purposes is “grieve,” and most Bible versions are consistent in how they translate that verse. Some of the looser translations of the Greek text choose other words and provide some interesting insights into what it means to “grieve the Holy Spirit.”
- “And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by him for the day of redemption.” (CSB)
- “Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption.” (CEB)
- “Don’t make God’s Spirit sad. The Spirit makes you sure that someday you will be free from your sins.” (CEV)
- “Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.” (MSG)
- “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God [do not offend or vex or sadden him], by whom you were sealed [marked, branded as God’s own, secured] for the day of redemption [of final deliverance through Christ from evil and the consequences of sin].” (AMP)
There’s nothing earth-shattering about how those translations describe grieving the Holy Spirit. But notice they use words like sad or unhappy in place of grief or grieve. Also, take note of the Amplified Bible version of the verse. It is designed to give you extra insight into the key words of the verse. The AMP adds “do not offend or vex or sadden him.”
All of this shows us that Paul is urging us not to give the Holy Spirit a reason to experience a profoundly negative emotion in Ephesians 4:30.
Who is the Holy Spirit?
You may think a deep dive into the Holy Spirit is a bit of an overkill for studying the phrase “grieving the Holy Spirit.” Don’t we know enough about the Holy Spirit already?
But if you’re anything like me, the Holy Spirit has been a mysterious being for much of my life. I grew up Baptist. Some faith traditions emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit better than others do. Historically, my tradition has probably erred on the side of underemphasizing the Spirit.
Frankly, I spent most of my life picturing the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force that was more like something Luke Skywalker experienced in Star Wars.
But that’s not the picture we get in the Bible.
Most of us have little trouble understanding that Jesus is personal. We read in the Gospels of Jesus interacting with people while on earth. We see Jesus weeping (John 11:35), expressing anger (Mark 3:5), showing compassion (Matt 9:36), and grieving (Matt 26:38).
The same is true for God the Father, who we see being troubled (Gen 6:6–7), acting jealously (Exod 34:14), and expressing disappointment (Deut 32:19–20), among other human emotions.
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the same in substance. As the Athanasian Creed, which first defined the biblical formulation of the Trinity in the early centuries of the church, says:
The catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. … Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.1
Despite our frequent misunderstanding of the personhood of the Holy Spirit, God’s Word. The Holy Spirit:
- teaches us (John 14:26)
- intercedes on our behalf (Rom 8:26–27)
- loves (Rom 15:30)
- calls and leads us to specific tasks (Acts 13:2)
Those aren’t the actions of an impersonal force. Those are the actions of a caring, personal God who wants a relationship with us.
This doesn’t mean that God’s emotions are the same as ours. Saying that the Holy Spirit loves us and grieves for our sin doesn’t mean he grieves and loves in the same way we do. The Holy Spirit is eternal and transcendent, just like all the members of the Godhead. He is different from us. But the Holy Spirit is a person—a truth that the Bible makes abundantly clear.
Let’s keep this truth about the Holy Spirit in mind as we study Ephesians 2:19. It’s critical to understand what is meant by “grieving the Holy Spirit.”
Context of Ephesians 4:30
Of course, context is always the key that unlocks the great mysteries of any biblical text. That’s true with the concept of grieving the Holy Spirit as well.
Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus is one of his most influential in the New Testament, as it describes many of the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Paul was confronting some of the important religious and philosophical thoughts of his day.
By the time we get to chapter 4, the Apostle Paul had already laid out how Jesus redeems us from sin (cf. 2:4–5). In chapter 4, Paul turns from doctrinal matters to the practical implications of Jesus’ redemption on the life of a Jesus-follower. He writes,
Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Eph 4:1–3)
In Ephesians 4:17–32, where Paul tells us not to “grieve the Holy Spirit,” he is describing a series of behaviors—what believers should do and what they shouldn’t do. First, we should avoid an immoral lifestyle illustrated by confused thoughts, hardened hearts, closed minds, and impure and greedy thoughts (4:17–19).
Then we are to adopt a Christ-honoring lifestyle by taking off the old life we had before we were believers (v. 22) to put on “the new self” (v. 24). We do this by building people up with our speech rather than tearing them done.
That’s when Paul tells us not to grieve the Holy Spirit. In context, it’s clear that we can grieve (or make sad) the Holy Spirit when we speak in destructive ways. Understanding the new life of Christ Paul describes through Ephesians means living in a way that honors the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.
Like I mentioned earlier, the Holy Spirit isn’t an impersonal force. He is just as much of a person as the other members of the Godhead. So he grieves. The Holy Spirit cares for us. When we don’t live up to the standards God has for us, it pains the Holy Spirit. He knows that it will bring consequences to us and to others.
Then Paul goes on to remind readers who the Holy Spirit is and the importance he plays in the life of a believer—”sealing” him until the day of redemption.
Don’t forget Isaiah 63:10
There’s more than one place in the Bible where we’re told that the Holy Spirit grieves. In Isaiah 63, the prophet is reminding God’s people of his faithfulness. He describes God’s redemptive work to bring Israel—the children he had promised Abraham—out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
But Isaiah 63:10 says that despite God’s graciousness toward Israel, the people “rebelled and grieved the Holy Spirit.”
Old Testament scholar Gary Smith doesn’t believe the language should surprise us because we also see God expressing powerful emotions elsewhere. As God acts, so does the Holy Spirit. In his commentary on the book of Isaiah, Smith writes:
This rebellion “grieved, injured” the Holy Spirit, an anthropomorphic way of explaining that God was afflicted and saddened when his people sinned and did not trust him to give them the land. Elsewhere God metaphorically “regrets” (Gen 6:6), “is grieved” (1 Sam 15:35), is “saddened, has pity” (Jonah 4:10), and “weeps” (Jer 9:10), so it should not be surprising that God is negatively impacted by the rebelliousness of his people.”2
Isaiah 63:10 reinforces the message that the Holy Spirit responds to our behavior not as an impersonal force, but as a personal God who loves us, wants the best for us, and is saddened by actions that are not in his perfect will and in our best interests.
What do commentaries say about “do not grieve the Holy Spirit”?
Putting all of this together, it’s clear that Paul is telling us that the Holy Spirit is a personal being who has feelings about our actions—and it saddens him (or “offends the Spirit,” as the Amplified Version says) when we respond to others in bitter ways.
It’s always good to hold off looking at others’ interpretation of a text until we’ve wrestled with it for ourselves. We don’t want to let the insights of others short-circuit our own interpretive process. But checking commentaries can help us make sure our interpretation fits within the broad stream of biblical orthodoxy.
Here’s where a few scholars and expositors have landed on Ephesians 4:30.
According to The Spurgeon Study Bible Notes, Charles Spurgeon wrote that the verse shows a close connection between the Holy Spirit and the believer. We should take comfort in the Spirit’s great care for us. He continued:
Although the word “grieve” is a painful one, yet there is honey in the rock; for it is an inexpressibly delightful thought that he who rules heaven and earth and is the Creator of all things and the infinite and ever blessed God condescends to enter into such infinite relationships with his people that his divine mind may be affected by their actions. What a marvel that Deity should be said to grieve over the faults of beings so utterly insignificant as we are.3
Bruce Barton writes in The Life Application New Testament Commentary:
That the Spirit can be caused sorrow points to the personality of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a person who can be saddened by the way we live. Paul has already explained that the Holy Spirit’s power within gives new life to believers. While we continue to battle with our sinful nature, we should be living for Christ each day. To refuse to do so, to constantly give in to lying, anger, stealing, and foul talk is to bring him sorrow.4
Famed Anglican theologian John Stott writes:
Since he is the “Holy Spirit,” he is always grieved by unholiness, and since he is the “one Spirit” (2:18; 4:4), disunity will also cause him grief. In fact, anything incompatible with the purity or unity of the church is incompatible with his own nature and therefore hurts him. One might add that because he is also the “Spirit of truth,” through whom God has spoken, he is upset by all our misuse of speech, which has been Paul’s topic in the preceding verse.5
In his application commentary, Jon Courson reminds us why the Holy Spirit is grieved in Ephesians 5:30:
My bitterness, my anger, my speaking evil of someone or losing my temper with someone grieves the Spirit. Why? It’s not that God says, “Anger and evil speaking cause My ears to burn,” or, “Bitterness and wrath are offensive to Me.” That’s not the idea. There’s not a curse word God hasn’t heard. There is nothing that shocks Him. God is not grieved by how our speech, anger, or malice affects Him, but by how it affects us. He’s grieved not because He can’t handle our sin, but because it hinders Him from doing His work in, through, and for us.6
Broadly, the interpretation that the Holy Spirit feels saddened when we walk outside of his will seems to fit within how most others approach this passage. But the above commentators help us understand why the specific acts in Ephesians 4 caused pain for the Holy Spirit.
The implications for us of grieving the Holy Spirit
If you’ve stuck with this article up until now, you might be wondering, “So what?”
Honest question. Easy answer.
It’s really important. Really.
What grieves the Holy Spirit needs to grieve us. God wants the best for us. He sent us the Holy Spirit to help us walk with him daily. When we break that fellowship, God isn’t an emotionless bystander.
Our sin breaks God’s heart.
In fact, the Bible tells us that our sin grieved God so much that he sent his Son to face sin’s ultimate consequence—death.
We can be grateful for the Holy Spirit’s grief.
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Isaiah 40–66 (New American Commentary | NAC)
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CSB Spurgeon Study Bible Notes
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- Rick Brannan, Historic Creeds and Confessions, digital ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997), loc. 22132.
- Gary Smith, Isaiah 40–66, New American Commentary 15B (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2009), 672.
- Charles Spurgeon, The Spurgeon Study Bible: Notes (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 1590–1591.
- Bruce Barton et al., Life Application New Testament Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 823.
- John R. W. Stott, God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 189.
- Jon Courson, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 1253.