What Grieves the Holy Spirit?

When it comes to grieving the Holy Spirit, where do we start? We are so disappointing to God at times. Let’s take a look at these grieving actions, starting in Psalm 78:

Forgetting God: “They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them” (Psalm 78:11). God freed the Israelites from captivity, parted the Red Sea, provided bread in the desert, and led His people to a prosperous land. “In spite of all this, they kept on sinning” (Psalm 78:32). God lamented, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). But “you deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18).

Grumbling: “They spoke against God” (Psalm 78:19). Daily, God provided the Israelites with the “bread of angels,” but they weren’t satisfied and whined for more. Their complaints made God “exceedingly angry” (Numbers 11:10).

  • Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses, God’s appointed leader. “The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them,” and Miriam became leprous (Numbers 12:9).
  • When God allowed the Israelites to glimpse the glory of the promised land, they grumbled about the great size of the people instead of being grateful for the great size of the grapes. God sighed, “How long will this wicked community grumble against me?” (Numbers 14:27).

Disobedience: “They did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by his law” (Psalm 78:10). “Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 78:41). The Israelites’ repeated disobedience saddened God. “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?” He asked (Exodus 16:28).

Disbelief: “They did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance” (Psalm 78:22). Ten times God is described in Psalm 78 as being angry, grieved, or vexed. Disturbed by their lack of faith, God cried, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” (Numbers 14:11).


God’s Old Testament warning, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” is repeated in the New Testament in Ephesians 4:30, but the emphasis is different. In the Old Testament, grieving the Spirit was connected to the people’s response to God. In the New Testament, grieving the Spirit also includes our response to one another in the Body of Christ. Paul explains this in Ephesians 4:29–32 when he illustrates how we can keep from grieving the Spirit:

  • Avoid unwholesome talk
  • Build others up rather than yourself
  • Share
  • Rid yourself of bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, and slander
  • Be compassionate

The consistent goal of the Spirit in the New Testament is that we achieve unity by maintaining right relationships with one another and using our gifts to serve the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12–13, John 17:23). Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:3, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.”

But the church in Jesus’ day lacked both service and unity, due in large measure to the ruling religious sect, the Pharisees (literally meaning “the separated ones”). By Jesus’ day it appeared that the Pharisees had set themselves apart because they secretly believed they were spiritually superior to others. Jesus called them vipers, fools, and blind guides. Stephen included them in his description of those who “always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51).

Why was God so upset with these leaders? The reasons should be of concern to us because we grieve the Holy Spirit if we are guilty of these same sins.

Pride: The Pharisees demanded seats of honor at public events. They loved the esteem of the people and being called “Rabbi.” They expected to be served, rather than to serve. Jesus exposed their arrogance in a parable that portrayed a Pharisee as boasting, “God, I thank you that I am not like all other men” (Luke 18:11).

Self-effort: The Pharisees trusted in their good works to make them righteous, rather than in God. They erroneously believed they could achieve spiritual blessing through the effort of the flesh.

  • Jesus said, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:6).
  • “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength” (Jeremiah 17:5).
  • “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Scripture condemns all self-effort and warns us to beware of our tendency to act independently of God. “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3).

Resistance to the Spirit: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thessalonians 5:19–20). Guilty on both counts, the Pharisees doused the flames of the Spirit by attributing Jesus’ works to Satan (Matthew 12:25–32) and thumbing their noses at the Scriptures concerning Christ.

Hypocrisy: The Pharisees were spiritual leaders with no Spirit. They professed to know God yet they failed to recognize His own Son. They put demands upon others they were unwilling to accept themselves.

  • Jesus warned, “Do not do what [the Pharisees] do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:3).
  • “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs . . . on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27–28).
  • Jesus’ final analysis was sad: “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).

Legalism: Intellectualism was the god of the Pharisees. Consumed with order, tradition, and doctrine, they so immersed themselves in the study of God’s Law and the explanation of it that they ended up missing God Himself! When the Pharisees scolded Jesus’ disciples for failing to wash their hands before eating, Jesus rebuked them, “You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:6).

In their zeal for theological correctness, the Pharisees reduced religion to a purely intellectual exercise, effectively squelching the Spirit and eliminating responses of the heart.

  • As a result, their hearts were hardened (Mark 3:5).
  • Jesus said angrily, “Woe to you . . . you have neglected the more important matters of the law —justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
  • Paul, himself a Pharisee, recognized the dangers of legalism and rightly warned, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Grieving the Spirit carries serious consequences:

  • The actions of the Israelites grieved the Spirit, and God withdrew His protection and fought against them (Isaiah 63:10, Acts 7:42–43).
  • The attitudes of the Pharisees grieved the Spirit and they were condemned to hell (Matthew 23:13, 23:33).
  • The most common result of grieving the Spirit in the Old Testament was simply that He left. Prior to Pentecost, the Spirit was given to selected individuals for a temporary period of time. That is why David, who experienced the coming and going of the Spirit in his own life, pleaded in Psalm 51:11, “Do not . . . take your Holy Spirit from me.”

Today, the Spirit works differently. When we mean business with God, the moment a person comes to Christ, he is immediately sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14, John 14:16). We don’t question our eternal destiny or doubt God’s intentions toward us (1 John 4:16). The Spirit does not leave us, but if we grieve Him, He may temporarily withdraw fellowship for a time until we come back on track.

God prefers that we are continually aware of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence and sensitive to how deeply sin affects Him, and us. It is good to understand the biblical theology of grieving the Spirit. It helps when we are able to feel God’s sorrow over sin, but the surest way to avoid grieving the Spirit is to know Him and walk in a moment-by-moment, love relationship with Him.

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Don’t Make it Any Harder

After all the turmoil that Paul and Barnabas experienced in Acts 14, the ending verse is a wonderful statement of rest (Acts 14:28). They reported all the things God had done with them and how He opened a door of faith to the Gentiles, but then they stayed a long time with the disciples.

Now we come to the first Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. With all these non-Jewish believers coming to faith, the early church needed to define what it took to become a follower of Christ. Some were saying that converts needed to become Jewish first, while others where saying that becoming Jewish was no requirement in the gospel (Acts 15:1, 2, 5). Practically this meant that Gentile converts to Christianity would need to go through circumcision, which was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham (Genesis 17:10, 14). Proponents of this view where called Judaizers or legalists who wanted strict obedience to the Law of Moses.

These legalists would rather split hairs than rejoice that people were coming to faith in Christ. If we look throughout history, it is probably legalism that has caused more churches to die, more servants to quit and more denominations to split than anything else. It starts out in the name of righteousness in order to clean out false teachings and poor interpretation of Scripture, but it ends up causing people to take sides and feud. Legalism is that same as a group being in pursuit of a godly standard. I love what James says in Acts 15:19, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles turning to God. A letter was drafted stating such, only to avoid four practices that were offensive to the Jewish brothers (Acts 15:29).

Three Mistakes Regarding Legalism:

They drew a universal standard out of their personal experiences; since they had been circumcised prior to salvation, everyone should experience salvation this way. The truth is that we all come to Christ out of different experiences. Some get saved out of a wild and reckless life and never return to that old lifestyle, while others might grow up in the church and regularly stumble with lifestyle issues. Both are saved based on their faith in Christ, but one cannot say to the other that they can only be saved if they have the same experiences as the other.

They tried to make salvation harder than it is; adding something to the basic truth of salvation by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). We all come to God with nothing to offer but simple faith in Christ, believing in His resurrection.

They expected of others what they could not keep themselves; they should not yoke the believers with something they and their forefathers could not bear (Acts 15:10). If we cannot live up to our own expectations, we can that failure. When we cannot live up to the expectations we put on others, that is called hypocrisy. Let’s remember the simplicity of salvation.

Once the Son sets people free, let us not enslave them in a system of laws from men (Ezekiel 34:27). What about the four restrictions (Acts 15:29)? They were free from the laws of Moses but not free from the life-giving laws of God. God gives us the freedom to separate from the practices of those around us. Abstaining from these four practices should keep them free from falling back into the old lifestyle.

Application: Don’t make salvation harder than it is. Avoid legalism that eliminates the Holy Spirit working in your life. If there is something you need to avoid or change, it is much more convincing and convicting to hear the Spirit tell you to give it up than to simply follow a man-made rule. Don’t fall back into your old lifestyle, the old hangout, the old friends, the old refreshments. It may be harmless and not forbidden, but will there be a temptation to slip back into your old ways? Don’t risk your freedom in Christ only to get enslaved all over again.

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