My wife just wrote an excellent set of posts (if I do say so myself!) on personal guilt (here, here and here). After reading them, my only regret is that I didn’t write these! Ah well, I will content myself with writing about some “special case” questions that I’ve wrestled with (and sometimes lost to) when attempting to truly believe that God both loves me and likes me freely of his own will and that there’s nothing I can do to change those two dispositions. My questions stem from this thought: if God, of his own free and sovereign will, chose to both love me without fail and likes me as a person, what’s all this talk about pleasing God (2 Cor 5:9; Col 1:9–10) and grieving the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:29–30) got to do with our actions? How can God love and like me unchangeably but also be displeased with me at the same time? If he can be displeased with me, then certainly he must frequently be displeased because of how often I fail to follow his commands. Wouldn’t that failure and displeasure cause me to try and earn back God’s favor by doing what he wants? Is that how all this works? (The obvious answer is “no,” but I want to know why!)
Written a little more formally, “How do the actions of grieving God and pleasing God fit with a God who loves and likes his created children no matter what we do?”
First, we should recognize that God’s grief over a believer’s sin is not the same as his judgment of sin in general—it doesn’t even have the same feel. God’s anger coincides with his justice, and justice demands a righteous anger over sin. Before you believed in Christ’s atoning work and accepted the free gift of salvation, you were under God’s wrathful judgment. That is, your sin and your attempts at self-produced righteousness were offensive to the God of heaven who provided the only way of salvation. While you remained unconnected to Christ, you deserved the same kind of wrath that Christ experienced on the cross—a wrath of angry justice. It’s the same type of wrath that perhaps you felt when the twin towers came down on 9/11 or again when you read of the wholesale murders recently committed by ISIS. It’s a rational, emotional and deep desire for justice. God never feels that wrath toward people who have trusted in his son for salvation. Let me say that again: When you sin, there is no cry for justice in God’s heart and no feeling of righteous anger toward you. All of that was put on Christ as he hung on the cross. If you have trusted in the work done on that cross and accepted it as your own, it is impossible (in that it would go against his righteous nature) for God to feel any anger toward you any more.
So what about God’s grief, then? While his anger coincides with God’s perfect justice, his grief coincides with his infinite love for you. God’s grief is actually a function of great love. Grief implies and requires a strong relational connection of love to even exist. I know some of you looked at the title of this section and something inside you bristled. That God should cry doesn’t make sense to you and doesn’t fit with your idea of God. But God did cry (John 11:35; cf. Is 53:3–4) and God does groan (Rom 8:26) and God does feel real grief when you sin (Eph 4:30). God’s grieving over sin has often existed alongside his justice for those who refuse to believe (Is 63:10; Matt 23:37–39). That’s because God is both love and righteousness at the same time. But for us for whom there is no more just anger, there is still grief because there is still love. So how can we live with a God who grieves over our sin without falling into the despair of “never being pleasing to God.”
First, know that the Spirit’s grief is not meant to make you feel guilty. Perhaps you have been around those who try to use God the Spirit’s grief as an instrument of behavior modification. “Oh, Johnny, you shouldn’t do [insert behavior here] because it grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30).” But really, why should little Johnny even care about how the Holy Spirit of God is feeling!? If I’m saved, I’m good! Why not just sin knowing that grace will abound (Rom 6:1)? The answer is this: before my grief can affect the God the Spirit (Rom 8:26) or God the Spirit’s grief can affect me (Eph 4:30), there must be a relationship of love between us. In other words, God’s grief is not adversarial; his grief is relational. God feels grief and then moves toward us as a loving father to convince us of sin and truth, to discipline us in love, and to show mercy. So the Holy Spirit’s grief is important to me only because I love him. I want him to be delighted, and not to grieve. God’s grief is a reminder of just how much he loves us. His love which is sometimes displayed in grief should motivate us to show reciprocal love to him (1 John 4:19).
Second, the Spirit’s grief over my sin is, in part, because of the destruction it will cause in my life. We were designed image forth (e.g., be like Christ) and represent God on the earth. We were not designed to sin. Sin always brings with it many sorrows and leads to despair (take the love of money for instance [1 Tim 6:9–10]). Tim Keller aptly writes in his book Every Good Work,
“The commandments of God in the bible are a means of liberation, because through them God calls us to be what he built us to be. …If you disobey the commands, not only do you grieve and dishonor God, you are actually acting against your own nature as God designed you.”
Thus, when God sees sin wreaking havoc in the lives of his people, it grieves him greatly (Matt 23:37–39). He never desired for us to suffer in that way. God hurts when he sees sin hurt us.
Third, the Spirit’s grief is temporary and can be remedied by restoring the relationship. I sometimes hurt my wife with unkind words and actions. I create relational distance with my sin. The relationship is not dissolved, yet there is a sense in which I cannot approach her until I take care of my evil actions and their effects by asking for her forgiveness. The same is true of God. When I sin, I create relational distance (not separation, but distance) between me and God. God, though he is grieved by my sin, moves toward me so that our familial intimacy will be restored by convincing me of sin and my need to repent and ask for forgiveness. This restoring of relationship is talked about in 1 John 1:9,”If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (see also, Psalm 51). God’s grief over your sin is completely remedied by your repentance. Your close relationship of mutual love is restored without any delay or works you must do. Your relationship was purchased by his Son and he loves you as a son or daughter (Eph 1:5). God’s grief as a response to your sin is as temporary as you want it to be. Your repentance brings joy to God’s heart (in principle, Luke 15:7, how much more so after he has saved his children!) and restores a relationship of joy with the Father (Ps 51:8, 12, 15).
Fourth, the opposite of grief is possible and desirable. That “God is not sad” is not enough to satisfy the hearts of his children who love him. If God’s relationship of love means that the Spirit will grieve over my sin, what does this relationship of love mean for my righteousness? Only this, that you can delight God’s heart by giving him gifts of loving obedience. Just as sin was lifted out of the realm of anger and justice, so our own righteousness is lifted out of that same realm. Whereas before our righteous acts were considered filthy attempt at self-justification, now each act of righteousness is accepted in Christ as a gift of loving hearts to a loving God (John 14:23). This is the easy yoke of soul-rest that Christ extends to all (Matt 11:29–30). All of his commands are no longer burdensome (1 John 5:3) because they no longer carry the horrific and unbearable weight of overcoming our own sin and earning our own righteousness. Instead our good works become a joyful opportunity for pleasing God by faith via Christ’s finished work (in principle, Heb 11:6). Good works were always supposed to be love-gifts to God. This is why it is so wrong to do them to be seen of men (Matt 6:3–4, God’s rewards being his undeserved approval of your gifts of love). How can we delight God’s heart? In 1 Thess 4:4, “pleasing” or delighting God means not participating in sexual immorality (v. 4 along with “other instructions” in vv. 1–2) and in Heb 13:16 delighting God includes “doing good” and “sharing what you have” because these sacrifices (your gift of love means you lose something by giving it up—you sacrifice it) “are pleasing to God.” Perhaps this can most clearly be seen in Col 1:10 where Paul asks God to help the Colossians walk in a way “fully pleasing” to God (read—in a way that delights) which includes “bearing fruit in every good work.”
Now, to bring this post full circle we can answer the question, “how do the actions of grieving God and pleasing God fit with a God who loves us no matter what we do and likes us as his created children?” The answer: By defining what a relationship of love really means. You are not “in love” with an inanimate object, but with a person. Since you have this relationship of love you are constrained to no longer act as if you had no relationship. God removed you from the arena of his justice and wrath and placed you in the arena of his love. In doing so, it became possible for you to both delight God’s heart with gifts of loving righteousness and also distress his heart with repeated sin. Sin no longer separates us from God, but it does cause relational distance that can only be remedied by repentance and restoration.
Relationally, we understand this. For example, when I heard of the pilot who deliberately crashed a plane full of people into the French Alps, I was angry (and I believe righteously so). No human being has the right to take his own despair and anger out on innocent people. I did not feel grief for the pilot, I felt angry and robbed of justice. But when my son sins against me, I respond differently—assuming I am responding righteously (e.g., like God would respond : -). When my son disobeys there is, at the very least, more grief mixed into the equation than anger at the particular sin. I feel grief that he is participating in a sin that will destroy him if left unchecked, grief that he chose to trust his own judgment instead of trusting me (e.g., the “running -into-the-street-after-a-ball” scenario where it means more than disobedience that he ran into the street).
In the same way, God’s relationship to me binds me to him with familial ties. These ties are so strong and so powerful that I have the ability to grieve the very God of the universe when I choose to believe the lies of sin and follow my own counsel when it conflicts with God’s instructions. His grief is great over the relational distance created by my sin but God’s love constrains him to move towards me in love, all the while convincing me of my sin and the way back to him. Thus, the moment that I turn away from my sin and back towards him I am not faced with the task of “earning back” his affection. No, he is standing right there, the joyful father who raced out to meet his prodigal son and my relationship with him is restored.