Holy Grief


In the coming days, we will see a lot of what Scripture has to say about God’s holiness. We will also see how His holiness informs both His love and His wrath. No doubt, too, we will recognize that God isn’t more loving than holy, or more holy than loving, or, for that matter, more wrathful toward the ungodly than just, or more just than wrathful toward the ungodly, or more powerful than good, or more good than powerful, or more content in Himself than righteous, or, well, you get the picture. God is all God, all of the time. He lacks in nothing. He is the great I AM, the Lord of the covenant, and He is jealous of His lordship. He doesn’t take kindly to rulers who pretend they can rule apart from His authority, nor does He like it when His children attempt to do the same. It grieves Him.

To be sure, it is a holy grief. It is a just grief. But it is also a joyful grief — joyful, that is, because He knows His children will repent. Indeed, they will “follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4). Thus, God always grieves with the joy of His glorious plan of a glorious end in sight. Since we know that God is perfect (Matt. 5:48; see also Deut. 32:4; 2 Sam. 22:31; Isa. 25:1), we know that when He grieves He does so perfectly and without sin. In Scripture, just as God does not shift this way and that, as a ship might with no anchor (see Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Heb. 13:8), so too does our sin and suffering grieve Him (see Isa. 1:11–14; 59:15; Hos. 12:14; Eph. 4:30). But we must be careful in two ways at this point:

First, we must not assume that His grieving over sin and suffering is exactly like ours, for in our grief, we are prone to despair and the capricious changing of our minds about things we have resolved not to do.

Second, we must not think that there is no point of relation between our thoughts and emotions and God’s thoughts and emotions. We are, after all, made in His image. Thomas Aquinas, while at the University of Paris, had a helpful way of speaking about this. He called it the analogia entis, or the “analogy of being.” The idea is that the relationship God and all men share allows for us, finite man, to speak about the infinite God. Aquinas went on to distinguish between three types or uses of language: univocal, equivocal, and analogical.

For example, if two parents are grieving the loss of their child, we would consider their grief to be univocal. They are identical. One simply cannot say who is grieving more. If we said, however, that “the parents are grieving,” and compared it to the exclamation, “good grief!” then we would see how the two uses of “grief” here do not share a similarity at all. They are equivocal, not related. Finally, if we said again, “the parent is grieving for his child,” and, “the child is grieving for her goldfish,” then clearly both are grieving, just not in the same way. They share something similar, but they are not identical. They are analogical. The same holds true for our grief and God’s. While they are in some sense similar, there exists one, major dissimilarity: His grief is perfect. And again, our only confidence that this is true is the fact that Scripture portrays a holy God who deeply cares for His children. Indeed, the very use of the words Father and children in Scripture would be meaningless if God was unable to care as a father does.

This, of course, cannot justify speaking about God in any way we feel. We are bound by Scripture. We cannot say, “we sin, therefore, God sins, just analogically, that is, just not in the same way.” No, the various authors of Scripture won’t allow that, for the unified testimony of their writings is that God is righteous and holy. Not a single one alludes to the possibility that evil is in God, or that He created or authored sin. While we can learn about God outside of Scripture (through our observations of the natural world), we must not go against Scripture. We must not attribute God with something that Scripture contradicts. And it would be a contradiction to deny God’s grief.

Clearly, God is portrayed throughout Scripture as grieving over certain affairs. We rejoice when we hear of the amazing, salvific grace of God call one sinner from death to life, as do the angels in God’s presence (Luke 15:10). This joy that fills the heavenly court is made possible because God is triune. The same goes for love. If God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have not always enjoyed an intimate union with each other, then how could He have created creatures that enjoy similar things? How could He have created creatures who mourn, righteously, over sin and suffering?

He created us this way because He Himself knows grief, as the father of any prodigal son would. When Jesus lamented over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37), He did so as the Son of God. In this, He reflected His Father’s lament over Judah centuries before (Ezek. 18:30–32), and not only the Father’s, but the Spirit’s too (Isa. 63:10). Indeed, the triune God grieves over sin and its wages. He self-sacrificially condescended (a foremost attribute of God if ever there was one) to know man, and thus in knowing man, He freely invited the grief that such an imbalanced relationship would bring. Yet such kindness is not meant to keep us laden with guilt but with God’s forgiveness — through our repentance (Rom. 2:4).

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.