When things go wrong, how can we tell if it is God disciplining us or it’s just time and chance that God uses to teach us something?
Time and Chance
The Bible says that time and chance happen to us all (Eccl 9:11), so even though God is sovereign, we can’t assume that everything that goes wrong in our lives is because God is disciplining us. That’s what Job’s friends thought. They believed that Job had some sin which was causing his suffering, but that was not the case at all, and God later rebuked Job’s friends at the end of the Book of Job . Although Job was questioning God and displaying some self-righteousness, Job’s suffering was due to Satan testing him because Satan had told God that Job was a righteous man only because God has blessed him (which was not true). Satan could all but take his life (Job 1:12), and Satan hurled everything at him that he could, causing Job to lose all 10 of his children, then his property, his livestock, his wealth, his health, and was left only with a wife who had told him, “curse God and die” (Job 2:9), and later, even lost the support of his friends, however Job stayed faithful in his suffering, and even though he did question God, Job humbled himself and repented of that and was forgiven by God. The point is that not all suffering, problems, or events come to us because God is disciplining us. He may be testing our faith, not that He’ll know how weak or strong it is, but so we’ll know. The believer must trust God that all things, good and bad, even really bad things, will work out for our ultimate best (Rom 8:28). Trials and tests can be from God, but there are ways you can tell if it’s because of a sin or if it’s God trying to teach us something. Even if it is God’s disciplining hand, it is always done in love and for our best.
We cannot ever assume that every single problem comes from God or all of our problems are because of God’s discipline. It could be, but that’s when we can examine ourselves to see if we have any unconfessed sin or any ongoing sin in our lives. If we do, we can confess it to God and He promises to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1st John 1:9). The opposite of love is not hatred …it is indifference or apathy. If there is no love, they could not care less about a person, but God cares infinitely more than we can even describe, and when He disciplines us, it is for our good and always motivated by God’s love. The author of Hebrews wrote, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:5-6). The point is, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline” (Heb 12:7). If you look at it this way, you will not truly love your child without there being some kind of discipline. What parent would let their child play near a highway? There are none that I know. It is love that motivates the parent to discipline the child if they continue to put themselves in danger. A parent that didn’t love their child could not care less about what happens to them. The wisdom of the psalmist teaches, “Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law” (Psalm 94:12). In speaking of His own church, Jesus said, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:19). The very reason God sent ancient Israel into captivity was to humble them and bring them to repentance. Why? Because He loves them! Even the cross was laid upon the foundation of God’s love. That punishment that was due us was laid upon Him, but with the ultimate goal of ransoming those who would trust in Him (Mark 10:45). That is the greatest act of love ever!
The Refining Fire
The Bible says that God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29), but God sometimes uses fire to refine us. Just like a refiner passes through the fire to refine it or purify it, God allows us to pass through the fires of trials , tribulations, and tests, but with the goal of making us more into the image of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Peter writes, if “you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1st Pet 1:6-7). The Apostle Paul, who may have suffered than most of the apostles, understood that God uses suffering, so that we might “know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). People want to know Christ better but they might hesitate to share in His suffering, but some suffering as we know, is for our faith in Christ. Peter adds, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1st Pet 4:12-13), so his point is, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1st Pet 4:14). Jesus wants us to react to suffering, even if it’s persecution (which is not our fault): “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:10-12). That’s productive suffering! God uses that for our good and our blessing.
So how do we know if it is God, time and chance, a sinful world, or our own sins that are the cause of trials, pain, or suffering? Trials can be used by God to get our attention, in refining us into the image of the Son of God, or it could be a result of a sinful, fallen world which causes pain, suffering, and death to those who were not even responsible. If you are not sure, look for any unconfessed sin or someone you haven’t forgiven. Confess it, make it right with your brother or sister, and ask for God’s forgiveness. When the Tower of Siloam fell, killing some, Jesus said it was not because they were more sinful (Luke 13:1-0). The man born blind was assumed to have sinned or been born into sin because of his parents (John 9:2-3). We can assume very little about others because we cannot see into their heart like God can (1st Sam 16:7). All we know is God never wastes suffering and always uses it for His glory, but someday, even that will be gone. At that time, there will be no more pain, sorrow, suffering, tears, and what sin brings, death (Rev 2:4), and for me, that cannot be too soon.
Something more to read: Examples of Trials in the Bible 
Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible : English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.