Don’t Confuse Discipline and Trials

When we’re suffering, we often wonder if we did something wrong. As a result, we end up confusing God’s discipline and trials. I saw a recent example of this when a woman wrote me about a miscarriage she experienced. She wondered if God was punishing her. It was heartbreaking. The miscarriage was painful enough without also having to wonder if it was her fault.

You Didn’t Do Something Wrong!

We should expect trials, but when they take place, we don’t have to wonder if we sinned! It’s tragic when people blame themselves for their trials. It’s also tragic when people experience trials and “friends” try to get them to blame themselves!

Job’s friends come to mind. They started off well “[sitting] down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:13). This demonstrates what to do when people are suffering. The “Ministry of Presence” requires being a good listener. I received a good piece of advice when I first became a pastor: “If you cannot improve on silence, do not.” Solomon said there is “A time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7b), and “He who has knowledge spares his words” (Proverbs 17:27a).

Unfortunately, Job’s friends did not follow these verses, and things went downhill after they opened their mouths. Eliphaz was the first to speak, and he summarized their argument in Job 4:7 when he asked, “Who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off?” In other words, “When have bad things ever happened to good people?” Job’s friends wanted to convince him that since he suffered terribly, he must have sinned terribly.

As much as Job’s friends initially showed what to do when people suffer, they later also showed what not to do—lecture, preach, say things like, “This is happening because…” or worse, “God would not be doing this if you…” At the end of the book, God showed up and “said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right’” (Job 42:7). He was referring to their statements that people only suffer when they have done something wrong.

In Jesus’ day, people thought if something bad happened it must have been caused by sin. Two accounts reveal that even the disciples held this false belief, and both times they expressed it Jesus corrected them:

  • Pilate murdered some Galileans and a tower collapsed causing eighteen deaths. The disciples thought the people died because of their sinfulness, but Jesus said, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no…Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no” (Luke 13:2–5).
  • When the disciples saw a blind man they asked Jesus: “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in Him’” (John 9:2–3).

God wants to reveal Himself through trials and use them for our good, but we do not have to wonder if we did something wrong. We learned that a trial does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing, but sometimes we do bring on our own suffering.

Understand the Difference Between Trials and Discipline

What happens if we suffer because we did something wrong? That’s not a trial. That’s discipline. The Apostle Peter identifies two causes of suffering: “For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). Suffering is part of God’s perfect and wise plan for His people even when they do good, but Peter wants his readers to avoid suffering caused by their sinfulness.

As tragic as it is when people experience a trial and wonder if it is their fault, it is equally tragic when people sin, God disciplines them, and they think it is not their fault. Consider these examples from Scripture:

  • After Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God commanded, God said, “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).
  • When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, God told him through the prophet Nathan, “The sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Samuel 12:10).
  • After Jehoshaphat entered an alliance with evil King Ahaziah to build ships, God told him through the prophet Eliezer, “‘Because you have allied yourself with Ahaziah, the Lord has destroyed your works.’ Then the ships were wrecked” (2 Chronicles 20:37).

These men suffered because of their sins. It would be incorrect to say they experienced trials. It would be correct to say God disciplined them. The same is true of the negative consequences of foolish decisions. Imagine the following:

  • People lose their jobs, because they slacked off for years
  • People’s finances are tight, because of years of impulsive purchases
  • People are diagnosed with diabetes, because of years of gluttonous eating
  • People are in miserable marriages, because they ignored their parents’ warnings about the spouses they married

These are not trials! These are the consequences of exercising poor judgment. These people were “led astray by their own great folly” (Proverbs 5:23b). Sometimes people sin, are disciplined, and then say, “Why am I suffering?” If friends love them enough to be honest, they will answer, “Because of your disobedience.”

Although there are rewards for enduring trials (See Chapter Six of Enduring Trials God’s Way), it is not the same with discipline. When we “[do] evil” and suffer because of it, God expects us to humbly accept it: “For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently?” (1 Peter 2:20a). Although it might sound discouraging that there is no “credit,” there are many reasons to be encouraged when receiving God’s discipline. See this post!

Discussion Questions to Answer in the Comments Section

  1. What is the difference between discipline and a trial?
  2. Do you see other differences between trials and discipline?
  3. How can you tell discipline and trials apart from each other?
  4. Have you experienced a trial and thought it was discipline, or discipline and thought it was a trial?

29 thoughts on “Don’t Confuse Discipline and Trials

  1. Thanks so much for the exposition of this topic, a friend asked me how one can know if he or she is being tried or chastised? I gave her a response but i am not sure she’s okay with it i would appreciate it if you can help me out. Thank you.

    1. Hi Rizzy,
      Thanks for reading and asking.

      I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in my article, but the simplest way to explain it is: trials are NOT the results of our disobedience. Chastisement takes place as a result of our disobedience.

      God chastise us to bring about our repentance. This is one of the big problems associated with thinking discipline is a trial: you think you didn’t do anything wrong, so you don’t repent.

      If you don’t mind me asking, does it seem like your friend’s suffering is a result of her sin? If so, that’s discipline.

  2. Trials are experienced by everyone. Discipline is for God’s children. So even though it hurts, discipline is a beautiful reminder that He loves us and is always working for our good.

    1. Hi Beka,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, that’s a very good distinction between discipline and trials. While experiencing discipline isn’t enjoyable at least it can remind us that we’re God’s children: Hebrews 12:8 if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons.

  3. Yes! I can definitely see the difference between discipline and trials. I also feel like most disciplines have a natural consequence. For example, the Israelites did not honor their covenant with God, therefore they chose to step outside of God’s protection. Once they stepped outside of God’s protection, they were overwhelmed by their enemies.

    1. Hi Lauren,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, they’re natural consequences of our choices (often sins). The blessings and cursings of the Old Covenant contain the punishments for Israel’s disobedience.

  4. I like this post. To me it comes down to the fact that we live in a fallen world full of fallen people who have a free will. As such, they are able to make choices. These choices and our own have consequences to them. God in his love towards us gives us the freedom to make choices. The result is we sometimes need to be “disciplined” and brought back into alignment with His plans and purposes for our life. I see this as a good and loving father.
    Trials can often come from us living in the consequences of other people’s choices. In my personal situation one of my trials is my husband choosing to become agnostic while I take my three children to church on my own. Its hard and its a trial. But God.
    Whether its trials or discipline, God encourages us to commune with him so that we can learn more about his heart towards us and grow into mature Christians. From love and intimacy with God comes a great authority. When we overcome in these areas, we are able to minister to others going through something similar.
    Are both hard? Yes. Are they both able to bring much growth and maturity? Absolutely.

    Great post Pastor Scott

    1. Hi Ailie,
      Thank you!

      I appreciate the point you made about God’s discipline bringing us back “into alignment with [God’s] plans” for our lives. Yes, it is a sign of His love, which is how it’s communicated in Hebrews 12, the discipline chapter, specifically in verses 5 and 6:

      5b “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
      Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
      6 For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
      And scourges every son whom He receives.”

      I hadn’t thought about your other point (that we can experience trials), because of other people’s choices. I agree with this to an extent. Your situation is a good example. If a drunk driver kills someone in an accident, the family of the victim suffers because of another’s sin. But in other situations, we experience trials independent of other’s actions. Cancer (assuming it wasn’t produced by poor choices like smoking), or a miscarriage are trials that have nothing to do with others.

      I appreciate your thoughts!

  5. It is hard to tell the difference between trials and punishments as they both are not palatable. But the holy spirit convicts us of sin. It is therefore vital we seek the father’s face when we go through unpleasant situations ( trial or punishment). I also think God’s grace is sufficient for us in our trials or punishments.
    I agree with you Scott, sin has far reaching consequences. It does come with a great price tag! That is why only the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross could appeal to the father’s wrath because of sin. Good discussion. Thanks.

    1. Hello Olu,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate you pointing out the reality that God’s grace is sufficient for us, regardless of the trial or discipline we’re experiencing. God bless you!

  6. I do see a difference in discipline and trials, but I can also see a where certain circumstances might still be confusing. Sometimes we do things we shouldn’t and life happens, even when it wasn’t quite time for our punishment, etc. For example, I don’t think God would use a miscarriage to punish, but that doesn’t mean noone who has had a miscarriage has not done something wrong.

    1. Hi Tara,
      Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of situations that aren’t clearly trials or discipline, leaving us wondering, “Why is this happening?”

      You said:

      that doesn’t mean noone who has had a miscarriage has not done something wrong.

      I think you meant people who have experienced miscarriages didn’t experience a miscarriage from sinning; however, people who have experienced miscarriages have still sinned…right? If this is what you mean, yes, I agree. That’s why it’s tough, because even if we didn’t sin to introduce some suffering into our lives, there are other sins we’ve committed that can leave us wondering if it’s our fault.

    2. I wrote previously of my personal experience with miscarriages and see how it can be misinterpreted. I did not say or infer a miscarriage was any type of or always a punishment. God is good, He is just He is fair. There are times during a pregnancy due to the unknown usually, the baby does not developed to have life outside of the womb. God is good and loving to bring that innocent life to Him, out of mercy and love for that child, also for us. In each of our walks with Him, this can mean different thing’s, we have an individual relationship and He according to His Word, walks with us through our trials and lessons we must learn. He is a God of mercy, understanding, and sees our today’s and our tomorrow’s. Some lessons teach us to change our direction, behavior, thought patterns, and to also have greater empathy towards other’s through a better prayer life or extending ourselves, as, we have endured and experienced the same.

      For us, our direction was changed. I knew I was to have more children, He assured me of that. My thought pattern was, they had to come from me. He changed that to, any child in my arms despite where they originate, are not just for me, it’s for them. It does not matter where He brings them from, they are mine to love, cherish and teach the miracle they are however long He chooses.
      In a lesson you search for His answer. We applied to International adoption designating Mexico, my heritage. Wrong direction. A Christian friend called and said there are so many children here, why not from here. New direction and it was confirmed by a Pastor at a large church who didn’t know us, I just walked up to him and never spoke. We after 3 years adopted a child. Still, He wasn’t finished with us.
      Through various other circumstances we became a Foster Family for babies implacable due to being born toxic positive with underdeveloped systems. None we’re expected to survive. Through a multitude of praying people agreeing with us, all survived, despite it being such a difficult path. He never left us. God gave hope where other’s saw defeat. We adopted over a 7 year period, 2 of those babies. Our direction was changed along with our relationship with God.
      He created each of us, but we are given the choice of the relationship we have with Him. Do we want to draw closer despite the unknown, or do we want to never grow.

    3. Hi Mary,
      I don’t think your previous comment sounded at all like you viewed a miscarriage as any sort of punishment.

      One of the lesser discussed wonderful realities associated with heaven will be being able to see those children we’ve lost through miscarriage.

      I think you have a wonderful view of children, not just your own, but any child. Reminds me of Jesus’ view when children were brought to Him.

      There aren’t many things more godly – or like God – than adoption, since He adopted us. Thanks for all you did for those babies you loved!

    4. Hi Scott, I can take no credit except willingness. God is our Creator. He and He alone always has the best direction for each of us, we only need to be still, listen, then step forward in faith into the unknown knowing He is there to meet us at each step.
      Psalms 46:10 “Be still and know that I am GOD; I will be exalted among the nation’s, I will be exalted in the earth.”
      Deuteronomy 31:8 “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

  7. Thanks Scott for this post. I do agree with your counsel to this woman and your general view on this subject. I did a two part teaching on ” how do I know I’m being tempted ?” Link : http://livebytheword.blog/how-do-i-know-im-being-tempted-part-2/
    It is very imperative we all know when God is discipline us for our wrong actions and decisions so as to bring us back into obedience, also to know that we could found ouselves in trouble as a result of our lustful desires etc(Jas,1:14). Likewise,we must know when God allows Satan to tempt us to prove and know where our allegiance is.(Jas,1:13). The bottom line is during trial we could be tempted by Satan, and while going through temptation, it could be a time of trial too. However, temptation from Satan still have to go through the table of God for endorsement. 1 Cor 10:13. Job 1:12, God bless .

    1. Hi Richard,
      Nice to hear from you. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      It’s interesting that you said, “during trials we could be tempted by Satan.” I would definitely agree with the idea that we’re tempted during trials. One of the major temptations during trials is the temptation to get angry. Job is synonymous with trials, and when he was going through his trials, he faced a number of temptations, most obviously the temptation to get angry with God. His wife tempted him to curse God. The devil twice told God that Job would curse him. Even though Job never cursed God, he did seem to give in to the temptation to get angry with God. At times he criticized Him, questioned His justice, accused Him, etc.

      If we believe God is sovereign (and He is) and if we believe trials come from God (and they do) then we have to be on guard against the temptation to get angry with God when going through trials. For others, they might be more tempted to get angry with people around them: spouse, children, parents, friends, coworkers, etc.

  8. Trials vs Discipline: We all want to have a closer relationship with God. We want to mature as Christians. For both we need experiences. My heart also went out in regards to the woman who miscarried. I’ve also experienced this more than once. Sometimes the trial we have is to redirect us into God’s plan for our life and marriage. Through trials we are so deeply hurt, there is no one who can bring you the comfort that God does. You are affected to the very core of your being crying out to God through your tears throughout the day and night. He does bring comfort through grief and devastating circumstances, but only when we are relying completely upon Him. He brings us comfort and peace as we are held up between praying family and friends, and His Love and steadfastness. In this center, we find peace and rest. Even when the trial or discipline has you feeling as though you are in the middle of the ocean barely with head above the water, we can tell Him we are so overwhelmed. He does keep us afloat, He does bring us through, but only if we are in a continuous, honest conversation. And only if we really listen for His voice to help, heal and guide us. Instead of saying, “Why me?” Our words should be, “Why not me!” Without realizing, there are many watching to see where your God honestly is in your situation.

    Through trials and lessons of discipline, we glorify Christ who never leaves or abandons us, but is steadfast to His Word. This all becomes experience, experience that we can use to minister to each other through their trial or lesson of discipline. We become a disciple.

    We pray to be closer to God, to be more like Christ, it’s through trials and discipline we are refined and continuously purged of our sinful humanity.

    1. Hi Mary,
      Yes, Katie experienced a miscarriage too. She got pregnant again soon after that, so we told ourselves we wouldn’t have had Ricky otherwise. But it was still difficult.

      Very well said (as is the case with your comments) regarding the work they do to “redirect us.” God uses them as wake-up calls at times. It’s definitely during those valleys that we’re in a place to look up and be drawn to prayer and a closer relationship with the Lord.

      Thanks for reading and providing the wonderful thoughts.

    2. I posted a new comment in regards to others who feel like Vivian. Thank you God bless

    1. Hi Vivienne,
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      The woman reached out to me and I was able to encourage her in her grief. I was thankful for the opportunity.

      In this woman’s case, she didn’t lose the child as punishment for her sins. But sin does have consequences, and there are children killed for the sins of their parents. David’s child of adultery is probably the most well-known example.

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