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