Being able to discern how God is at work in difficult experiences is important for believers because we are vulnerable to adopting false perspectives of the Lord’s character. Instead of seeing God as just, faithful, and absolutely loving, we often respond to hardship as if God isn’t holding up the end of a bargain or is breaking promises.
The Bible provides examples for us to look to when we face trials. Through discerning the work of the Lord when we think we might be experiencing punishment, discipline, or testing, we can remember who our God is and how we can righteously respond to Him.
Sometimes it feels like we are just being punished. Things are going every way except how we want them to, and we have this sense of guilt, as if we’ve done something wrong to deserve it all. We can easily see in Scripture that God has long punished His followers, and assume that He is doing so to us.
When the Lord punished His chosen people, it was in response to willful wickedness that He could not ignore because He is just. In the Old Testament, we find several examples of God punishing Israel for sins that they chose over His commands –like idolatry. Harsh punishment falls upon those of His people who choose, outright, to disobey Him.
Yet even in the punishment of the system of justice that the Lord commands, there is mercy. Those who practice willful disobedience are able to approach the Lord and seek forgiveness. In the Old Testament, through sacrificial offerings; in the New Testament, through the blood of Christ, by which all sins repented of are forgiven (1 John 1:9).
Hebrews 12 makes clear that those the Lord loves, He disciplines. According to the passage, hardship sometimes comes as discipline. We can trust, as verse 10 states, that: “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.”
Discipline is quite different from punishment. Rather than being pronounced as judgment by God, discipline is chastisement or correction for the purpose of training one up. It is carried out in order to urge us along on the path of righteousness and curb us from that which leads us astray.
Deuteronomy 11 indicates to us that an example of God’s discipline in the Old Testament was the wandering of Israel in the desert for decades. The passage speaks to the generation who witnessed God’s work in Egypt and received the commandments. It reminds them that they have been disciplined so that they know how much they ought to lead the future generations in obedience.
We witness in God’s discipline of the Israelites that hardship comes to those who belong to the Lord and seek Him, but neglect to remember His work and put themselves at risk of disobeying Him. Our healthy response to the loving discipline of God is to endure the hardship and submit to God, knowing how He loves us.
Scripture makes clear that God chooses to test people. Job is a popular example. A Godly man, Job did nothing wrong to warrant testing, but God chose to test Him, allowing Satan to plague Job’s life with suffering. Near the end of his testing, Job says this to the Lord: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). Job, seeing God’s might in His testing, repents for all of his frustration and angry words against God. And God blesses him with more than he ever had before he suffered, including an intimate display of God’s might.
James reminds us that our blessing might not come in this world –but God is faithful to us and uniquely, personally, shows us His love in times of testing. James 1:2 tells us to: “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” Later in the passage, James highlights that remaining faithful in struggles –which involves listening to God and obeying Him in our actions- results in the crown of life. While we are not saved by good works, even in hard times, the Lord ultimately blesses those persevere in faith.
There are certainly other reasons for our suffering, and a multitude of circumstances. But what a gift from the Lord that we can look to Scripture and see that He is good, righteous, and just. He punishes our disobedience, but offers forgiveness when we repent. Our Lord disciplines us, in love, to keep us from straying. When He tests us, it produces faith filled fruit. We can submit to Him wholly, knowing that the Lord does “work all things together for our good” as He promises (Romans 8:28).