Both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that God disciplines and corrects His people. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word chasten or chastise (yasar) has the basic meaning of “to learn or teach.” We are able to learn (or be taught) in three different ways—personal and verbal instruction (Ps. 16:7); observation (Jer. 2:30); and experience, including suffering (Jer. 10:24). In the New Testament, the Greek word paideia has the same broad meaning: “instruction,” “training,” or “educating.” A writer for Baker’s Dictionary of Theology explains:
In the New Testament the chastening is mostly that of God upon His own people (1 Cor. 11:32; 2 Cor. 6:9; and especially Heb. 12:5-11), but human fathers also chasten their sons (Heb. 12:7,10a), and beneficial discipline can be effective through Satan (1 Tim. 1:20). The New Testament insists that God chastens His people for their own spiritual good. The word paideuein is never used for God’s dealing with the unbeliever.
Although we know that God chastens His people, we won’t always be able to distinguish the chastening of God brought on us by our own wrongdoing from the trials that occur naturally in a fallen world. Our inability to recognize God’s discipline as being different from naturally occurring trials shouldn’t distress us. Even natural afflictions yield spiritual fruit when we are willing to endure them in faith. Job’s counselors made a serious mistake when they said he was suffering as the result of God judging him for his sin. Jesus too warned His disciples against self-righteously attributing other peoples’ misfortunes to God’s acts of judgment (Luke 13:2-5).
Whether or not the difficulties we face are the direct consequence of our sins or simply the harsh aspects of existence, a humble response in faith will bring greater self-awareness and new consciousness of sin. Spiritual growth as the result of correction and discipline is a shared experience of the children God loves. When we undergo adversity we shouldn’t be overly concerned about whether it is a direct act of God or a normal problem of life. Instead, we should trust God, pray for wisdom (James 1:5), move forward in faith, and be ready to learn whatever we can from our circumstances.