The disciples demonstrated their ignorance when they assumed an invariable connection between the man born blind and a specific sin in John 9. Not all human pain can be interpreted as punishment for a particular sin. We, like the first disciples, need to think before we speak so knowingly about the causes of someone else’s effects.
Does that mean that no suffering can be traced to a specific sin? Obviously not. If a sixteen year old asked me to sign the cast over his broken arm that he got in the car wreck following the police chase after he robbed Starbucks, and he says that he just doesn’t know God’s purposes in his pain, the one making wrong assumptions is the one holding out the Sharpie.
But is that the type of situation when we can draw a connection between sin and suffering? Hebrews 12 tells us that God disciplines those that He loves. He disciplines His children, and when? When they sin. He perfects His kids with many means, including suffering, just as He did with His Son (Hebrews 2:10), and His Son never sinned. There are times for us when the pain means Stop it. Some of His children may need deeper wounds to get the message.
How will you know if a particular pain is discipline for your sin or if the pain is initiated by God to display His glory? We do not have a foolproof test, but there is one thing that is very helpful: a clear conscience.
Granted, a clear conscience could be wrong because it is misinformed or deceived. A clear conscience goes a long way, not all the way. It’s helpful, not inerrant. Nevertheless, if you are carrying sin around in your heart, refusing to confess it, kill it, and make it right with your victim, then you will have a hard time rationalizing away your troubles to something other than the Father’s training.