A former professor of mine at Trinity adroitly addresses a question that I have asked and still often do ask when things go sour in my life: Are these things happening because God is disciplining me for some offense or pattern of rebellion? How can I tell?
You can find the brief article here: "How do we know God is disciplining us" by D.A. Carson. (*note: he uses some fancy words & addresses pastors at times - but definitely well worth having to read a couple lines twice).
I think his 3-part response covers all the bases nicely:
(1) We must avoid, even in casual conversation about such issues, quoting one verse or alluding to one biblical story in trying to grapple with how to discern when discipline for sin is in play. I worry individuals tend to come from one extreme and quote whatever verse/story supports that - (a) God would never intentionally bring harm to me so it must be like Job where I just throw up my hands and learn to trust; (b) Like the Corinthians or those beloved sons spoken about in Hebrews 12, God is most certainly disciplining me for sin or a pattern of rebellion.
(2) God's purposes in suffering and hard times are intricate and interwoven. I can think of a recent example of someone I know whose family member flew to her to accompany her on an airline trip due to a fear of flying she had. After touching down, that family member grew ill to the point where they had to fly to Miami for treatment. The person who had a fear of flying went with family member on to Miami and then to their final destination for treatment and subsequent care - all the while the fear of flying went away while accompanying the ill loved one. Now, was God's chief purpose in family member getting gravely ill (they are better now) to assuage and remove someone's fear of flying? Hard to say that. But what's not hard to say is it is a purpose - intricately interwoven into the multicolored tapestry that is God's plan.
(3) Why not examine our life and conscience? While no one wants to say it to the suffering friend, family member, co-worker, such suffering should give us an occasion to at least check the inner chambers. That's the first place we should look, but too often the last place we are willing to look.
Carson's conclusion at the end is on the money in my opinion: "The remedy is always the same: Flee to the cross." He's right. If the suffering is a form of loving discipline given in response to an act or pattern of rebellion, then we ought to flee to the cross to confess and receive Christ's unending forgiveness that will, then, empower us to change (that's what grace is: God's love made active through an undeserved gift). On the other hand, if the suffering can't be reduced to discipline but is more complex or seems to mysteriously involve no discipline at all, flee to the cross where we can find comfort in a God who did no wrong but willing suffered a hell far greater than we ever will - provided, of course, we trust in Him.