God is sovereign, but his sovereignty in this world is not the same as it will be on the New Earth, where God will work in and through every person for his perfect glory. As long as evil exists, God's highest will is thwarted. (But as I will discuss later, even now he has defeated evil on the cross, and he has the power to overcome it.) The kingdom of God is in our midst (Luke 17:21), but it has not yet been established like it will be when Jesus comes in glory with his angels (Matthew 16:27).
In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus tells us to pray: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." That means that God's will should direct and motivate all our prayers, but it also implies that his will doesn't necessarily happen by default. And that would make sense, because he has given us prayer as a means of laying hold of his will. Why else would we pray? To change God's mind? Personally, I trust his judgment more than my own. But I'm still told to pray fervently, because changing the status quo is not necessarily changing God's mind. Jesus was always fighting against the status quo during the three years of his ministry.
Although God's overall purposes for his creation will stand, we can't look at every past event and unequivocally say that God willed it. For example, does he will that millions starve to death or die of AIDS in Africa or that children be brutally raped and murdered? To me, it seems blasphemous to suggest it, especially since we know that Jesus "went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil" (Acts 10:38). As ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), let's make sure we don't unwittingly defame him.
I thought that my views about this would be controversial in our modern religious climate, where a lot of people believe that God controls everything and therefore every atrocity is ultimately his will. But it turns out I actually have a Calvinist in my corner: John MacArthur. In his sermon, The Plan of Prayer, he says:
Now this may sound heretical but in this context, people, [tragedy] is not God’s will. That is the kind of stuff that Jesus came into the world to stop. Because "God is not willing that any should perish." And believe me--there are people perishing all over the place. God will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, and not all men do. God’s will is done in heaven, but it isn’t always done on earth.Certainly God can work in those atrocities for good, and he will bring suffering into the lives of his people so he can perform spiritual surgery. I can testify to that. But there's much evil in the world that serves no good purpose at all. It is not according to God's will. It simply happens because of human will to do evil. (Note that I did not say "free" will. Our will is not free until God frees it.)
And that human will is pivotal in this discussion. God, in his sovereignty, made creatures that actually have the power to rebel against him. When I work on my novel, the characters do and say exactly what I want them to. Some novelists say that their characters almost come alive and shape the book. That takes more creativity than I have. But it's still nothing compared to God's creative genius. These four children that Rick and I have brought into the world actually have wills of their own. Although I don't often appreciate that as much as maybe I should, right now as I'm sitting at my desk writing (and they're in school), I consider it the greatest miracle of creation.
Do I believe that human choice is absolute? No. We are all born in bondage to sin (Romans 7:14), but we are called to freedom (Galatians 5:13). "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Cor. 3:17) By his grace, God enables us to receive him, but he respects even the most wretched, rebellious will in order to nurture it the point where it's fully surrendered to him. That's why Jesus stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20), instead of just kicking it down. He wants to meet us where we are and enable us to surrender, and the more we do so, the more we experience his sovereign grace in our lives, in the sense that everything we do and say is by his power. But he has also called us to perfect freedom, so even though he wants us to let him be everything in our lives, he doesn't force his way in.
I've seen in my own life how much God respects my will. He will spend years trying to get me to surrender in a particular area, using experiences, other people, Bible teachings, directs insights--and by the time I do, I submit willingly. Why doesn't he save himself the trouble and just overpower my will? Because I am called to freedom. Christ wants to be "all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11), but he wants friends, not slaves (John 15:15). The crowning glory of his creation is creatures who will someday reach the pinnacle of perfect freedom and complete surrender to his will. Only God can make such a thing possible, but it's not easy even for him, because he has chosen not to pull all the strings. So not everyone will share in that glory.
In this country, most of us don't question the importance of freedom, hence the song that goes, "I'm glad to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I'm thankful for the men who died and gave that right to me." Something in us recognizes that freedom is worth dying for. Since we are created in the image of God, is it such a stretch to say that he values freedom just as highly and that he's willing to make great sacrifices for it? If God had been content with puppets, evil would never had entered the world, and he would not have had to send his Son to die on the cross.
But having said all that, I also believe that God in his sovereignty can override a person's will. For example, when I pray for God to protect my children, I trust him to be a shield about them to protect them from evil people as well. God's hands are not tied because he respects the evil person's choice. In John 7:30, the authorities tried to seize Jesus but they couldn't because "his hour had not yet come." Nobody had the power to harm Jesus apart from the will of the Father.
Also, prayer for somebody else can be so powerful that it may bring a person to the point where he or she is unlikely to resist God's grace. Times of great revival were usually precipitated by fervent prayer. Prayer will light a spark of life and stir up a hunger where there was none, but it doesn't overpower someone's will. It is perhaps the most profound way in which we can be fellow workers with God, because we tap into the power that raised Jesus from the dead.
Through the cross, God's sovereignty in this world is equal to his sovereignty on the New Earth. Jesus fully disarmed all the spiritual forces of evil (Colossians 2:15), and "by his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). This is an objective, historical and spiritual reality. Through Christ, we have complete victory (1 Cor. 15:57) and access to the throne of grace, where we find mercy and grace in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
Why is this world such a mess if evil was defeated on the cross? Because it is through faith we lay hold of this victory. "This is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith." (1 John 5:4) Faith is as powerful as Christ's victory on the cross, because it is his victory.
Hebrews 11:1 says: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (KJV) The word "substance" is key here, because the Greek word hypostasis means "reality, essence, substantial nature, assurance." So faith is far more than positive thinking--it is the reality or essence of the victory of Christ on the cross. In other words, it is the thing itself. I explain this further in The Substance of Things Hoped For.
This is very important to understand, because it shows why faith is so important. It is the means by which we receive the free gift, or as Charles Spurgeon said, "Faith is the hand that grasps." So faith, then, is our measure of an objective reality: Christ and everything he accomplished on the cross. In other words, if we want to lay hold of God's will, we have to look to the cross.
How do we get faith? Three ways: By hearing the word of God, by surrender to God, and by abiding in Christ like a branch on a vine. Romans 10:7 says: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God." In order to have faith, we have to hear the gospel message. That is the seed of faith. Of course there's no way to believe if we've never heard the word of life. But even if we have been born again by the Spirit, we have to keep hearing the word in order to grow in our faith.
Surrender means that we yield our will, and that goes back to what I said about Jesus not kicking down the door. He has called us to freedom, right? So he will only fill us with his Spirit if we surrender to him. But you might have noticed that complete surrender is not that easy because it involves admitting defeat, and we would rather stake our little flag of self-sufficiency in the ground and die. And we actually do have to admit defeat. We have to realize that we're spiritually bankrupt, needy, weak--without God we're unable to do anything about the evil in our own hearts, let alone the evil in the world.
So what do we do if we intellectually recognize the need to surrender, but we can't do it? We take a step back and ask God to give us the desire to surrender. Let's say you don't buy a thing I've said, but if it's true, you would like it to be real in your life. Then you can take a step back even further and ask God to work in your mind, to bring intellectual faith. Maybe you hate religion altogether, but you're not completely settled in your atheism or agnosticism. You're not sure if it's Jesus you hate, or just the behavior of some of his so-called followers. Then tell God that. Wherever the barrier, he will meet us there. In the end, all the sons and daughters who are brought to glory will only be there by the power of God, and the smaller and more helpless we are in our own minds, the greater he is in our lives, because we will have exorcised the greatest enemy of all: Self.
The third way to have faith is to abide in Christ. That is, we have to spend time with him, and allow him to work through us like sap flows through a vine to the branches. John 15:7 goes so far as to say, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." But there's a catch here--if we abide in Christ we won't want a larger home or a more prestigious job. God will change our hearts so that we want his will. So we come full circle back to the Lord's Prayer: If we abide in Christ, we will have the power to lay hold of God's will, to make this world more like heaven. We will have the victory that overcomes the world: faith. (1 John 5:4)
So a person who lives by faith in Christ will surrender more and more fully to God's perfect sovereignty, while growing in freedom. The two are far from mutually exclusive; they are inexorably linked.