I haven't nailed down, exactly, what I believe about God's sovereignty interacting with our free will, and it is a tricky subject even for theologians much more well-read and wise than myself. I suppose the most important thing to know here is that I once believed everything happened for a reason, for our best, and this idea tends to linger in the back of my thoughts even now.
When I stop and really consider it, I find this perspective terribly destructive: there is great pain and suffering in the world, and I don't believe that we just need to work harder to find the purpose or meaning behind it. I don't believe every event in this world is willed by God to occur. Sometimes things...happen. (When I was in Portland in May going through boxes from my childhood, I stumbled across old journals filled with pages analyzing what I thought God was trying to teach me through certain events--"Maybe God wants me to focus on him more, and that's why my boyfriend broke up with me?" My heart broke for my anxious, trying-so-hard seventeen-year-old self).
Sometimes terrible things happen, tragedies, great losses of life or dignity or hope. Humans have free will, and we can use that freedom to choose greed or oppression or death. (I also believe love, any kind of love, is only authentic and meaningful when it is a choice and commitment made freely, and I suspect this is an echo after God's own heart. Ask anyone who has loved but known the other person is only acting of of guilt or obligation--it is a bitter pill to swallow, and never satisfying unless it grows into a love freely chosen).
Our choices to oppress others or live in prisons ourselves must grieve God's heart deeply. When God put on skin to walk among us, an oft-remembered prayer he taught us included, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," clearly indicating all is not as it should be here on earth. He wept while watching Jerusalem from afar because she would not come to him. The Kingdom he revealed through his life and teaching was radical and completely upside-down from the way the world works, marked by love, humility, grace, and peace instead of power, domination, money, and fame. I am doing my best to let that Kingdom come to thrive in every area of my life, but I still use my freedom in ways that are not loving or peaceful--like every human being, my free will is used for both good and evil.
In that strange and beautiful dream of John the Apostle, Jesus the King says, "Behold, I am making all things new"--so I suppose my view of free will and God's sovereignty must also include the hope that the end of the story is really a beginning: a restoration and redemption of all those things that have been twisted or gone wrong because of our terrible, beautiful free will.
Even if terrible things happen, things not willed by God, God promises to be with us. This is why the Incarnation is so crucially important to the Christian story--it shows God is willing to stoop, to get down into the dirt with us, to whisper, "I am here" right in the midst of all our suffering. God stepped off God's throne to choose total solidarity to us, "suffering all of life with us," as Henri Nouwen puts it. Throughout every event, even things that have no place in God's Kingdom, we have the chance to grow and to choose love. It does not mean God caused it in order to teach you (or me) a lesson, but it does mean God can use it. He specializes in bringing life out of dead places.
I needed to write this all out because I realized there was a deep, hidden well of anger toward God, and it was there because some part of me was still holding on to everything happens for a reason. If you're not a regular reader here: I worked for nearly two years at a job I despised before quitting in May, I am going through a major post-college identity crisis, I still don't know what I'm doing with my life, and it's been frankly awful. And I realized, all along I have been thinking subconsciously, what is the point of all this confusion? What is the purpose of all this rejection and all these closed doors? What lesson am I supposed to learn so that I can move on with my life again?
What I really believe is that God is always at work to use our circumstances to mold us and turn us toward himself, even if God did not directly cause the events. What this means for me is that perhaps God is grieving with me when another opportunity or job doesn't work out--not slamming the door in my face. Maybe Jesus is right there with me in my confusion and loss--using it to mold my character, yes, doing some adjusting and pruning via community and the Holy Spirit--but also lamenting with me when I fail or feel rejected. When I cry, maybe God is there and knows my pain intimately. Maybe this means my life is not really on pause or in a rut because God is irritated with me. Maybe the best stuff is happening right now in this weird, uncomfortable, in-between season.
I am remembering God loves us and chooses to be with us. I am digging out those sneaky thoughts that insist there is some lesson I must learn before I can pass Go and collect my $200.00. I am keeping my eyes wide open to God in the beauty and the mess of my twenty-fourth year, my season of unemployment, my identity crisis. He is there to be found, and I think he is for me more than I will ever know.