Abraham Lincoln is not known for being a great theologian, but he is known for his intelligence and wisdom. So I quote him here because he comes as close as anyone I’ve read on what it means to say that God is sovereign when the world is in conflict:
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same things at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.
I am almost ready to say this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it should not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
Abraham Lincoln (ca. September 1862)
These words must have grated on those in both North and South who were convinced that God was on their side, and who thought that to say otherwise was not only treason but blasphemy.
It’s something like what Jeremiah the prophet faced two and a half centuries earlier. He’d told the people of Jerusalem that God was going to punish them for their wickedness, and they didn’t believe him because in comparison to some of the nations around them the Israelites were spotless in their righteousness.
Then Jeremiah went a step further. He said God would punish them at the hands of one of the most wicked nations known, the Babylonian Empire. This was too much for King Jehoiakim to take; he ordered his advisors to arrest Jeremiah for treason.
The Israelites soon learned that Jeremiah spoke truly. Babylon conquered Judah and took control of Jerusalem, and Jehoiakim never survived the siege.
The Wars Within
God’s sovereignty in conflict achieves purposes we don’t understand. Yet the conflicts come because people make bad decisions. Even Christians are susceptible to this.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. (James 4:1-2.)
God is sovereign over our struggles and fights, but he is not the cause of them. We are. His purposes will ultimately prevail but people can find themselves in quite a battle along the way, battles of their own making.
There is an answer, though, and like all true answers it is found in Jesus.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5.)
Branches don’t produce fruit; that’s the vine’s job. But branches do bear fruit as long as they abide in the vine. This is where we find freedom from quarrels based on our own selfish desires that battle within us. We are free from such battles as we abide in Jesus, resting in the one who produces abundant fruit for us to bear.
This fruit is not just nourishment for our souls, but is all that Jesus promises: nourishment, riches, everlasting life, the power of the kingdom of God. When you desire and bear such fruit, there is no battle within.
The will of God and the sovereignty of his purposes is then not a conflict for us to endure but a blessing for us to enjoy.