We Americans are an independent bunch. In becoming a nation, one of our first documents was The Declaration of Independence. The Fourth of July is called Independence Day. A "self-made man" is much admired. One of Frank Sinatra's most popular songs was "I Did It My Way." A common line in any play about hostile relationships is "I don't need you or anybody else!" Our culture is saturated with the idea of personal independence.
Our culture of independence is one reason why many American Christians are uncomfortable with the concept that God is sovereign. We tend to ignore parts of Bible passages such as Ephesians 1:3-6 when we read it. (The phrases we tend to ignore are italicized.) The New International Version says, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves."
God chose us and predestined us, according to His will and pleasure, even before the creation of the world! Definitely, many American Christians are uncomfortable with God deciding those issues without consulting us. We would rather focus on the God-given ability to choose that is also much in evidence in the Bible.
Here are two examples where the ability to choose is part of the action: Proverbs 1:28-29, "Then they will call me, but I won't answer; they will search for me, but won't find me. Because they hated knowledge, didn't choose to fear the Lord…" Psalm 25:12, "Who is the person who fears the Lord? He will show him the way he should choose." (Holman Christian Standard Bible®)
We are much more comfortable with the idea that we are free to choose; that we are independent with a will unbound by another's requirements. If we make wrong choices, we may find someone else to blame, but at least it was our choice to make. Check your thinking and see if you share this cultural bias.
So how do we understand the link between the ideas that God is sovereign and that humanity has free will? Both are absolutely true, but trying to connect them in our minds can be like trying to hold fire and ice in your hand at the same time – you may be more comfortable holding the ice than the fire, but neither one of them will be there for long!
The best way I have been able to understand the two ideas' relationship and my position between them is by the analogy of a passenger ship.
If you watch TV at all, you have probably seen the advertisements for luxury vacation cruises. Most vacation cruises pick up a load of passengers at one location, take them to visit other ports, and then return them to their port of origin.
From the time of sailing ships until the 1960's, passenger ships had a much different purpose. (Large commercial passenger airplanes began service to distant countries in the 1960's.) Until large airplanes came on the scene, travel between distant countries relied on passenger ships. Especially in the 20th century, these ships had first class service similar to the ones found on cruise ships today. They also had second and third class service that were in stark contrast to the luxury of first class staterooms. If you saw the movie Titanic then you might have some idea of the difference.
One of the most popular voyages for many decades was the transatlantic crossings between New York and London. The grand Queen Elizabeth ran continuous service between the two cities for many years.
So for our analogy, we have the Queen Elizabeth loaded with passengers for the trip to London. Rich or poor, young or old, first class or third, the passengers are all on the same ship. None of the passengers have any control over it. They must adjust their plans to the specified departure time. The route they travel over the sea is also out of their control. All details concerning the ship are controlled by the owner. The passengers control some of their circumstances on the ship and their attitudes about the trip. The choices they make in those two areas can go far in determining whether they have an easy voyage or a trip full of trouble.
You probably already see the analogy: the owner of the ship represents God. He owns the universe and determines what will happen. The passengers represent humanity, making the choices that are within our grasp according to our circumstances and our attitudes. Both God's will and humanity's choices are operational at the same time. (In case you are wondering how close this analogy is to reality, consider this: the earth, and the galaxy of which it is a part, is traveling at 1.35 million miles per hour! Did you ask to make this trip?)
All Christians – not just American Christians – do have a choice; we can ignore the sovereignty of God and lose many opportunities to praise Him or we can proclaim with Warren Wiersbe, (as he says in The Bible Exposition Commentary: Old Testament) "So wise and powerful is our God that He can permit men and women to make personal choices and still accomplish His purposes in this world. When He isn't permitted to rule, He will overrule, but His will shall ultimately be done and His name glorified."