“Reckless Love,” written by Cory Asbury, Caleb Culver, and Ran Jackson and published in 2017 by Bethel Music, has quickly become a favorite worship song in non-denominational and evangelical churches. Every time we sing it in service, I omit one word: “reckless.”
The song has many solid lines that beautifully convey how God sustains us and watches over us, even acknowledging that God had a plan for our lives before we were born. Consider the first verse: “Before I spoke a word, you were singing over me/you have been so so good to me/ before I took a breath, you breathed your life in me/ you have been so so kind to me.”
As far as modern worship music goes, which tends to be theologically shallow and repetitive, that’s some deep theology. But then we get to the first part of the chorus, from which the song gets its name: “Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God/ it chases me down/fights til I’m found/ leaves the ninety-nine.”
According to the OxfordDictionaries.com, reckless means: “Heedless of danger or the consequences of one’s actions; rash or impetuous.” I challenge anyone to find one instance in scripture where any member of the Trinity is described as reckless, rash, or impetuous. I certainly haven’t, because it is antithetical to God’s character.
Yet every week, millions of Christians are singing about how reckless God’s love is. Let that sink in. Asbury said in an interview, “We’re not saying that God himself is reckless. He’s not crazy. We are however saying that the way He loves is in many regards quite so.” This makes no sense. If God is not reckless, then neither can any individual attribute of God be reckless.
The Sheep Parables Don’t Show Recklessness
But you might come back to me and say the parables of the 99 sheep referenced in the song provide an adequate basis for declaring that God is reckless. However, a closer examination of these two slightly different parables (they are told to different audiences at different times and places), especially of their context, reveals that’s not the case.
Here is the parable in Luke 15:3-7, told to the Pharisees who were grumbling about how Jesus was eating with sinners:
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (ESV)
Here’s Matthew 18:12-14. In the verses preceding this parable, Jesus teaching his disciples to humble themselves and not to cause others to sin, especially “little ones:”
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my[a] Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (ESV)
In both of these parables, Jesus is using the image of a rich shepherd (99 is a huge flock) who, despite his great wealth of sheep, leaves them to search for the sheep that “wanders away” or is “lost.” Common sense says that’s a foolish move that, if one didn’t know the context and the shepherd, might be construed as reckless.
But notice how he asked the disciples, “What do you think?” and “Does he not…?” as if, based on Jesus’ prior teaching, the disciples are to understand that of course the straying lamb is precious to him and therefore must be retrieved. In other words, to the world, this behavior is foolish, but to those who follow Jesus, it should make perfect sense.
These parables describe the heart of God, a heart dedicated to bringing in all the lost sheep he has called into his fold. The shepherd does not put any of the 99 in danger by going after the one. “This is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).
Thus, Jesus, the shepherd, can in no way be regarded as reckless. He has a plan that not only protects his flock, but retrieves the one who goes astray. That is what we should seek to understand from this passage and praise in song, not a concept as pedestrian and completely human as “reckless love.”
God Is the Ultimate in Thinking Ahead, Ya’ll
God is overwhelmingly described in Scripture as sovereign and omnipotent, working everything out according to his purpose. God had a plan from the very beginning that involved the Son becoming flesh, dying for human sins, rising again, sending the Holy Spirit to indwell believers, and ultimately coming back to judge the world and make all things new (Heb. 2:8-9; Eph 1:11; Acts 2:23; John 14:26; Acts 17:31; Rev. 21:4-5).
When God sent a flood to wipe out evil from the face of the earth, giving Noah careful, specific instructions on how to build an ark to survive it, that was God loving and saving Noah and his family in a completely non-reckless way.
When Joseph, who became a powerful ruler under Pharaoh in Egypt, addressed his repentant brothers who had tried to kill him, he said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” That was God designing history to protect a people he set his love on in a completely non-reckless way (Genesis 50:20).
This Song Is Teaching Christians Lies
Trusting their leadership, congregants assume that the doctrine of the music in their church is sound and then riff off it. The result a lot of sub-biblical “inspirational” writing like this: “God’s love for us is reckless. He loves us unconditionally and without fear of rejection. His love is not self-serving. He puts us first. He loves us without fear of consequences. The way He loves us is quite simply reckless” (emphasis original).
This is what happens when worship lyrics are not put under the light of the scriptures, and in fact substitute for it.
The idea that God is “bankrupting heaven,” smothering his love all over the place without regard to how it’s received and “laying his heart on the line,” as Asbury said, is just not biblical. God takes no risks because a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing by nature cannot take risks. God’s salvation plan was never risky or reckless, and all throughout the gospels, Jesus explains that he knows exactly how he is going to be received by the world and what will happen to him (John 10:25-28).
I know the term “reckless love” is catchy and might prick the ears of people submersed in a culture that craves “crazy love,” but God’s love is purpose-driven and perfectly considered—the opposite of reckless. As unpopular a truth as it is, it’s designed for God’s glory and to further his own ends. We are gracious recipients of God’s grace; as Matt Chandler put it in this very excellent sermon, “Yes, God is for you,” but ultimately, “God is for God.” That is a humbling truth.
The fact that God has saved you personally and deliberately (John 6:37-45; Romans 8:16), despite your total unworthiness, is what should bring you to tears, not this notion that God is splashing his “childlike” and “ridiculous” love all over (again, Asbury is way off the mark) and just hoping someone reciprocates it, deeply wounded every time he is rejected.
God’s Ways Are Not Ours
To sing of God’s “reckless love” is to downplay his omnipotence and sovereignty in favor of a weaker, more vulnerable and “approachable” version of him. All too often, worship lyrics map the attributes of man onto God instead of promoting a more biblical understanding of him. We seek to package his attributes in concepts we are already familiar with, instead of acquainting ourselves with the God who reveals himself through the scriptures. We bring God down to our level, instead of seeking to understand him on his own terms.
As worshippers, we are obligated to ask ourselves: do the words coming out of my mouth, which are supposed to guide us in worshipping God for who he really is, accurately reflect God’s character? If they don’t, then how can we be worshipping in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24)?
There are many other worship songs that don’t ascribe purely unbiblical attributes to God. If the rest of this song really does help the congregation worship in earnest, might it at least be possible to substitute a different word for “reckless,” like “wondrous” or “awesome?”
Songs have tremendous power to influence our thought. We are vulnerable and emotional during worship, trusting the people leading us through the set, so church leaders must be careful stewards of the lyrics they present to the flock. If a particular lyric is promoting a less biblical understanding of God’s character, as “reckless love” clearly is, then it needs to be corrected. Sheer popularity cannot override that imperative.