This morning at church we sang a song that a lot of churches are singing right now, "Reckless Love," by Cory Asbury. With its lyric, "Oh the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God / Oh, he chases me down, fights 'til I'm found, leaves the 99..." it's a song that has sparked lively debate within worship circles.
The contention that I've heard—and I hope I'm doing their side justice in my summary—is that recklessness implies carelessness, thoughtlessness, and/or an unthinking sort of lack of calculation on God's part to act to redeem us, sinful humans. An omnipowerful, omniscient, omnipresent God who's taken his hands off the wheel—I agree—that's a scary thought.
We know from Scripture that our God is not unthinking, but is calculated. God said through the prophesy of Isaiah, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” (Isaiah 46). He reminded Jeremiah in the oft-quoted verse, "I know the plans I have for you." Psalm 115 says that he does whatever he wants, and Jesus teaches us that it is God the Father who has supreme authority.
Those are thoughts that were placed in Scripture partly to establish God's character and power but also, in part, to comfort you. That's because God the all-powerful is also all-good. That he knows all things and is in control of all things is a wonderful thought when you love him, when you know just how good he is.
Scripture tells us that not only does he do what he pleases, but that it pleases him to act mercifully toward us (Hebrews 2:10), to treat us as a father might treat his beloved sons and daughters (Matthew 7), and to give us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4). All-powerful, all-good, and working on our behalf gleefully. Those are wonderful truths.
From the sound of it, he certainly is not a reckless, careless, thoughtless deity. He isn't cold. He didn't walk away after making us. He isn't voyeuristically watching from above without getting involved, either. He is divinely both transcendent and imminent, he's both above and within. That's a consequence of omnipresence.
I guess the word 'reckless' doesn't mean what it used to. Today, recklessness may be synonymous with carelessness in our cultural consciousness. Sure, I can find plenty of examples of the word's usage in place of 'careless,' 'thoughtless,' 'rash,' even 'stupid.' We might say, "Those reckless boys—riding without a helmet—they're going to get killed out there."
But I want to contend for the word 'reckless,' though. Words have meaning, and though their meanings can morph over time, I think precision of language is of fundamental importance to the writer.
I am a writer. I love words. I use precise speech because in the postmodern age, authorial intent is no longer factored into the interpretation of a given text. Postmodernity says, "This word could mean whatever the reader takes it to mean."
We're seeing the ramifications of such damaging views each day in our wider culture. Say anything on Twitter and someone somewhere will find a way to take offense. Clowns and cartoon frogs are classified as 'hate speech' now. A red hat is to some a symbol of systemic racism.
We all want America to be a great nation, but if I say, "Make America great again," those words may be taken to mean a whole host of things other than that I want to see my home nation succeed. That's the postmodern circus we're living in, where even this blog post will be taken by some to mean all sorts of cruel or oppressive things.
We combat the ridiculousness of 'reader response' by doubling down on the meaning of words and on precision of language. It should be of utmost importance to all writers everywhere to use precise language in an effort to be well-understood.
'Reckless' didn't always mean 'careless.' In fact, reckless doesn't currently mean careless. We have a word for carelessness, for frivolity or stupidity or thoughtlessness—the word is 'careless.' We say, he or she "could not give a care"—they are without one care to give.
Recklessness, on the other hand, actually implies thought. Implies calculation. Thought was given to the consequences, but we're doing it anyway. The act of being reckless is to overcome any mental obstacle and will oneself to do some thing that others wouldn't do. If recklessness doesn't mean that, then we don't have a word for "we-considered-the-consequences-and-we-are-doing-it-anyway." There'd be no word for that kind of rebellion.
I'll illustrate the difference between recklessness and carelessness. Do you watch MTV? MTV airs a show called Jackass. Those guys are reckless. MTV also airs a show called Ridiculousness. The people shown on Ridiculousness are careless.
The Jackass guys are stunt performers, with medical and safety teams on-hand should some stunt go horribly awry. They anticipate the consequences, but take the risk, knowing that without some level of risk there can be no reward. And the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Sure, they each suffered bumps, bruises, and broken limbs, but they were also made multimillionaires by the show.
Ridiculousness, on the other hand, scours the internet for home-videos of amateur daredevils attempting what might only be conceivable to the alcohol-addled mind. Homemade ramps and rides taking un-calculated jumps in unsafe conditions at best, for example. YouTube stunts ending in utter chaos, that's carelessness.
Evil Kenevil planned his jumps months ahead of time, trained, and prepared for the stunt he was to perform. He calculated the risks, overcame mental obstacles like, "Will this hurt if I don't stick the landing?" and he hired teams of safety experts to stand-by in the event of some unfavorable outcome. That's reckless.
Contrast that with the girl who shot her boyfriend last year "for the views," without thinking that perhaps a thick book wouldn't stop the bullet. Or the many, many compilation videos of hillbilly boys and girls building shoddy backyard ramps which collapse the moment they ride whatever-has-wheels over it. He thought that this would springboard him across the creek, instead he ate plywood. That's careless.
Your objection might be that you could point to hundreds of calculated stunts gone wrong and thousands of injured or even deceased stuntmen and women who overcame the mental block and took a risk. But outcome has nothing to do with whether something was reckless or careless, recklessness and carelessness are terms used to describe the first action—the doing of the thing.
You might also say, "Reckless or careless, it doesn't matter, both are daredevils. Both are stupid." But I would contend that the reckless one isn't a daredevil, he or she is merely dashing or bold or adventurous or venturesome or heroic or tough. Have you read The Hobbit? ok, or seen the movies?
Bilbo Baggins didn't have to leave the comforts of the Shire. It was bold of him to quest to slay a dragon and win a great prize. Would you not agree that fighting a dragon is a reckless act? and yet we're presented with what, two whole chapters of Thorin and Company planning their quest to the Lonely Mountain?
In context, "Reckless Love" is drawing on Jesus' parable of the shepherd, who was willing to leave ninety-nine sheep to rescue the one which was lost. I would argue that for a shepherd to leave his entire livelihood unattended and unguarded against the elements is in and of itself an act of recklessness.
Imagine you're a hot dog stand owner. You've invested your hard-earned money into the uniform, the cart, and the inventory. You've spent your entire morning cooking up a bunch of tasty 'dogs, when some punk kid runs up, grabs a weiner and takes off running. Do you leave all your 'brats to chase that brat? and risk losing everything? No way. That'd be reckless.
But Jesus our Great Shepherd did, in one way, abandon ninety-nine sheep to chase after you. He left the hosts of heaven—angel armies whose entire existence was to praise him "unceasingly" (Revelation 4 & 5)—to take on the form of a man and humbled himself, as Philippians 2:7-8 says that he emptied himself of all that it meant to be God, to suffer and die on your behalf.
I complain about getting out of the warm car to pump my mom's gas in the cold. Yet Jesus left perpetual worship in perfect communion with himself as God to be murdered. And though he may have known the outcome, he still suffered long and terrible years in the broken body of a man, not to mention days in anguish and horrific torture at his death. To leave Paradise for the desert, that's reckless.
Picture one last example. A few miles south of my hometown there is a cliff that many people have jumped from to their deaths. Many, many people. The jump itself is survivable, but the pocket of downward swirling currents, cycling, trapped on all sides by sharp rocks and made to naturally drain to God-knows-where, that's what will kill you.
One leg gets swept under and suddenly you're being thrown from wall-to-wall in an inky black abyss, trying and failing miserably to pump your arms and kick your feet, not knowing which way is up but straining every which way and hoping that you'll somehow be propelled in the right direction... bodies are seldom recovered from this place.
You'd think that ropes and signs would deter visitors from taking the plunge, but you'd be wrong. Year after year there is death after death, as what we locals call "the Sink" claims its own. Only a tourist would be so careless as to jump there.
But for one moment, picture yourself at the edge of those sharp rocks. You hear a cry from below—there's a small child whose foot is slipping on slick ground. You watch, unable to move or even think as this little one falls straightway into the Sink.
A careless man would jump into the Sink for fun or show off. A reckless man, however, might jump into the Sink to save that child. The outcome may be the same—both the careless and the reckless may die a horrendous and tragic death. But the reckless man jumped with purpose.
Not content to watch the helpless kick and flail, he left the comforts of safety to jump headlong into dangerous waters. His effort, though dangerous, was heroic. And inarguably warranted, as well. Any one of us would deem the man's endeavor noble, even if neither you nor I would have done the same.
The mental effort it would take for that man to weigh the pro's and con's of a rescue attempt, and overcome all the con's in a split second, then to time and balance his jump—that's thoughtful, intentional, calculated danger. That's what it means to be reckless.
I said before that the outcome has nothing to do with whether something was reckless or careless, that recklessness and carelessness describe the act of doing itself. Secondary to the discussion of the meaning of the word 'reckless,' however, is the discussion of consequences, of risk. I never said that reckless acts didn't have risks, only that the consequences—what's at stake in the doing—has no bearing on the meaning of the word itself.
Let's take a quick moment to talk about risks. The Jackasses risked health and well-being and comfort to make millions. Bilbo Baggins risked his life to slay dragons; he risked never seeing the rolling hills of his beautiful home again. The lowly hot dog stand owner risks exposing his other weiners to theft. Our shepherd risks losing all ninety-nine other sheep to storms and cliffs and wolves and whatever, just to save that one lost sheep. And the hero at the Sink risks death on the rocks to redeem that fallen child.
Jesus risked far more than any other hero, so much so that he has become the archetypal hero of all of our movies and books and legends. There's a little nugget of Gospel in every movie Hollywood cranked out this year, I assure you. Take the heroic Avengers, risking their lives to expel the mighty Thanos from our universe, for instance.
And there are biblical stories leading up to the life of Christ that demonstrate attributes of who the Christ will be, what he will be like. We call these stories messianic prophesies—as they foretell the coming of a Christ or a Messiah, and whenever we see a physical, anthropomorphic embodiment of the Christ we call that a christophany.
An example of a pre-incarnate christophany would be Melchizidek. Not much is known about him, the priest that Abraham paid homage to in Genesis, except that he was a king and a priest and that he encountered Abraham along his travels.
Upon deeper study, and if you want to dig a bit deeper see this sermon by John MacArthur, it's easy to see how Melchizidek was actually an agent sent directly from God himself to interrupt Abraham's adventure, to allow Abraham a chance to give an offering to God before proverbial crap hit the proverbial fan in the father of Israel's life.
Later on, in Hebrews, we're told that Jesus was a priest "in the order of Melchizidek." I could spend a whole year talking about this and nothing else but that's not the point of this blog post so, suffice to say, all this means is that Abraham encountered Jesus in the Old Testament. Now that I've established that we can move on to my point.
In the Old Testament, there are several messianic figures after Jesus the archetypal Messiah. These are heroes who, despite being flawed men, stood as living signposts to the coming Savior. Men whose very lives bore witness to the coming rescuer like little teaser-Jesus's. One such man was Daniel.
"Daniel, who was righteous, was accused by those jealous of him on a trumped-up charge (Dan. 6:4-13). The king recognized the injustice of Daniel’s condemnation and sought to deliver him (6:14). Nevertheless, Daniel was condemned, given over to certain death; then placed in a pit with a stone laid on the opening and sealed by the king (6:15-17). At daybreak those who lamented the way Daniel was treated came and found that his God had delivered him (6:19-23).
Jesus was also declared innocent (Matt. 27:24; cf. Luke 23:4, 14-15, 22, 41) but accused by those jealous of him (Matt. 27:18) on trumped-up charges (26:59-61; 27:15-19). Pilate recognized the injustice and sought to release Jesus (27:15-19). Nevertheless, Jesus was condemned to death (27:26), and after they crucified him he was put in a new tomb, with a stone rolled over the entrance (27:60), which was later sealed (27:66). At daybreak on the first day of the week those who lamented the way Jesus was treated came and found that God had raised him from the dead (28:1-10).
These points of historical correspondence, and the obvious escalation from Daniel to Jesus, constitute grounds for considering Daniel as a type of Christ."
The story of Daniel is a fascinating story of risk and of reckless abandon. Daniel risks being ostracized or worse by speaking up in defense of Jewish ideals. He risks imprisonment by speaking out against the evil king Nebuchadnezzar's false gods. He risks torture when asked to interpret the evil king's dreams, and he doesn't lie when the king's dreams meant bad news—he calls the king out.
Daniel's compatriots Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into a fiery furnace for their refusal to bow to false gods, and Daniel himself, having done nothing wrong, is thrown into a den of lions. Daniel knew he must risk torture and quite possibly a horrendous death in order to stand for truth and affirm his beliefs. Standing up and back-talking a tyrannical dictator, knowing what horrible possibilities lie ahead? That's reckless.
To conclude, it is in the many aforementioned ways that our God is reckless in his love for us. He's heroic, endeavoring, venturesome, and bold. He's a capable rescuer and gentle shepherd. He stands firm against tyranny. And consequence having nothing to with the meaning of the word 'reckless' itself as I've shown, he still risked grave consequences to "take on flesh."
I believe that in one sense, being fully man and tempted as we are, he risked failure as well. And paradoxically, being fully God, I believe he could have never failed. I'll never be able to sort that mystery out in my head, and there is a lyrical, poetic beauty to that. G.K. Chesterton said, "The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
I believe that Cory Asbury had his head in the heavens when he penned "Reckless Love" and my heart and mind affirm those words worth all of my being. That's what worship is, by the way, it's a convergence of spirit and truth (John 4:24), of poetry and law.
Lastly, I want to urge you, brothers and sisters in Christ, to have joy. This debate doesn't mean that the Church is divided, it means that believers everywhere are thinking critically about the words that they affirm, not just in the preaching and teaching of Scripture but in their response, in worship. It means we're all caring about theology and the theology nerd in me just rejoices at that!
Whether your church decides to sing about reckless love with abandon or to abandon "Reckless Love," one thing is sure: Thinking and debating in this way is healthy, it's making the global Church better, and it marks maturity among believers.