Bethel Music’s Cory Asbury hit it big with his song about the “the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.”
“Reckless Love” reached No. 1 for Christian airplay last week, with more than 10 million listeners, according to Nielsen Music.
It’s also back at the top of Billboard’s hot Christian songs chart, thanks to a boost from none other than Justin Bieber, who recently posted a clip of himself singing the chorus on Instagram before performing the song as part of an impromptu worship set during the Coachella music festival in California. Earlier this year, Israel Houghton offered his gospel cover.
But when worship songs make it big, they also get subjected to a degree of theological scrutiny, and some have questioned whether the message of the hit song misrepresents the nature of God’s love.
“A lot of people have asked why I use the word ‘reckless’ to describe the love of God,” Asbury said in a Bethel Music promo. “I see the love of God as something wild, insane, crazy. The way that he pursues, chases us down, loves, I believe, is reckless. We were going after that really furious, violent language to speak of the nature of the love of God.”
Back in the ’90s, Rich Mullins sang about the “the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.” Similarly, in the worship song “Furious,” Jeremy Riddle, also of Bethel Music, describes God’s love as “furious,” “fierce,” and “wild.”
About a decade ago, Christians were debating John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves” over the line “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss.” More recently, concerns over the “wrath of God,” as sung in the hymn “In Christ Alone,” led certain churches to alter the verse or stop singing the song altogether.
The chorus of “Reckless Love,” co-written by Asbury as well as Caleb Culver and Ran Jackson with Bethel Music, goes:
O, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
O, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, you give yourself away
O, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah
The song unofficially debuted last year from Bethel Music before becoming the lead single off Asbury’s album of the same name, which released in January.
The singer explained, “When I use the phrase, ‘the reckless love of God,’ I’m not saying that God himself is reckless. I am, however, saying that the way he loves, is in many regards, quite so.”
Assemblies of God minister and theologian Andrew Gabriel pushed back against the distinction, saying that “you can’t separate God from his attributes.” In a blog post addressing “Reckless Love,” he stated that “God loves us with clear and thoughtful intention,” not careless abandon. Even the parable of the lost sheep does not necessarily convey irresponsibility since scholars say shepherds routinely watched each other’s flocks if one went away, he said.
Blogger Paul Yoo similarly made the case that the Bible does not portray such a free-wheeling Savior: “God’s love seems reckless because he is so unconcerned about himself or his well-being in the way he loves. However…the whole Bible shows us that God is not unconcerned with himself but is ultimately for himself.”
CT asked Christian music experts to weigh in on “Reckless Love.” Most agreed that it’s a good thing for Christians to examine the theology beneath catchy lyrics—and said it’d be reckless not to.
Wen Reagan, adjunct instructor of church history and worship at Duke Divinity School:
Reckless could be taken two ways here. One is with its common implication of “thoughtlessness” or “carelessness.” I think we can all agree that’s not a very accurate description of God’s love for us, and if that was the association here, then the song would be problematic. But I think there’s a second connotation, and one better supported by the lyrical context. We might call it “foolishness,” and I think that’s spot-on.
By the world’s standards, God’s love is foolish. It’s extravagant, inefficient, scandalous. It throws a feast for the returning son who ran away with the inheritance and blew it. It hands you its coat when you steal its shirt. It blesses its enemies. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. As Christian mystic Saint Therese of Lisieux explained, it’s never calculating or strategic. As songwriter John Mark McMillan put it, it’s a sloppy wet kiss. Or, in this case, as Cory Asbury sings, it “leaves the 99.” Other sheep, that is. What kind of shepherd leaves the whole herd just to chase down a lost one? Some might say a foolish one. Or a reckless one.
Todd E. Johnson, theological director of the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary:
There are two words that are helpful here. Myth, or that which we expect… and parable, or that which we do not expect: the last will be first, marriages end in divorce, the Samaritan is the best example of faith, and the kingdom of God is like a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in search of the lost one. This reckless shepherd is a kingdom example in that parable, a reckless example with which we are still uncomfortable evidently.
Popular worship songs, past and present, are often more poetic than prose. The chorus of the once-popular hymn “I Serve a Risen Savior” is a good example. Jesus does not literally walk and talk with us, nor does Jesus literally live in our physical heart. But we know what this means because we do not take it literally, but metaphorically, poetically. Even when interpreted poetically, songs still convey a theology that may or may not be universally accepted. For example, in the Stuart Townsend and Keith Getty song, “In Christ Alone” it is proclaimed—directly, in this case, not metaphorically—“’Til on that cross as Jesus died, / The wrath of God was satisfied” Some churches do not sing this song (some even have attempted to change the lyrics) because they do not subscribe to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Songs are powerful instruments of faith, both forming and expressing faith.
For this reason, we are prudent to ask if we do, in fact, believe what we sing and sing what we believe and make this a theological and pastoral question used in the choices of the diet of music offered for our congregation’s worship. To do otherwise would seem reckless.
Joel Heng Hartse, Christian music writer and reviewer:
Theologically and emotionally, [“Reckless Love”] seems good, although I always find it weird when worship songwriters insist vehemently on how much God loves “me.” I once heard a worship leader sing an original song that said of God “you journal about me every day.” I wish I were making that up. I guess I could see the bridge of this song as similarly self-focused (“There’s no shadow You won’t light up / Mountain You won’t climb up / Coming after me”), which I've never really liked. I change “I” and “me” to “us” and “we” under my breath when I sing this kind of song in church.
I suppose we all get our hackles up when we see lyrics that don't jive with our theology—think of the “wrath of God was satisfied” versus “the love of God was magnified” change to “In Christ Alone” (I was on “team love” in that one)—but it would probably be better if congregations just wrote their own songs instead of relying on whatever is topping the charts. In theory, if your worship is an organic process emerging from who you are as a particular body of believers, you'd be less likely to get wrapped up in larger cultural disputes and be able to focus on what is being produced in your own church and whether it is an accurate reflection of that particular body's expression of devotion, worship, praise, lament, what have you.
Sandra Van Opstal, pastor, liturgist, and author of The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World:
Christian worship is formation. People remember the songs they sing more than the truth that is preached. Given the accessibility of worship songs, the entire theology of this generation globally is being shaped by a dozen or so musicians in three different countries. That is what disturbs me.
My concern is not whether in this one case reckless is the right word to describe God; that misses the entire issue. My passion is for people to understand that the worship industrial complex has become so influential that millions of people around the world are being discipled via iTunes. The narrative of God and faith is in the hands of a few worship movements who aren’t talking about how their social location, cultural values, and racial privilege shape their faith.
“Reckless Love” became popular because it is a catchy tune that speaks to all of our human desires to be loved and known, especially this generation that is less and less fully known given the forms of connection they use. A poetic song about someone’s personal encounter with God doesn’t rise to the top of the charts without the mechanism of popularity and privilege.