Over the last couple weeks, I’ve heard the song “Reckless Love” played at two different churches. It’s a catchy song and the YouTube video, posted just one month ago, already has more than a million hits. In short, it’s all but bound to become a Sunday morning staple. But what about the song’s central claim that God’s love is “reckless”? What should we make of that? (For the full lyrics click here.)
Let’s start with a definition of “reckless”:
reckless. “utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution; careless.” (source)
So to act in a reckless manner is to act without caution; it is to be careless, to show no concern for the consequences of one’s actions.
With that in mind, is God reckless?
Well, let’s keep in mind what we mean by “God”. In the Christian tradition, God is understood to be (among other things) omniscient (i.e. all-knowing) and maximally wise (i.e. exercising perfect judgment).
So does it make sense to say that a being that knows all things and always exercises perfect judgment could act without caution, carelessly, with no concern for their actions?
No, it doesn’t. As omniscient, God always perfectly knows every consequence of every action. As perfectly wise, he always acts with flawless judgment in every circumstance. God simply cannot act recklessly by definition.
The Careless Action Defense
Interestingly, the music leaders at both churches apparently recognize the tension because each introduced the song to the congregation with an unusual apology in which they defended the claim of God’s recklessness, in part by reading excerpts of an apology for the song on behalf of the songwriter. The main gist of the defense was the claim that while God himself isn’t “reckless”, his love nonetheless is.
Unfortunately, that’s nonsensical. It’s like saying “Jim isn’t violent, but his temper is”. Let’s be clear: if Jim’s temper is violent then it follows that Jim is violent. Pari passu, if God’s love is reckless then it follows that God is reckless. Period.
And God most certainly isn’t reckless.
So … case closed now?
The Hyperbole Defense
At this point, I’d like to explore a second defense, one which appeals to idiomatic interpretation of the ascription. While there are several literary devices that one could conceivably appeal to in this case (in particular, irony, oxymoron, or paradox), in my view the strongest candidate is hyperbole, and so that is the interpretation that I will consider here.
Here’s the definition of “hyperbole” from the Literary Devices website:
A hyperbole is a literary device wherein the author uses specific words and phrases that exaggerate and overemphasize the basic crux of the statement in order to produce a grander, more noticeable effect. The purpose of hyperbole is to create a larger-than-life effect and overly stress a specific point. Such sentences usually convey an action or sentiment that is generally not practically/ realistically possible or plausible but helps emphasize an emotion. (Source)
Is “reckless love” an example of hyperbole? At first blush, the answer might seem to be no. After all, hyperbole is exaggeration for effect. For example, if you’re hungry, you might hyperbolically say “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” Of course, you’re not really that hungry, but note that the hyperbolic description nonetheless exists on a continuum of hunger. “I’m so hungry I could at a burger … a pizza … a horse!”
But recklessness doesn’t seem to exist on a parallel hyperbolic continuum, does it?
Actually yes, it does. Consider this example. Dave says to Darlene: “Oh Darlene, I love you so much that I can’t see straight!”
The parabolic continuum here is one of personal incapacitation. “I love you so much I think about you often … think about you always … can’t even see straight!”
Just as the intensity of Dave’s love is hyperbolically described as inhibiting his oracular faculties, so the intensity of God’s love is hyperbolically described as inhibiting his critical thinking faculties to the point where he is reckless.
Love … or juvenile infatuation?
So it seems to me that “Reckless Love” presents us with a case of hyperbole. The question is whether it is a successful hyperbole.
The primary problem, as I see it, is that the hyperbolic description of recklessness connotes not the mature, steady love of God but rather the unstable, unreasonable infatuation of an impulsive young adult. (The image that comes to my mind is the final scene of Sing Street where the young teenage lovers get into a boat and set out for England: it’s an absurd action all but doomed to failure. And yet, that’s the unreasonable reckless infatuation of a young adult.)
Calling God’s love reckless distorts that love by comparing it to youthful infatuation that acts in an impulsive and irrational manner based on intense but wavering feelings. Contrast this with Paul’s description in Ephesians 1:
3 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.4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
God’s love is the very antithesis of recklessness.
What is more, when God asks us to live out Christ’s love he challenges us likewise to set aside the intensity of wavering infatuations and instead soberly count the cost:
26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14)
To sum up, God’s love is not reckless: it cannot be. Nor, in my view, is it helpful to think of God’s love as hyperbolically reckless because doing so frames God’s love as a youthful infatuation rather than the abiding, steady, well-planned, and eminently non-reckless love through which we were chosen before the creation of the world and for which we have been called soberly to count the cost.