The only thing worse than getting a song stuck in your head is getting a song stuck in your head whose theology you find mildly reprehensible.
But such is the case with the overwhelming, never-ending catchiness of “Reckless Love”
It’s one of those tunes that chases me down, fights till I’m found, and lodges it’s hypnotically rolling melody inside my skull whether or not I want it to.
Which wouldn’t be so bad, it it weren’t for the third line of the chorus:
“I couldn’t earn it / and I don’t deserve it”
If these lyrics seem innocuous, it’s only because we’ve repeated them so often in so many songs that we have become deaf to the anti-gospel words we are singing.
There’s a story Jesus once told about a boy who runs away from home and wastes his money on drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll before dragging his sorry ass home to face his father and get his shit together.
As the boy trudges home he rehearses his apology, trying to figure out a way to explain his long absence, his wasted inheritance, his dirty face. These are the words he mutters to himself on the long walk:
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
When he arrives home, he recites the apology just as he’d rehearsed.
And if the Father was anything like the God of our theology, he’d say:
“You’re right, you are unworthy to be called my son.”
He never does.
Instead of affirming his son’s declaration of unworthiness, the Father emphatically denounces it with actions that cannot be misunderstood:
“Bring my robe! Bring my ring! Dress this boy in the garb of a beloved son! Cook a feast! Throw a party! Remind him that, contrary to everything he believes about himself, he is still worthy to be loved. Nothing he did, nothing he ever could do, can change that.”
It’s reckless, to be sure.
How many times did that boy look longingly at the road toward home before shaking his head and returning to the familiar mud?
How often was he paralyzed by a rush of shame telling him he was unworthy, undeserving of his father’s love?
How frequently did the grip of fear inside him suffocate the whisper of hope?
How much sooner would he have set foot on the path back to his father’s house, if only he had known he was still welcome?
But he didn’t know.
He didn’t know that there was a robe and a ring and a party waiting for him.
He didn’t know that his father isn’t the sort of man who keeps a tally of rights and wrongs, isn’t the sort of man who would make his own son earn redemption.
He didn’t know that he still deserved love.
Brene Brown says that shame is the deeply painful belief that because I am flawed, I am unworthy of love and belonging.
The Gospel says that Jesus died to defeat shame and remove its power over us.
So why do we insist on repeating the lies of shame in our Sunday morning songs over and over, rehearsing the apology of the wayward son?
(I am unworthy. I am unworthy. I am unworthy.)
There’s a common bit of theology floating around our churches that suggests God got the shit end of this redemption deal.
It says that we are worthless sinners, vile worms, unworthy children, deserving only of torture and death.
It says that when God gave God’s life in exchange for ours, we got everything and God got nothing.
It says we have no inherent value, but God wants us anyhow.
It says that God’s reckless acquisition of us is evidence of God’s incredibly deep love.
I would like to suggest that this is bullshit.
I believe that when God looks at humankind, God doesn’t see something worthless.
I believe that when God looks at us, God sees something infinitely valuable, infinitely deserving of love.
I believe that because we are created in the image of the Divine, we all have inherent worth.
I believe that’s why God was willing to go to such great lengths so save us.
God doesn’t look at you and say “Yeah, that person is a piece of shit but I’m going to die to save them anyhow because I’m so loving.”
God looks at you and says, “Yes, you are valuable, worthy, deserving of love and I’m going to die for you because you are worth it.”
Look, I have have no beef with “Reckless Love” per se.
It’s no “Oceans”, but it’s a rollicking jam that Christians seem to like. Plus, Justin Bieber did a cover of it, so there’s that.
I’m not suggesting that we abolish the song completely, but maybe by changing a word (or two) we could make it suck less.
I cannot claim credit for this idea. It came from my partner Ellen — the same woman who almost started a second Reformation in the middle of a Catholic wedding when the priest said that only members of the Church could receive the Body and Blood of Christ and she loudly whispered “THIS IS BULLSHIT!”
We’d been discussing the problematic theological implications of “Reckless Love” for a week or two when she told me that she’d found a cheeky edit that resolved the shame conundrum:
“I couldn’t earn it / but I deserve it”
Can you imagine that?
It feels blasphemous the first time you say it out loud.
Say “I deserve hell” in a church and nobody blinks. We’re very comfortable with the voice of shame.
But say “I deserve love” … and it feels too good to be true.
What would our religion be like if we stopped repeating the apology of the wandering son as if it were true and instead whispered to one another the almost-too-good-to-be-true reality about the father:
He has no interest in all the ways we believe that we no longer deserve his affection. He only wants us to know that we are loved.
What would our songs sound like if we agreed with our party-happy God who looks at us and says, “They deserve the very best of everything I have.”?
Can you imagine that?
What if, instead of affirming the voice of shame that says we are unworthy of love, the songs we sing on Sunday morning affirm our incredible worth as image-bearers of the divine?
Try it out sometime.
It’s reckless, to be sure.
But that’s the way love is.
published July 26, 2018
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