Last year, I wrote about a woman’s near-death experience (“We can do better“), and in the past few days it keeps coming to mind, as a window onto a certain way of thinking about God. So I thought I better write about it.
I think a (perhaps the) common conception of God is as the president of the company. As the president, he works in the big office many floors above our little cubicle. We rarely, maybe never, have any direct interaction with him. His main influence on us is that he wants us to obey his larger agenda. We accept that—that’s his job—but we also have a very ambivalent relationship with that larger agenda. The fact is that the president is not down in our cubicle. He doesn’t know what it’s like down there. He is not in touch with our needs. He has no real clue what’s actually best for us. He’s just got his big agenda that he’s plastered over all the little cubicles in the company, ours included. Quite obviously, his interest and awareness do not extend all the way down to the details of our particular job.
And so we are having to always do this complicated dance, where we follow his agenda to some degree, but we also look out for our own needs. We see our needs better than anyone else, certainly better than the president of the company. And if we don’t look out for our needs, for our happiness, no one else will.
Can you relate to that picture of God in relation to you? I don’t mean on an intellectual level; rather, on a practical level. Don’t we follow God to some degree, but also make sure we look out for and protect our own needs, because we are in touch with them like no one else is?
The near-death experience I’ve been thinking about provides a different view of God, one worth pondering. It was had by a woman named Mary Jo Rapini, who has talked about it in a Today Show interview and in an episode of Nightline. Here is how she recounted her experience on the Today Show:
“I went into this tunnel, and I came into this room that was just beautiful. God held me, he called me by name, and he told me, ‘Mary Jo, you can’t stay.’ And I wanted to stay. I protested. I said, ‘I can’t stay? Why not?’ And I started talking about all the reasons [why she should be allowed to stay]; I was a good wife, I was a good mother, I did 24-hour care with cancer patients.
“‘And he said, ‘Let me ask you one thing—have you ever loved another the way you’ve been loved here?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s impossible. I’m a human.’ And then he just held me and said, ‘You can do better.’”
It’s a gripping story, one that seems to display the president of the company in classic form. This is not exactly a namby-pamby God. No matter how much Mary Jo protests, He is still sending her back. He’s got His Will and that’s that. It’s almost like a job review: “Well, sir, I’ve produced 1000 widgets a day for the last two years. I deserve some vacation time.” “Sorry, Mrs. Rapini. You can do better.”
But there’s actually more to the story. I’ve seen and read her tell this story a few other times, and in two of those she has drawn out the part right before God says “You can do better.” Here is one of those other versions:
“God held me…I don’t remember if my whole body was in his arms or what…no recognition of that. I knew it was God because he was an omnipotent being. Not like a person…much less limited in form. I did not see God but felt him through my skin. He spoke through all of my senses. He called me by name and told me I could not stay. I protested. I told him all of my services on earth (working 24/7, not much money for my work, a good wife, a good mother) I did not want to leave this place. Then God asked me…He said ‘let me ask you one question.’ ‘Have you ever loved another person the way you have been loved here.’ The love I had received in that time was so overpowering…I had never felt anything like it so I answered God honestly. I said, ‘No…it is impossible…I am just a human, you are God.’ He gave me the illusion of a sweet protective chuckle. He then said, ‘Mary, you can do better.'”
I like the extra information we get in this telling: “I don’t remember if my whole body was in his arms.” “Felt him through my skin.” “The love I had received in that time was so overpowering.” But the main thing I want to direct your attention to is that comment near the end: “He gave me the illusion of a sweet protective chuckle.” Look at that sentence—it is full of paradoxes. God gave her an illusion? An illusion of a chuckle? A chuckle that was sweet (rather than belittling)? A chuckle that was protective? Clearly, she’s trying to describe a very complex thing. Here is another version, where she expands on the chuckle:
“And it [God] kind of chuckled. It wasn’t human, but it was able to relate to me in a very human way that made me feel loved. And it wasn’t laughing at me, but it was a chuckle, like it had a playful edge. And it said, ‘You can do better.’”
I find this expansion on the chuckle so intriguing. It helps us know what she meant by “He gave me an illusion of a…chuckle.” The illusion is that God is not human, so it is not His nature to chuckle. Any chuckling on His part would be an illusion. But He gave this illusion to her to “relate to me in a very human way that made me feel loved.” He got down on her level, in order to make her feel loved. I think that’s why she described the chuckle as “sweet.”
Notice that the chuckle “wasn’t laughing at me.” Rather, it was like God “had a playful edge.” The chuckle, in other words, is lightening the heaviness of the fact that He’s sending her back. It’s spreading a note of playfulness over what could seem like a stern edict. My guess is that this is why she described it as “protective.” It was there to protect her from what could easily look heavy, stern, even judgmental.
What is the actual message of the chuckle? I can only guess. But notice it is sandwiched in between “Of course I can’t love like You do” and “You can do better.” Once you put the chuckle in between those two things, I think you see its message instantly. He’s chuckling at her sense of limitation. His laugh is saying, “Ah, so you really think you can’t love like Me? You really think your love is limited by human limitations?” In light of this playful chuckle, His punch line follows naturally. You can almost hear the smile in His voice as He says, “You can do better.”
And while He’s doing all that, He’s also holding her: “And then he just held me and said…’”
Now we are in a position to see both sides of the equation. Yes, there is the president of the company side. Despite all her pleading, God sends her back. “No vacation time for you.” “But, sir, I’ve made those thousand widgets a day.” “Let me ask you: Have you ever had one day in which you made 10,000 widgets, like our factory robots do.” “No, sir, that’s impossible. I’m only human.” “You can do better. Get back to the factory.”
But then there is a whole other side, which goes far beyond the president of the company paradigm. He calls her by name. (“The president of the company knows my name!”) Imagine God calling you by name. He holds her. She is in His Arms. She feels Him through her skin. He speaks to her through all her senses at once. He loves her with a love that is so overpowering, so utterly beyond the human, that she begs to leave everything behind, including her husband and children, and just be with Him forever.
In response to her pleading, He doesn’t just lay down the law. He asks her a question, a question that allows her to see for herself why she needs to go back. His question—“Have you ever loved another person the way you have been loved here?”—implies that she is on earth to learn to love, to love like God loves. And then when she says, “I can’t do that; I’m only human (so You might as well let me stay, right?),” He gives her “the illusion of a sweet, protective chuckle.” Not a chuckler by nature, He is getting down on her level. He, the non-human, is relating to her in a human way to make her feel loved. He laughs gently at the thought that her love is penned in by human limitations. Through this same laugh, He protects her from a sense that she is being judged. He is letting her know that it’s a playful matter, not a heavy sentence. It’s a light matter of stretching beyond her quaint belief in limited capacity to love. “And then he just held me and said, ‘You can do better.’” In one brief sentence, he has not only explained why she has to go back, not only conveyed her assignment, He has done it with an undeniable point. How can she really deny that she can do better? We can always do better.
What grabs me about this is that not only is there so much love in it, but that this love is so incredibly intelligent. The combination of the question, the human-style relating, the chuckle, the playfulness, the sweetness, the protection, the holding, the undeniable punch line—it’s an extremely intelligent and sophisticated package. It gives you a sense of a God Who is anything but unaware of what’s going on in our cubicle, anything but distantly aloof in His top-floor office. Rather, He gets it—all of it, and He breaks His news to us in a way that runs circles around us. We are like a two-year-old playing against Bobby Fisher. But God is not trying to defeat us; He is trying to checkmate us with His Love.
Wouldn’t it be weird to think that God has us totally outsmarted? Wouldn’t it be strange to think that He actually sees our needs, and understands them far better than we do? What if, after all this time of protecting our happiness against His agenda, we realized that, all along, our happiness was His agenda?