It is with deep sympathy that Christians across the United States offered prayers last Sunday for the family of Rick Warren, California mega-church pastor and best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. The news of his son Matthew’s suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression broke on Saturday, bringing mental illness into not only national headlines, but also into the conversations of churchgoers, who, truth be told, have not always been the most sympathetic and understanding of this complex issue.
I recall a time when as a college student, I overheard a conversation between a friend and another young woman who happened to be a committed Christian. My friend shared that she had lost her teenage brother to suicide after he spent dark years struggling with depression. The other woman informed her in no uncertain terms that depression is a form of demonic possession, and that if her brother had received healing prayer, he would not have died. Needless to say, this did not inspire my friend to join the young woman’s church. Now, of course, this is an extreme example, but it highlights the fact that that the church hasn’t always been the best at untangling the physiological, emotional and spiritual threads that surround mental illness.
The good news, which many churches have been shouting from rooftops for years, is that God is with us, even in our suffering. The Dark Night of the Soul is not a sign that God has abandoned us, or that we are somehow being punished. The other good news is that the Body of Christ is alive and well in the world, and, in many churches and communities, it offers a safe harbor from the storms of life, even the internal ones.
Furthermore, medical and therapeutic advances over recent decades have shed ever-increasing light on the mysteries of mental illness, making them more treatable than at any point in history. Nothing will alleviate suffering completely, as the death of Matthew Warren reminds us, but it is important to see the hope that we have.
When Rick Warren shared the news of his son’s death, he chose to write a letter to his congregation, telling them about his son’s struggles, and also about his joys. It is heartbreaking that any parent should have to write such a letter, but it is a beautiful expression of love and loss and vulnerability:
To my dear Saddleback Family,
Over the past 33 years we’ve been together through every kind of crisis. Kay and I’ve been privileged to hold your hands as you faced a crisis or loss, stand with you at gravesides, and prayed for you when ill. Today, we need your prayer for us.
No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now. Our youngest son, Matthew, age 27, and a lifelong member of Saddleback, died today.
You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man. He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a beeline to that person to engage and encourage them.
But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.
Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?” but he kept going for another decade.
Thank you for your love and prayers. We love you back.
When someone in such a position of influence in American Christianity is touched by mental illness, I can’t help but hope that the stigma that exists in our society at large, and in the church in particular, will be eased at bit. People are talking about depression and other mental health issues this week, which is a great place to start. There is an abundance of articles and resources available online, including an excellent post on the Her~meneutics blog on ChristianityToday.com that has many practical suggestions for making the church a more hospitable place for those with mental illness. As the author reminds us, we are not called to have all the answers or be able to fix everything, but we are called to love.
As we pray for the Warren family, let us pray too that God will open our eyes to the suffering in our own congregations, families and communities. Truly, lives are in the balance.
— Caren Swanson
(Image by flickr user spinster cardigan, via creative commons.)