Matthew Warren and the effects of suicide

This is, by far, the second hardest thing that I've ever written. The first being the speech that I gave at my father's memorial service two years ago.

Most of you have heard that this past Friday, Matthew Warren, mega-church pastor Rick Warren's 27 year-old son, took his own life after a life-long battle with depression. Rick sent out this email to the staff of Saddleback Church:

Subject: Needing your prayers

To my dear staff,

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 bee-line 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.

Pastor Rick

On Sunday nights at church, we gather to pray for many different things: the life of the church, members, family, friends, our government, etc. I felt compelled to pray for the Warren family but when I stood up to do so I was overcome with emotion. This came out of nowhere. I had no inkling that I would be unable to speak words. It was surprising and disconcerting.

On January 21, 2011, my father took his own life. It was unexpected and we had no warning. My mother, sister, and I were left with holes in our world and unanswered questions. I grieved for many months and, I thought, had come to terms with it, but apparently the wound is still raw. The hurt still hurts. Sadness is certainly there. But, more than that, there is anger. A burning anger. Indignation is perhaps a better word. A righteous indignation? Most likely not. But it is there nonetheless.

My pastor, Aaron Menikoff, preached a sermon yesterday on suffering and how it reveals God's glory, his love, his Son, and the cross. I connected with it in a visceral way. I felt what he was saying. I could feel the Spirit affirming his words and their very real meaning in my life. God was speaking to me, through Aaron.

I never once questioned God's decision to take my father. I never lost faith. I never didn't believe that God's will was being done. Many people can't say that and I don't take any credit for these things. It is only because of God's grace that I can say this. For many years I've been content with giving God control. My life is a very real lesson to me that my way doesn't work. Now, I'm not being naive. I realize that there are some who just “let go and let God” and they do it with a very superficial attitude. That isn't what I've done. I know that God is in control. I know that whatever he's doing, whether we see it as unspeakable evil or not, it is working for the best. I believe that. I have to believe that. Scripture doesn't allow me to believe otherwise. I've faced unspeakable evil and I can stand up today and say with a loud and boisterous cry that God is in control. We are promised a reward. We are not promised an easy road to that reward. In fact, the case can certainly be made that, for Christians, the road is going to be exponentially harder because of our faith. It has been for me.

Aaron also spoke about believers who need to repent for their bitterness towards God. I know, personally, believers who fall into this category. Bitterness is a jagged pill. It leads to spiritual death. If we are bitter towards God, we begin to mistrust him. We begin to fault his will and question his judgment (think Job). I've never been bitter towards God. I have been bitter though. I am bitter. I'm bitter towards my father. I'm bitter at his choice. His seemingly uncaring actions. Though my mother and sister would argue that he ended his life in order to help his family, I scream that that is no excuse. That is the antithesis of helping. What he did was selfish. I need a father, not a martyr. I want to know what he was thinking. What was he thinking as he woke up early that morning, got out of the bed that he shared with my mother, walked past my room, went downstairs, and took his life. Did he think about me? Did he think how his death would affect me? Did he take my life into consideration? I hold on to this bitterness in a selfish way. I want to be bitter. I want to be angry at him. I haven't forgiven him. I don't want to forgive him. Not yet, at least. We are commanded to forgive others. I know that. Like trusting in God, it's easier said than done.

Like Matthew Warren, I have had a life-long battle with depression, specifically bipolar disorder. I've taken medication, seen therapists, and gone to groups. They all help in their own way. For me, there was no panacea. It is a cumulative effort. And it is an ongoing effort. Depression can't be “cured” as we think of curing diseases (because depression is a disease). It can only be managed. I fully believe that God could cure me if he wanted to. I've certainly prayed for it. But, like Paul, my weaknesses force me to rely on God. I'm fine with being bipolar because I know that, again, God is in control.

I don't pretend to know what Matthew was going through. I don't know what he was thinking. Depression is different for everyone. For me, I've never contemplated suicide. I've never felt hopeless. I feel helpless at times, though. I feel unmotivated. I feel unimportant. I do know, though, that Matthew suffered. He was in pain. He believed that the only way to end that pain was to end his life. He was wrong. His actions were selfish. He has destroyed his family. He has wreaked havoc on his parents. He has left them with questions.

I don't believe that my father is in heaven. He wasn't a believer. I don't know about Matthew Warren. His father believes he was a believer and I pray that he is right. I pray that Matthew is singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” before God right now. I pray this earnestly and with tears in my eyes. I pray that Matthew will see Jesus and tell him that he's sorry he wasn't stronger, that the pain was just too much. I pray that Jesus will hold Matthew in his arms and that Matthew will no longer feel the pain that he felt throughout his short life. I pray.

And so, for the Warrens I pray for this: That Rick and Kay, if they haven't already, reach the same place that I am in. The utter conviction that God is in control. That his will is being done. I pray that the body of Christ at Saddleback and in all of Christendom will minister to the Warren family. That they will just be there for them. There are no magic words. Simply being there to listen and to share stories about Matthew will help. I pray that the Warrens will feel the very real love of God in their lives. But most of all, I pray that the Warrens aren't bitter with Matthew.

Ed Stetzer offers CNN his thoughts on four things Christians can do, including “not be afraid of medicine” and “end the shame.” (He expands his ideas on his own blog.) Justin Taylor offers a sizable roundup of sermons and resources related to suicide and depression. And C. Michael Patton, who has publicly blogged his struggle with depression in the wake of his sister's suicide, offers his thoughts on the “asphyxiation of hope.”