The youngest son of Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” has committed suicide, the evangelical pastor said in a letter to members of his church on Saturday. Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Warren and his wife Kay, died after a long struggle with mental illness, according to the statement from Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The church asked for “everyone to join us in praying for the entire Warren family” on Saturday. “At 27 years of age, Matthew was an incredibly kind, gentle and compassionate young man whose sweet spirit was encouragement and comfort to many,” Saddleback Church said in the statement. “Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness resulting in deep depression and suicidal thoughts.”
…Warren wrote about his son’s death in an emotional letter to his church, calling his son “an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man.” “No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now,” Warren wrote in the letter. “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.” “In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided,” Warren wrote to church members. “Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”
We all get depressed. A beloved companion dies. A friend moves. A job changes. A relationship falters. There’s a sudden and unexpected crisis in our health or our finances. Depression is a normal response to all such difficult circumstances in life. We’re all familiar with the experience. Something bad happens, we’re staggered and sad for a spell, and then we pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off and carry on. It’s a normal part of life. We all get depressed from time to time, but for some of us who are depressed; it’s our “set” point.
The printer that’s connected to my computer has some default settings. The print quality is “normal.” The orientation is “portrait.” The paper size is “letter.” And the paper type is “plain.” I don’t have to do anything to my computer or the printer for it to print normally on ordinary letter-sized paper; that’s just how it’s set. But if I want to print something on legal-sized paper with the quality of a professional document, then I have to fiddle with the “properties” of my printer, making some deliberate adjustments to get those results. And for some of us, depression is our default setting; it’s our “normal.”
More than ten years ago I was diagnosed to be suffering from depression. A patient, loving wife, a good doctor, a daily pill and a perspective of faith have all helped me navigate the darkness quite effectively, but the experience has been defining. Like the key to a map, that little box down in the corner that tells you what all the different colored lines and markings on the page mean, so my diagnosis of depression has been something of a key to understanding who I am and why I am like that. You see, my depression may have been diagnosed only ten years ago, but I now understand that I have suffered from depression for the full 59 years of my life. It’s my “set” point.
I remember the first time I got glasses. I kept stumbling over the fine print in my teaching Bible at a study that I was leading in Amarillo. One of the class members, an optometrist, told me to come and see him in his office. And that’s how I went from wearing no glasses to wearing bifocals in just one doctor’s visit. And I remember how amazed I was at how clear everything suddenly became the minute I put those glasses on. And the same thing happened to me with my diagnosis of depression. It just explains so much.
I can now step back into moments in my life from childhood on and understand why I felt what I felt and reacted as I did. I was depressed. It turns out I have been my whole life long. Now, I don’t offer this as an excuse for anything that I’ve ever said or done. It’s not a ploy for sympathy, or an attempt to squeeze some strange kind of admiration out of you. Believe me, there’s nothing romantic or heroic about being depressed. It just is. And it is for more of us than you know.
The studies all indicate that depression affects approximately 19 million Americans, or 9.5% of the population age 18 and older at any given time. At some point in their lives, 10%-25% of women and 5%-12% of men will become clinically depressed. In fact, it affects so many people that it is often referred to as the “common cold” of mental illness. According to an Australian Government study, a country whose depression statistics are comparable to ours here in the United States, everyone, will at some time in their life be affected by depression – either their own or someone else’s. One study I’ve read suggested that in any random gathering of people, as many as 15% of them will be struggling with depression. If you are one of them, it’s important that you know that you are not alone. If you are not one of them, it’s important that you know that we’re here. And whether you are one of us or not, it’s important to know that being depressed is not a failure of faith.
My greatest struggle in being transparent about my own personal experience with depression has been my concern about what might happen to your confidence in me as your pastor when you learn that I am one of those people who deals daily with depression. When I was a kid, I remember unexpectedly seeing my minister on the high dive at the Verdugo Plunge, the city pool in my hometown of Glendale, California. It was horrible. I mean, there was my priest, my spiritual father, the man who ministered to me the life-giving sacraments of the church, nearly naked and screaming like a little girl as he hurtled feet first into the deep end of the pool. Any illusion that I might have had about his special sanctity was gone in the flash of that moment that has been forever burned into my memory. It was one of the best things that could have possibly happened to me and the development of my own soul and call.
You see, ministers are real people too. Ordination does not bring with it some kind of special immunity from life’s struggles. I was not made a minister because I had achieved a higher level of spiritual living than you, or showed the promise that someday I would. The imagined pedestal of ministerial superiority crumbled away a long time ago. Every pastor from my generation on has learned about “the wounded healer” from Henri Nouwen. He told us that it was not only useless, but foolish for us as ministers to think that we would be able to conceal our woundedness from our flocks. “Open wounds stink” he wrote. But paradoxically, he argued that those same wounds can become an important source of healing when they lead to mutual understanding and grace, the recognition that we are on this journey together as equals.
Listen to what he said –
A Christian community is a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision… Community arises where the sharing of pain takes place, not as a stifling form of self-complaint, but as a recognition of God’s saving (presence and) promises. (94)
Lewis Smedes suffered terribly from depression. A professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, America’s premier evangelical school, Lewis Smedes, a Godly man whose books I’ve read with deep appreciation for their spiritual wisdom and depth, nevertheless fell into a deep, dark place where just like Elijah in I Kings 19:1-12, he felt all alone. And just like Elijah, at what he described as “the ground zero of my hopelessness” (My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir 132), God showed up. In the pit of his depression, Lewis Smedes said that he discovered what “the old Hebrew verse-maker” told us – “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, you are there” (Psalm 139). In the wilderness his life had unexpectedly entered, God finally came to Lewis Smedes, breaking through his terror, and told him, “I will never let you fall; I will always hold you up,” so that Lewis could eventually say, “You can lie down in hell and find yourself in the hand of God,” and know that it was true in his own experience.
Believe me when I tell you that I wish that there were no wildernesses for us to have to pass through as Christians. If all it took for depression to vanish was faith, then believe me, there are a bunch of us who would have been free from its terrible hold on us a long, long time ago. Instead, in this wilderness of ours, we are learning, however slowly, however painfully, that “no matter how deep the pit is into which we descend, we keep finding God there. He is not aloof from our suffering, but draws near to us when we are suffering. He is vulnerable to pain, quick to shed tears and acquainted with grief,” We are never forsaken or forgotten; when we have to make our beds in hell, God is there. And my prayer for Rick Warren and his family in the coming days is that this is what they will discover. I believe that his son Matthew already knows just how true it is. DBS+
If you are struggling with depression, or love someone who is, and are trying to sort out what it all means, especially as a Christian, let me highly recommend Steve and Robyn Bloem’s 2005 book Broken Minds (Kregel Publications). More than just a personal narrative, although it is the story of Steve’s own struggles with depression as a minister that holds it all together; this book is the best single volume on the subject of depression that I have come across. Broken Minds brings together important clinical and Biblical and practical information on depression in a way that is specifically and helpfully addressed to Christians. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________