Vitriol infests Rick Warren family’s Grief
Cathy Lynn Grossman USA Today | April 8, 2013
In the days since, uncounted strangers have joined the 20,000 congregants who worship at the mega church network “Pastor Rick” built in Southern California, Warren’s nearly 1 million Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers in flooding social media with consolation and prayer. “Kay and I are overwhelmed by your love, prayers, and kind words,” Warren tweeted on Sunday. “You are all encouraging our broken hearts.”
But a shocking number are taking the moment of media attention to lash out at Warren on their digital tom-toms. The attacks are aimed both at him personally and at his Christian message. Some unbelievers want to assure Rick and Kay Warren, his wife and Matthew’s bereaved mother, that there’s no heaven where they’ll meet their son again. “Either there is no God, or God doesn’t listen to Rick Warren, despite all the money Rick has made off of selling false hope to desperate people,” one poster from Cincinnati wrote in to USA Today. In another comment, the same poster counsels Warren to “abandon primitive superstitions and accept the universe for what it is — a place that is utterly indifferent to us.” …Others have appointed themselves 140-character theologians in a debate over whether someone once saved can lose his or her salvation if suicide is against God’s law. These posters, rather than waiting for Judgment Day, have ruled for hell…
A dozen times in my 40 years of pastoral ministry I have been called upon to preside at the funeral of someone who has taken his or her own life. And then I have been left to work with the grief of those who survive the death of the one who has committed suicide. As you can well imagine, it is among the more heart-wrenching tasks of ministry. As I have picked my way through the wreckage that is created when someone takes their own life, I have, as a “V.D.M.” (“Verbi Divini Minister” – ‘Servant of the Word of God” – see my April 2 blog), turned to Scripture for wisdom and guidance. And frankly, when I did I was rather surprised by what I found, or more accurately, by what I didn’t find.
The Bible tells us about seven people who took their own lives, six in the Hebrew Scriptures: Both Saul and his armor bearer (I Samuel 31:1-7), Ahitophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (I Kings 16:11-20), Abimelech (Judges 9:50-57) and Samson (Judges 16:23-30); and Judas Iscariot in the Christian Scriptures (Matthew 27:3-10; Acts 1:16-20). In all seven cases, the stories of these people taking their own lives were told without making any moral judgments or drawing any spiritual conclusions. The silence of Scripture here is striking since it is so widely assumed that suicide is clearly and consistently condemned by the Bible. It is not. It is tragic, it is aberrational, and it is agonizing, but no enduring truths emerge out of the stories of the seven suicides that the Bible narrates.
The tradition of viewing suicide as a sin is largely the result of an interpretation of the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not murder” (Exodus 20:13). If it is a sin to commit murder, as this commandment so clearly says that it is, then if a person murders himself, then it just follows that it must be a sin too. And because suicide is an act that cannot be repented of and confessed after it has been committed – the presupposition here is that there are no second chances given to us after we die – then suicide is not just a sin, it is an unforgivable sin – a final unconfessed sin that excludes us from the joys of heaven. Beyond the fact that this is not how our Jewish mothers and fathers understand or have ever understood this commandment and its application to the question of suicide – and since it was theirs as Jews before it was ours as Christians, how they have historically understood it should have some bearing on how we understand it now – there is the larger problem of the spiritually precarious position that you will wind up in if you think that unconfessed sin in a believer’s life excludes us from salvation. I could be killed instantly in an accident or drop dead suddenly from a medical condition and not have time to formally repent of and confess my sins. Will this exclude me from God’s nearer presence? This mechanical and technical understanding of the dynamics of forgiveness misses the whole point of what the New Testament is saying about justification by faith through grace. And so I’m not convinced that the sixth commandment brings any more clarity to the question of suicide than the seven Biblical narratives of those who committed suicide do.
As I have sought wisdom and guidance from the Bible on the question of suicide, I have found that it is Matthew’s application of what the Prophet Isaiah said about the Suffering Servant (42:3) to Jesus Christ that has helped me the most – “A bruised reed He will not break off, a dimply burning wick He will not extinguish” (Matthew 12:20). In the history of Christian interpretation, these images of a broken reed and a sputtering wick have been taken as references to people with crushed souls and despairing hearts. The “bruised reed” describes a person bowed under the burdens of life, a person just about to collapse under their weight, a person whose strength is faltering and fading fast. The ”smoldering wick” has been taken to mean a person of faint promise and vanishing hope, one whose life if flickering and fading out. “Bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks” are of little value. They are both hopeless cases. Ordinarily they would be broken off and put out. But Jesus Christ came not to discourage and condemn, but rather to comfort and redeem. And so Matthew tells us that Jesus Christ does not cast such people away from His presence, but rather He gathers them up and He gathers them in. He deals with them kindly and gently. They become the special objects of His concern and care.
In 1990 the award winning author William Styron published his memoir Darkness Visible. This was his gut-wrenching account of his struggle with depression that nearly drove him to take his own life. He concluded that people kill themselves, not because they are cowards, or weaklings, or spiritually confused, or morally depraved, but rather “because they are afflicted with a depression that is so devastating that they can no longer endure the pain of it.” He explained that the pain of depression kills because “its anguish can no longer be borne” by those it victimizes, and that no more reproof should be attached to those who take their own lives than is attached to someone who dies of cancer or heart disease.
And it is connecting these three dots – the surprising silence of the Bible on suicide, what Matthew 12:20 says about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, and what William Styron said about the destructive power of depression’s pain – that has informed my pastoral response when the phone rings and I learn that a member of my flock, someone I have known and loved, has taken his or her own life. The last time this happened, a little over a year ago, the message that I preached at the funeral of my friend is the distillation of the wisdom and guidance that I have gotten from Scripture and experience, and that I had to offer to those who were left behind wondering – “Why did this happen?” – and, perhaps even more urgently for us as people of Christian faith – “Where was God?” I offer it here as a resource for any who might be struggling with these questions in the aftermath of the Warren family tragedy, or in the aftermath of your own tragedies — DBS+
The Lord Looks on the Heart ~ I Samuel 16:7
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,” the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, and “neither are my ways your ways” (55:8). Consider the way that God looks at us. Samuel, the prophet, was sent by God to the little Judean town of Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, with a horn full of oil and an eye for royalty. Saul had forfeited his throne, and it was time for God’s choice of the next ruler for His people to be revealed. And so, one by one Jesse’s sons were paraded before the prophet. Young, strong, brave and handsome, any one of them would have appeared to have fit the bill. “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before me,” Samuel thought to himself as he looked over the seven candidates. But Samuel felt nothing stir in his heart as he looked them over. The Lord designated none of them king to Samuel by inner witness. And so Samuel asked Jesse, “Is this it… is this all there is?” And Jesse replied, “Well, there is one more, the baby of the family, but he’s out watching sheep.” “Send for him,” Samuel said, and when David was ushered into Samuel’s presence the Lord showed him that this was the one who was to be king. “Do not look on a man’s appearance or on the height of his stature,” God told Samuel, “for the Lord does not see as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). We form our judgments of people by how they look, by the way they dress, by the accent of their speech, by the work they do, by the things they own, and by the things they do. We have to look on the externals. But God told Samuel that he looks on the internals, on those places we never get to see.
In the Biblical languages the heart is the central organ of the body, and by way of analogy, the center of a person’s being. In Hebrew the word for heart means “the midst,” what is in the middle. And the Scriptures consistently teach that one’s true identity will be found in our depths and not by what’s on the surface. From the Biblical perspective, life is always lived from the inside out. And so, when God looks on our hearts, what does God see?
Well, someone has written that before we have finished with this life, the world will have done one of three things to us: “it will make our hearts very hard; it will make our hearts very soft; or else it will break our hearts altogether. No one escapes.”
Some hearts God sees are very hard. Throughout the Bible this is the assessment of the spiritually dead – their hearts are hardened. Like stones, some people’s hearts grow callous and hard before the verities of life. This is what happens to some people’s hearts; but I don’t think it’s what happened to Jeff’s.
Some hearts God sees are very soft. In Scripture the hard heart is often contrasted with the heart of flesh. The prophet Ezekiel said that the work of God in us is the spiritual equivalent of a heart transplant. “I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “I will remove the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:27). This heart of flesh is warm, soft and pliable. It can be shaped and moved. This is what happens to the hearts God touches; and I have reason to believe that Jeff’s heart had been. In fact, I was there when it happened. De Colores!
And some hearts God sees are very broken. In fact, I suspect that this is what God saw when He looked at Jeff’s heart in recent days. God is drawn to these kinds of hearts. In one of his wonderful songs Wayne Watson describes Christ as “the friend of the wounded heart,” and I think that’s right. To describe the ministry of Jesus Christ, Matthew in his Gospel quoted this line from one of the Suffering Servant Songs from the book of the prophet Isaiah – “He will not break the bruised reed, or quench the smoldering wick” (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20). In the history of interpretation these images of the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick have been taken as references to broken people with crushed souls; to those who are in great despair and with little hope. And here’s the Gospel’s promise: our God does not ignore these people; our God does not forget these people; and our God will not abandon these people because Christ is the friend of the wounded heart.
Shortly before he was ordained to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, one of Brennan Manning’s professors at DuquesneUniversity in Pittsburgh told him this story. One of 13 children, one day Brennan’s professor got thirsty while playing outside. And so he quietly entered the pantry off the kitchen to get a cool glass of water. While doing so, he overheard his father visiting with a neighbor at the kitchen table. “Joe,” the neighbor said, “there’s always been something I’ve wanted to know; with 13 children surely you have a favorite. Which one of your kids do you love the most?” Well, Brennan’s professor put down his glass and pressed his ear more closely to the door, hoping against hope to hear his own name spoken. And his father said, “Do I have a favorite? Is there one I love more than the others? Of course I do, that would be Mary – she’s just 12 years old, has braces on her teeth, and feels so ugly that she hardly ever leaves her room these days. I sure love my Mary – but you asked me about my favorite didn’t you? That would be Peter – he’s 23 years old and his fiancée just broke off their engagement. He’s desolate. I love him so. But you asked about my favorite didn’t you? That would have to be little Michael, he’s small for his age and totally uncoordinated. He never gets picked to play ball, and all the other boys make fun of him. My heart belongs to little Michael. But the child I love the most would have to be Ann – she’s 24 and off living by herself in the city now, and she’s developing something of a drinking problem I fear. I weep for my Ann. But you asked which of my children I love the most – that would have to be….” And so it went. That father sitting at his table telling his neighbor the names and needs of each of his 13 kids, one by one in answer to the question, “Which one do you love the most?” And Brennan’s professor ended that story by saying, “What I learned that day standing in the pantry was that my father loved the most the one who needed him the most at the time. And that’s how the father of Jesus Christ is too – He loves the most those who need Him the most.”
There is so much that we will never understand about what happened to bring us to this moment here this morning. There are so many questions that we cannot ask right now, and so many answers that we want so desperately to hear. I can only imagine the anguish of that silence. But here’s one thing about which we can be absolutely certain – in the painful circumstances of Jeff’s life in recent years, and a week ago Thursday, God loved Jeff the most because that’s when Jeff needed God the most. And in these agonizing days that have followed, God has been loving you who are Jeff’s family and friends the most because this has been when you have needed Him the most. And in closing I would suggest that because this is who God is in Jesus Christ, the friend of the wounded heart, that we can trust Jeff with Him, and ourselves. That’s where the healing begins.