The Christian world was shocked last week when news spread of the death of 27-year-old Matthew Warren, the youngest son of internationally known pastor Rick Warren of the famed Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, Calif. The official autopsy report released last Monday by the Orange County Coroner's Office concluded that the young man died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Friday, April 5.
In an email to his congregation the following Saturday, Warren wrote, "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."
Warren described Matthew as "an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man," as those who grew up with him would also say. "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," he continued. "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."
Warren went on to describe his son's pain in words that many experienced therapists and pastors have heard echoed by those who struggle with mental anguish. "Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of his 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?'"
Despite consultation with top physicians, counseling, medication and floods of prayer, Warren calls his son's mental illness a life-long battle lost. One experienced therapist in Warren's church said, "As a therapist I have seen many clients who have dealt with life-long, crippling mood disorders that were not improved by therapy and only marginally improved with meds. I have seen clients grapple with the fact that they become suicidal if they are non-compliant with a daily regime of psychotropic drugs. It is heartbreaking."
While it may comfort some to try and pick apart this description to try to find something underneath that is exceptional, it is also cruel. Who of us knows what part of mental illness is biological and what part is environmental and even what part is sinful? I posed that question to a Christian psychiatrist friend who has treated all manner mental illness for 30 years. He just looked at me and said, "I haven't a clue." Then he added, "I actually do have lots of clues but it never is simple. Never. Period. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
Most of you reading this column either have someone in your family or perhaps you have your own struggles with depression. Maybe you know what it's like to take medication, hoping you'll feel better tomorrow, or to least feel half-way normal. You know better than anyone else what it is like to not want to explain your illness to others, feeling that you will be judged or pigeonholed or thought to be weak. After all, you have been told repeatedly that you are living the victorious Christian life.
But here's the truth. We who do not have a daily routine of swallowing a cocktail of psychotropic drugs so we can feel better can only try and imagine what it is like for those who do. We have no idea how hard and unfair it feels to those with these struggles.
None of us is the judge of those who suffer from mental illness. Just as we would not want to be judged by others if we were hit by some debilitating physical infirmity, we are not the judge of those who struggle with the pain of dark, seemingly endless days of mental anguish.
Millions who struggle with mental illness — some of them pastors I have counseled — remind us of life's tragic brokenness. They remind us that so much in this world is not the way it was intended to be. That's why the church always must be a hospital, a refuge for those in despair. If the church doesn't show love and compassion for those fighting with mental illness and all kinds of depression, who will?
Last Sunday at Saddleback church, the preaching was handled by teaching pastor Tom Holladay. Ironically, Holladay told the congregation that Pastor Rick Warren had called him earlier during the week to request he preach during the weekend. When Holladay asked what he should preach about, and what was on Warren's mind, Warren said he wanted the teaching pastor to preach about what to do on the worst day of your life — not knowing that later that week he would face his son Matthew's death.
"It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick," Jesus said. Thankfully, some struggling with mental illness do get their miracle now and their symptoms abate or even end. But most don't. Sadly, often it's a fight to the end.
For those like Matthew Warren, sometimes the miracle only comes in the next life, where there will be no mental illness, no more pain, no more suffering. Until then we embrace the pain of those in turmoil, trying to imagine what it is like for them, and comforting them with these words of Jesus, "Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 34 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.