Rick Warren is the founding pastor of one of the largest churches in the United States with an attendance of approximately 20,000 every week. He is also the author of The Purpose Driven Life book which has sold over 30 million copies. In 2005 Time magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2006 Newsweek called him “One of the 15 People who make America Great.” For someone with such outer success he has attracted both great appreciation and great antagonism.

However, Rick and his wife Kay have for many years carried a heavy burden. They have been through an experience no parent should every go through. On 5 April 2013 their younger son Matthew committed suicide after a long battle with Major Depressive Disorder.

The short 4 minute video below illustrates something of the deep pain and anguish they have had to carry for several years as well as the extreme emotion of coming to terms with Matthew’s death.

This is the letter that Rick and Kay Warren wrote to their congregation at Saddleback Church immediately after Matthew’s death:

Our Dearest 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 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.

Also a few days later they were able to ask their church to mobilize themselves in the fight against mental illness. This is the open letter they wrote to their church congregation. I include it here as it provides such a positive response to a heart-rending tragedy.

Dear Friends,

Kay and I have been overwhelmed by your outpouring of love since Matthew’s tragic death. You are true friends, especially with the vitriol from haters we’ve received. Friends show up when others walk away.

If you missed what happened, click here to read my letter.

You’ve asked, “Is there anything we can do to help you?”

The answer is yes! We could use your help right now in THREE PRACTICAL WAYS:

1. Sign a petition that urges educators, lawmakers, healthcare, and congregations to raise the awareness and lower the stigma of mental illness, and also to support families that are dealing with mental illness on a daily basis. Thanks for adding your voice!

2. Offer your help and prayers to those around you who are caring for mentally ill family and friends. They need your encouragement more than you realize.

3. Fight mental illness with an online gift to The Matthew Warren Fund for Mental Health. Your gift is tax-deductible.

We are reading every note. We’d love to hear from you here on Facebook, or you can email us at PastorRick@saddleback.com. Your prayers and words continue to strengthen us.

Pastor Rick

My purpose in this blog post is to show the human cost of such a tragedy, and also the importance of highlighting the nature of serious mental illness.

We have also previously highlighted the role of what was likely to have been MDD in the lives of Lincoln and Churchill. The author Matthew Johnstone eloquently expresses his inner battle with the video I Had A Black Dog.

Deep suffering reveals what is inside of us. I have also written about Why Does a Loving God allow Pain and Suffering?

I close with some final reflections by Rick Warren in an interview with Justin Brierley about a year after Matthew’s death:

“When Matthew died I received 5,000 letters of condolence from around the world. Everyone wrote from rock stars and prime ministers to presidents. But the ones that meant the most to me weren’t from the VIPs; they were letters from people that Matthew had led to faith in Christ. They said, ‘I’m going to be in heaven because your son brought me to Jesus.’ I wrote in my journal:
‘In God’s garden of grace, even broken trees bear fruit.’ And we are all broken. … God only uses broken people.”

Please feel free to add your thoughts, comments and reflections below.