Rick Warren has preached thousands upon thousands of sermons, but this message was different. The last time he had stood the pulpit at his Saddleback Church, in Southern California, was on Easter, seventeen Sundays ago — and five days before his youngest son, Matthew, 27, shot and killed himself, ending a lifelong struggle with mental illness. On Saturday night, for the first time since their son’s death, Rick and his wife Kay returned to their 20,000-member congregation. Together they faced the question tens of thousands of Christians have been asking: How are they — two of the world’s most famous Christians — able to hope in God in the midst of their despair?
Thousands of parishioners packed the auditorium and three overflow tents on Saturday for the first of Saddleback’s five-weekend worship services. A dozen local pastors all sat in the front row in a show of support for the Warrens, along with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, producers of the hit television series, The Bible. When Rick and Kay walked hand in hand onstage, the crowd stood to their feet in appreciation and applause. Kay began to cry, and Rick kissed her on the forehead as he too grew teary. “Love you too,” he told the audience. He paused for just a few moments, and then he began to preach.
First he thanked his staff, his church, and, the hundreds of people who have supported them over the past four months. Above all, he thanked the Warrens’ other two children, Amy and Josh, who, he said, had loved Matthew and “talked him off the ledge” time and time again. “They really are my heroes,” he said, voice breaking.
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The Warrens spoke honestly about their spiritual struggles with Matthew’s mental illness. “For 27 years, I prayed every day of my life for God to heal my son’s mental illness. It was the No. 1 prayer of my life,” Rick preached. “It just didn’t make sense why this prayer was not being answered.” Kay spoke of how she couldn’t even read certain Scripture passages about hope for months after Matthew’s death.
Rick and Kay shared publicly for the first time about how they found out that Matthew had died. On the morning of April 5, both of them had a sense of foreboding that Matthew was not doing well. At 10 a.m., Rick was at the doctor’s office. He had just been diagnosed with double pneumonia, and so he decided to ask his brother-in-law to give the upcoming sermon, entitled, “What to do on the worst day of your life.” At home, Kay put on her necklace that said, “Choose joy.” Neither of them could shake the feeling that something was wrong, so the two of them went to Matthew’s house to check on him. His truck was in the driveway, but the house door was locked, and no one was answering. They wept together as they waited for the police to arrive. Then their worst fears were confirmed.
In the four months that followed, the Warrens have drawn comfort from the community of faith, both ancient and new. They have treasured old biblical passages from the prophet Isaiah — “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown” — and from the Apostle Paul — “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.” Friends and family have also held them close. “I am in this family of spiritual redwoods,” Rick said. “Satan picked the wrong team to pick on.”
Ultimately, they both hold to the hope that God is with people during their times of trouble, and that God will raise the dead. Matthew’s body was buried in brokenness, Kay said, but will be raised in strength. Rick reminded everyone that heaven is coming. He quoted the Book of Revelation: “Then God will wipe away every tear from their eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will pass away.”
Rick then made a promise: Saddleback’s next big ministry push will be to remove the stigma associated with mental illness in the church. “Your illness is not your identity, your chemistry is not your character,” he told people struggling with mental illness. To their families, he said, “We are here for you, and we are in this together.” There is hope for the future: “God wants to take your greatest loss and turn it into your greatest life message.”
For the next six Sundays, Rick will preach a sermon series entitled, “How to get through what you’re going through.” He will devote a message to each of the six stages of grief: shock, sorrow, struggle, surrender, sanctification and service. A larger program to address the specifics of mental illness has yet to be revealed, but it will be similar, Rick said, to the way their church has helped to tackle the HIV crisis.
Then, as the service closed, Rick joined the worship team in singing a favorite evangelical hymn, “Blessed Be Your Name.” He lifted his Bible high above his head and declared boldly to the God he serves: “You give and take away, my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.”