I got the news on the road to Florida. My family and I, along with my mother, are in Florida for the Gospel Coalition conference. After this, we will head directly to Dallas, where I will participate in the Christian Renaissance conference. News like this breaks me more than anything else. I fell completely apart. I probably should not be writing. I wept for a bit. We were already having so many other issues on the drive, and this nearly put me over the top. I just wanted to turn around. The Gospel Coalition and Christian Renaissance conferences are incredible and so valuable . . . for a certain type of person. But for those who have a broken mind and broken spirit, where do they go? What conference is there for Christians who can’t find any peace? What conference is there for those who have all the right doctrine and beliefs, but find no healing from them? What conference is there for those whose hope has been asphyxiated?
As I typed “2013 minus 27” in my calculator to figure out when Matthew was born (1986), I realized I was too hurt to think deeply about that right now. How cold. For some reason, coming up with those numbers put me too close, so a distant calculator was better. But what good would these words be, if I selfishly let Matthew turn into just a set of numbers? 1986-2013. Let those numbers sink in.
I did not know Matthew Warren. I don’t know his father, Rick Warren (at least not personally). I am very familiar with his ministry. Unfortunately, most of the time I hear about Rick Warren is when someone tries to throw his life and ministry under the bus just to drum up some controversy. I have never joined this crowd in the slightest. Rick Warren’s focus and heart are amazing. What he has done for so many to increase the glory of Christ is beyond measure. His book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is a wonderful book that lit a fire in the hearts of many stagnant Christians.
Yesterday, as I continued to drive after hearing the news, here is where my thoughts went. Pastor Warren led millions to find their purpose in life. Yet the one closest to him, the one for whom he undoubtedly felt the most responsible, the one whom he loved the most, could not find that same purpose to drive his life. I also bowed my head as I thought of critics, whose minds might be so poisoned as to make them want to turn the blame back on Rick Warren. I have not read or heard of any who have, but God help those who do.
You see, I know what it feels like, that darkness that led Matt to do what he did. I lived there for a short time. I know how easy it is to pull that trigger. I know what it feels like, the black hole that somehow drains you of every shred of hope you have. It is like hanging on a cross, where you cannot catch your breath anymore. Everyone around is quick to offer their “easy” solutions (which I did before I went through this), heaping shame atop the already insufferable pain. I came out of it, and I don’t know how or why. Matthew never did.
My sister never did. Angie yelled in pain every night as she called on me to save her. I had never heard screams of emotional pain before. I had never experienced the wailing that a tortured soul could produce. The sound and the hurt were apocalyptic. “Michael! Get back up here!! You are a pastor. You are supposed to be able to do something.” I walked downstairs each night for a year, lay my head on my pillow, and called on God to do something that he was not going to do—heal my helpless sister.
Put me in a den of atheists. Put me a room with people who hate me. Put me among those who deny God and my Lord, Jesus Christ. My faith will remain. But put me in the midst of people who are calling on God to save them from doubt, pain, and depression, and my faith will sink in the quicksand with them. Why? Because I don’t know what to do.
Francis of Assisi used to sit with lepers and wash their wounds. He looked for those Christians who were falling apart, inside and out. God called Francis to “rebuild my church” and where does he go? He goes to those who could not be built back.
Rick Warren’s ministry to his son was not unsuccessful. I am told he was with Matthew the preceding night. He was a devoted father. Even so, he will enter into a time of significant despair. Suicide is a death unlike any other. Those left behind imagine the thoughts, looks, and pain of the one who is finally finished. They picture the tears in their eyes and see them begin to pull the trigger. Angie died on the bed of a cold dark hotel room, legs folded, with Chuck Swindoll’s Day by Day open in front of her. My other sister now has that book. She guards it like a treasure. Why? Who knows? We don’t know how to process the pain and darkness of that moment, so we hold fast to a token that represents Angie’s last thoughts or prayers. We do it as self-flagellation, penance for failing at a task we could not fulfill.
I don’t know how Rick Warren and his wife (please don’t leave her and the rest of the family out) are going to handle this. They may do like I did, and stay strong for many years for others’ sake. But at some point, subconsciously, the dam will break and they won’t know why (at least that is my experience). They may handle it like my mother did, with endless sleepless nights until the pain eventually took her mind. They may handle it like my dad, who is plagued by unending guilt.
The questions are always the same: What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? Once they are exasperated and find no rest, they will have to find some other footing, or else remain completely adrift, without anchor in a sea of faith.
With regard to Angie, the anchoring conclusion for me is not the conclusion many others reach…yet I don’t know where else to go, biblically. Who is at fault? God is. Not me. Not my mom. Not my dad. And not even Angie. For some reason, in this fallen world, God allowed darkness to rule her life to such a degree that she left this world in tears, crying to a God who did not show up in the way we all desired and prayed he would. His ways are not our ways. He is the one who works all things after the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11), including leaving countless people in pain as they cry out to him for relief.
I would imagine it was the same with Matthew. I don’t suppose that God was a cheerleader in his pain, hoping that he would listen to the right advice or finally find the right pill. God took him violently. God took him darkly. And we have to accept this sometimes dark, violent, God as the one who loved him (and Angie) more than we can ever possibly imagine. If you can have that type of faith. . . if, by some miracle, you can drop that anchor quickly, you can continue your ministry in the hopes that you will join him one day.
I don’t know what kind of advice or hope to give those who have lost someone who was outside of the faith. I am sorry.
To all of those like Matthew: I do not give you permission to die. Don’t mistake my understanding for permission. The darkness that will overshadow the lives of the ones you leave behind is a darkness so terrible, no sun can fully break through it this side of heaven.
To Rick Warren and family: I am truly sorry for your loss. May Matthew rest from his pain, finally. May your pain one day turn to joy. Until then, may the Francis of Assisis of this world break through the judgment you feel, whether from within or without. May you be able to forgive all. May the asphyxiation of hope that Matthew felt be relieved in the arms of Christ, who loves you and gave himself up for you.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]