Monday, April 8, 2013

Warren Suicide Warrants Respect

Bitter irony?

Today, Crosswalk.com is running a promotion for Rick Warren's devotional entitled "Winning the Battle Inside Me."

"You may feel totally defeated today," reads Warren's online teaser for his audio devotional, "and you’re thinking, 'I just want to give up!'" 

Hmm.

The advertisement continues:  "Pastor Rick teaches if you’re ready to give up, that’s GOOD! You can stop trying to do everything on your own because it’s impossible. You can’t live life without Jesus. But Jesus can empower you with new life."

Ironic, huh?  And probably a bit painful, too, if the Warren family is aware of what material their religious empire has scheduled to be advertised across the Christian media spectrum for today.  By now, you're likely aware that Warren's youngest son, Matthew, committed suicide this past Friday evening.

He was 27 years old.

Whatever his family thinks about his ministry in private, Rick Warren has intentionally lived his professional life in front of the media.  He's courted attention and publicity for reasons his detractors and admirers claim vary from a desire to increase the size of his church in California to vain self-aggrandizement to genuinely hoping the Gospel is extended to more and more people.  Warren has built such a publicity machine for himself that the suicide of anybody in his immediate family automatically means people who otherwise have no business delving into whatever he'd want to keep private will nevertheless expect to be able to do so.

I, for one, have come to embrace the position that doing so says more negative things about me than Warren.

Whether or not his family is frustrated by all of the adulation or mockery the public has heaped on them as a result of Rick's tireless self-promotion, none of them are talking now, as the raw reality of Matthew's death has hit them broadside.  While I would classify Warren's Christianity as evangelical, he skates awfully close to the name-it-and-claim-it, God-is-my-celestial-genie, inoffensive religion shysters that give the church a bad name.  And I understand why many people derive some sort of hateful satisfaction in this distressing turn of events for Warren.  But right now, I only feel sorry for him and his family.

Apparently, Matthew suffered from a form of clinical depression for years, and despite the quality care he undoubtedly received - due at least in part to his father's wealthy ministry, as well as Rick's connections within professional Christendom - his battle ended up claiming his physical body.  We're told Matthew had professed faith in Christ, and we know that suicide is not the unpardonable sin, so if he indeed had a personal relationship with God's Son, he's in Heaven at this very moment.  And hopefully, the Warren family can find some comfort in that.

It would be easy for me to ramble against the video sermon of Warren's being advertised today about "let go and let God," the time-worn, theologically trite slogan Warren appears to be trying to rebrand with "Winning the Battle Inside Me."  Yet even though it's a tempting target, now is not the time to critique Warren's ministry relative to his son's death.  As much as I distrust his professional persona, Rick and his family are mourning a tragic loss.  I'm chagrined for how some of his other detractors have jumped on the bash-Purpose-Driven-Life bandwagon.  And I'm reminded once again of how people who don't understand clinical depression make such horrible deaths that much more tortured for the loved ones left behind.

For all practical purposes, Matthew's death only tells us that affluence can't compensate for biological, neurological illnesses.  Even the suicide of Harriet Deison, heiress to a Dallas fortune and wife of a prominent minister at my church, is proof of that.  Money, status, privilege, and even a loving family don't buy happiness, at least not for those with clinical depression.  At best, those things are excellent coping mechanisms, and they help disguise clinical depression, but they don't compensate for it.  Maybe Matthew's family didn't really understand that before this past weekend, but they're certainly learning it now.  It will be interesting to see how - or if - this tragedy changes anything in his father's ministry, and how he reaches out to people living with hidden pain.

Indeed, Matthew's death demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that positive attitudes, healthy interpersonal relationships, and even a maturing faith walk with Christ can fail to defeat the physical manifestations of clinical depression in this life.  With clinical depression, we're not talking about cancer, or heart disease, or a broken arm, or an embarrassing mistake, or a speeding ticket; problems that can be accurately diagnosed, treated, and even prevented.  We're talking about screwed-up chemicals in the brain, imbalanced to an extreme, for which a cure might be measured in terms of an artificial functionality achieved through prescription medications.  For people suffering from less chronic forms of clinical depression, God sometimes sees fit to provide healing.  Then there are some people who have a bad day, and think their blue funk equates to the clinical depression that ravages the spirit of people like Matthew Warren.  It's not something its victims can simply snap out of, but since we can't necessarily see any physical manifestations of clinical depression, it's easy to pretend as though it's not as serious as it can be.

So little is known about clinical depression that even the remarkably helpful medications available today could be considered primitive compared to what some experts say are needed to effectively control and eradicate the despair that drives people like Matthew to self-inflicted murder.  In the meantime, inflicting unfair and unrealistic expectations on the Warren family for what they could have done to prevent Matthew's suicide demonstrates an ignorance that actually helps perpetuate the problem.

I suppose there's a likelihood that, considering Matthew's relatively young age, he was part of a new generation that doesn't seem to grasp the finality of death, the intrinsic fragility of life, and the profundity of mortality.  Raised on death, violence, and gore in popular media mediums like movies and video games, death has become something that is only final until the end of some digital contrivance.  Reset, restore, reboot, and you're back in action again.  Except real death isn't that temporary, is it?  I wonder how many kids today truly understand that.  I'm not sure I did when I was Matthew's age, and I was never into video games or violent movies.  Harriet Deison, who died in her 60's, however, and consoled untold numbers of grieving survivors as a pastor's wife, surely had a proper respect for death, and that didn't stop her, either.

The mental pain was so great.

We should pray God's grace and peace for the Warren family in their time of mourning.  It is Biblical to mourn.  God gives us families as a model of His familial relationships with us, and how He expects His people to associate with each other.  Maybe there are times of contention as we discuss various viewpoints and encourage others in the way of the Gospel, but there are also times when we lay aside the "iron that sharpens iron" and we simply mourn with those who mourn, and weep with those who weep.

Casting all of our cares on Christ, for He cares for us.

And to the extent Matthew's death can generate an intensified recognition of clinical depression, and perhaps even pave the way for more research into treatments and cures for this debilitating condition, his death and the death of others similarly afflicted can work for good.

"To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his... He reveals the deep things of darkness and brings deep shadows into the light."  Job 12:13, 22

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