“Your illness is not your identity.” Those words were spoken by Pastor Rick Warren this past weekend, when he spoke publicly at Saddleback Church for the first time since his son Matthew’s tragic suicide in April. “Your chemistry is not your character. It’s not a sin to be sick.”
Matthew Warren struggled for 27 years with depression before committing suicide in what has been called a ‘momentary wave of despair’, a phrase which may sound a little too trivial or familiar for the others out there struggling with the condition.
Aside from some public statements released in the midst of the event, Rick Warren has been barely visible since that day in April, and hadn’t spoken at the pulpit once. But, after three months of personal and private grieving, Warren returned to Saddleback Church. But, rather than trying to publicly move on or not address the issue, his first statements at the church addressed his son’s struggle and the way it affected him head on.
‘I was in shock for at least a month after Matthew took his life. For 27 years, I prayed every day of my life for God to heal my son’s mental illness. It was the number one prayer of my life.”
Those sentiments are common among parents of children with mental illness who commit suicide. They pray and offer support, and “talk [their children] off the ledge time after time,” but these tragedies continue. Warren seems to believe part of the issue comes from within the church.
“It’s not a sin to take meds. It’s not a sin to get help. You don’t need to be ashamed.”
That is the message Warren stressed more than anything, and it should be spread throughout every church in the nation. Heck, it should be shared everywhere in the world. Far too often, those struggling with mental illness are isolated and feel defined by their conditions, rather than being treated like any other person struggling with biological illness. But, this problem is certainly deeply rooted in the church where misunderstandings and lack of education lead to the idea that “faith is enough” to treat suffering.
The American Association of Christian Counselors drew parallels between Warren’s message and those of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson. In the book, Simpson says, “mental illness is the sort of thing we don’t like to talk about. Too often, we reduce people to caricatures and ghosts and simply pretend they don’t exist. They do exist, however. Statistics suggest that one in every four people suffers from some kind of mental illness.”
Rather than stigmatizing and condescending to those with mental illness, we must remember that the sufferers of mental health are brothers and sisters in Christ, just like us. We must offer support and love, but we must also show them that we recognize who they are behind the illness. Matthew Warren will unfortunately be remembered by many as a depressed suicide victim, but anyone close to Matthew remembers him instead as a “kind, gentle and compassionate man” with “a brilliant intellect.”
Mental illness can be tragic and devastating, just as Rick and Matthew Warren’s story shows, but it shouldn’t be the defining aspect of a person’s life. They shouldn’t be stigmatized or isolated, but met with love and support for the real person suffering.