Originally published April 10, 2013, here.
As a pastor, Rick Warren has influenced hundreds of churches, and in recent years his book has been studied by numerous churches along the Grand Strand.
I once said the book was targeted to the rationalistic, utilitarian branch of evangelicalism, and for those who are already lost due to my word choices, I’ll clarify: I was being snarky – about the book and its fans.
But last Friday’s report of the suicide of Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Rick Warren, hit me like a gut punch.
It scared me. I’ve had my own battles with clinical depression, and something in Matthew Warren’s story feels non-negotiable and irrevocable. When someone like Matthew Warren has for a father an internationally known pastor with access (as the pastor said in a statement after the suicide) to the best psychological and medical help in the world, I imagine him having God and all of human wisdom on his side. It wasn’t enough.
I recalled feeling a similar sense of despair under very different circumstances: In May 2001, I was vacationing in Black Mountain, N.C., and made a trip to a used-bookstore in nearby Asheville. I found a used hardback copy of writer John Berryman’s collected poems. I had read, somewhere, about Berryman, and he intrigued me. When I returned to the cabin in Black Mountain, I flipped through the biographical pages and saw that Berryman had jumped from a bridge to end his life.
I felt sick. Berryman’s suicide, my choice of his book, and his passing resemblance (in his later years) to one of my grandfathers, all worked together to upset me. In a strange way, I felt met by an omen, a prophecy of something unavoidable. To this day, I’ve read very little of the book. I don’t like what it reminds me of.
Matthew Warren and Berryman both threw at me a stomach ache full of questions – was this depressive state just plain fated? What if my depression worsened? Was suicide just inevitable?
Today I’m in a much healthier place than I was during that trip to Black Mountain 12 years ago, but Matthew Warren’s suicide bothered me because I can’t help wondering if, someday, the “black dog” of depression will return again, bigger and heavier.
I’m at a much healthier place, but I’m not going to tell you how I got there. The worst thing I could do would be to talk about how things got better.
That’s because I’m not Matthew Warren. I have no idea what he was feeling, how bad it was, what might have brought it on, what object he might have been looking at when he realized for himself he couldn’t carry on. I just can’t know.
One size fits no one. The worst thing about our culture right now is its plethora of singular answers. So many people claim to have found The Answer or The Secret or The Steps. Your family member or your neighbor enthusiastically promotes some book or system, and you wonder if they’re really benefitting from this thing or just parroting the propaganda, entranced by skillful marketers.
Perhaps they’ve found what works for them, but I strongly disagree that they have found Theeeee anything.
Many of my friends and acquaintances will be upset with me for saying that. To be on their team, I’m supposed to say “Jesus is the answer!” No doubt, a few of them haven’t, and never will, reflect on the blessings of their own genetic inheritance, their own competencies, their own aptitudes, their own ability to move ahead in careers and communities, their own hard work at (or dumb luck of) having good, supportive families. Then again, I also know that other people who cry “Jesus is the answer” have their own torments, and somehow, are helped by faith. Remember Johnny Cash.
At very least, we should ask, “Jesus is the answer to what?” I’m sure Jesus was an answer for Matthew Warren, an answer for some aspect of him, for some aspect of his life, but Jesus was not the answer he needed when he made his final decision.
I’m inclined to leave you with lyrics from several songs that come to mind. They are all inappropriate. The loss is real and final. There is no remedy. The best we can do is further question the road to suicide.
-Colin Foote Burch