Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners


The Tragedy of Rick Warren’s Son: What Might It Teach Us?

Matthew Warren took his own life this past weekend at the age of 27. He died from gunshot wounds.

The news of popular evangelical pastor Rick Warren’s son taking his own life over the weekend hit close to home.

And, if you have ever struggled with the disease of depression or have loved ones who do, maybe you can identify. My prayers go out to Warren, his wife and family in the aftermath of the tragedy. But beyond that, I am also hoping for a sea change in the evangelical church when it comes to responding to mental illness.

My own experience is that depression and mental illness are one of those things the church isn’t very good at talking about. Either the church doesn’t talk about the issue, ignoring the elephant in the room- and it’s a big one, with one in five Americans over the age of 18 having experienced mental illness in the last year, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Or, when the church does talk about the issue, it finds it easy, maybe from fear, maybe out of convenience or the desire to be a gathering of “pretty, successful people” (a lie we church people are remarkably good at telling ourselves), to dismiss and label those with various mental illnesses as “crazy,” “dangerous” or “nuts.” I have heard these same descriptions thrown around in church circles about individuals in their midst and it grieves me. We tend far too quickly to lump into one category those who struggle with various forms of mental illness and have beautiful contributions to make to our communities with those who go on killing sprees in schools and movie theaters. And if this response is natural and understandable, it is also prejudiced and unjust.

In some cases, I’ve even seen a genuine medical diagnosis reduced to a need just to pray harder for healing and deliverance from sin or a lack of faith. Surely a depressed person must have done something wrong to suffer so, some of us assume, much like Jesus’ interlocutors in the Gospel of John when they inquire about whether it is the blind man or his parents who sinned. Surely a depressed person needs to have more faith. Besides, if Jesus healed people of demons in his time, He can heal us of our depression and mental illness, too, we say. And while in principle this is true, it is also true that clinical depression, like most medical disabilities, is a chronic, life-long reality for many people. Just “getting over it” may be a valid hope, and one that we should pray for, but this hope must be tempered by a realistic appreciation for the nature of disability itself.

And here I wonder whether the church might, with the lead of Rick Warren and others who have watched loved ones struggle across lifetimes with depression and mental illness, begin to do a better job of making a space for all those with disabilities of any kind, be they a behavioral or emotional disorder or a physical handicap or impairment. What if instead of pretending these individuals do not exist or treating them as disposable, we instead got to know them better, maybe even sought to learn something from them? What if we began to recognize and honor their humanity in our midst, rather than assigning them some secondary status in the church?

We might discover that Jesus meets us there.

But, what do you think? What’s been your experience of depression, mental illness and disability in general in the church and out?

 

 



  • Kristina Robb-Dover

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful and candid reflections here, Michael. (It’s always nice to hear from readers, and I so appreciate your deposits here and there.)

    I imagine in your good work you do have a unique glimpse into the dark aftermath of suicide and the trail of broken hearts it leaves.

    For the person suffering major clinical depression, suicide seems the only way to put an end to unbearable and inescapable pain. It is despair embodied. Here, it seems, is where the church can offer hope that does not disappoint. (I’ll be dealing with the nature of Christian hope in the final chapter of my book, actually.)

    I hope you’ll keep coming back to the intersection.
    Kristina

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Michael Mills

    I don’t know anyone who has not suffered from depression. And that bit of knowledge contributes to the confusion. Just what constitutes clinical depression? At what point does the ailment cross over from being the kind of depression most people experience from time to time and become the kind of depression that requires treatment? Where is that boundary? I’m sure medical professionals can define those parameters…with the severity of depression being a major factor, but the majority of the rest of us have greater difficulty….

    As a volunteer Victim Advocate with my local police department, I have been called to numerous suicides. As such, I have come to the understanding that suicide is the most selfish act a person can commit. But that bit of factual knowledge is lost to those who are in the maelstrom of the beast of depression.

    As I struggle to cope with my periods of depression (wondering if mine are normal or leaning more toward the clinical type?) and watch my adult children struggle with their own sorrows, I am reminded of that first “sin.” The consequences were not just Adam and Eve being kicked out of the garden…struggling with crops and weeds…pain in child birth, etc. Everything changed! Birth defects, cancer, war, hunger, poverty, injustice, human trafficking are just a few of the results comprising a very, very long list that highlight the aftermath of sin. Depression, of course, is on that list, too. It is a very real taste of death.

    Perhaps Christians deal with depression poorly, in part, because we define the type of depression most people know as “normal.” But depression is not normal, regardless of the severity. All of it is a consequence of sin. At varying levels we understand that and therefore tend to treat it as you described in your blog…i.e., pray harder.

    The older I become, the less I know. I could describe in great detail how Christ has led me through my own dark nights, but knowing that would not aid me in helping you or anyone else through their own valley of despair.

    What I can do is show genuine compassion and care. I can love. I can be sensitive to what the Spirit would have me do…or not do. What happens beyond that point is in God’s hands. I suspect, however, that our Lord’s love and compassion far exceeds what we see and comprehend.

    Blessings,

    Michael

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