Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Elephant in the Room

Written on April 8, 2013, but posted today since the transformer in my neighborhood blew out/up and I still have no electricity!!

I got an email message from my sister just before 1 pm today. The subject title read “Rick Warren’s son.” My heart sank ever before I read the actual message. I’ve never read any of the best-selling Purpose-Driven Life books, but I’m a Rick Warren fan. I get his brief devotionals electronically each day. In fact, one of them popped in my inbox a few minutes before I received my sister’s email. His simplicity comes through in these devotionals and I really like the way he demystifies the Christian walk with his simple teachings. Although I haven’t read his books, like most of the world, I’m aware that in 2005, he returned the salary he had earned over the last quarter of a century to the church that he pastors and subsequently stopped receiving a salary. I read on Wikepedia that he and his wife are now ‘reverse tithers’ – meaning they give away 90% of their income and live off 10%.

When I saw my sister’s email come in, I braced myself for bad news. We all usually try to give our children our best, having no idea what they will give us in return. What could it be? What is it now? I wondered. Drugs? An arrest?

Her message read: “27 – committed suicide. He shot himself – he had suffered from mental illness and depression.”

I was shocked and saddened beyond words about Matthew Warren’s suicide. Who knew that the son of this world-renowned pastor struggled with this serious health issue?

His parents, Rick and Kay Warren, were so gracious in their account of their son’s struggles – gracious and simple. One news article reports the following: “After a ‘fun evening’ as a family, Warren said his son took his life ‘in a momentary wave of despair at his home.’ Warren said he marveled at his son’s courage to keep on living in his darkest moments despite his pain. ‘I’ll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said, ‘Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’ Warren wrote. ‘But he kept going for another decade.’” (http://abcnews.go.com/US/pastor-rick-warren-overwhelmed-support-sons-suicide/story?id=18901130#.UWPW-6JmiSo)

At the beginning of this year, someone I know of that has the same sort of health struggle tried to describe to me what it’s like. What it’s like to be a devout Christian physician – a consultant psychiatrist at that – while living with clinical depression herself. How debilitating it can be. How frustrating it can be to look and seem “highly functional” to everyone else (You have a medical degree, after all, so how can anything be ‘wrong with you’?), and yet feel like you are simply unable to cope with life sometimes, to get out of bed even. How you begin to keep this reality to yourself after a while – especially when your diagnosis becomes cause for suspicion among your fellow Christians: Have you really prayed about this thing? Have you gone for deliverance? How much have you really fasted about this? Whatsoever you allow on earth shall be allowed in Heaven – why are you ‘allowing’ this?

I understood completely. Well, not ‘completely,’ as I cannot claim to know what it’s like to live with mental illness. But I do know what it’s like to sincerely believe God heals (whether it’s a physical or emotional health issue, for instance, or a marriage) , while not necessarily experiencing that healing in certain areas of my own life, for whatever reason. And then what it’s like to be questioned for making peace with things the way they are – even if that wasn’t how I originally wanted them to be.   

It’s interesting to me how, even among many of our health professionals in Africa, mental health issues are often the furthest thing from our minds – even when they are staring us in the face. We tend to think of this particular health issue in extremes: if you haven’t completely stripped and made a concerted effort to “enter the market,” then there’s no way you could have some sort of mental health challenge.

My sister says I’m always trying to “diagnose” people, and that not everything boils down to mental health. Some people are just plain mean (for instance), and that’s that. I don’t disagree. I just don’t think that’s all there is to the story. I would argue that a considerable proportion of our relationships are the worse for this sort of mentality. Many mental health issues simply go under the radar, resulting in situations where there are seemingly no solutions. If you can’t get down to the root of the problem, after all, everything else you try to do is a waste of time.

I wish we could talk more openly about this issue. Not for the sake of talking. But so that the understanding, compassion, and strategies required to deal with the issue are available – both for the sufferers, and for their families and loved ones who suffer along with them, oftentimes having no clue what is really going on.

As stunned as I am by Matthew Warren’s death, I’m impressed by his ability to acknowledge his own health challenge and to keep on seeking care for it, when he was alive. I am glad that at least he had parents and a family that took the time to understand his illness and that helped him live with it until the age of almost 30. I’m also impressed with how they are handling this tragedy. How, through it all, they are still simply grateful for the life of this child that they were privileged to parent.

We don’t always know the answers. It’s not always about a deliverance prayer/session. Some things only come out by fasting and prayer … and some things (for whatever reason) simply don’t ‘come out.’ And when they don’t – if they don’t – where does that leave us, if we have built our faith on the idea that things must turn out exactly the way we’ve planned?  

My first words to my sister in response to her email were: Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. This life!

And then, after a few minutes of reflection, and of seeing how Rick Warren was responding to this tragedy through his tweets and via news articles online, I wrote back to her, saying: “A Christian walk is a Christian walk. It helps make the inexplicable bearable.”

I clicked ‘send’ and the following words came to me:

Our God is able to save us, but even if He does not …

I looked it up to remind myself of exactly what Daniel 3: 17-18 says in the NIV:

If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.

God help us all.


  1. Yes. This! You said everything I wanted to say and even things my spirit wanted to say but didn't know it until you said them tight here in this post. When we ask why does God allow good things to happen to bad people? They should read this post. Abd Crystal McCea's book about her time in Heaven. (Mini plug, sorry:))

    1. Are you serious? Glad I said it, then. Please plug away for Crystal McCea. I have 'Heaven' on my list of books to buy this year. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. And now I have tears in my eyes over your today's 2 posts. I can say I understand after my extremely difficult period about 2 years back following the loss of my brother amd my mom within months of each other. One from a mental illness, the other from a physical sickness. We prayed, fasted and are born again and believe me, God heard and answered us. Just not in the way we expected. I learnt that it's not about me but all about Him. He is Lord and love and I surrender. Point is, we generally tend to look at things from what we know and we don't know the half of it. The picture is much bigger than you or me and even bigger than you and me, spanning longer than our imagination. I learnt many things including that it's ok not to know the answers and God is not compelled to reward our "good works" as we see fit and God is fair just beyond human comprehension and many other things which will start another long post. lol!

    1. I love 'blog posts' in response to a blog post, Chinny, so please feel free to share as much as you want, whenever you want. Thank you for sharing this. It's special when someone that's actually been there is able to talk about it. Brings so much healing for others who can't talk about it yet, but wish they could. I'm so sorry to hear about your brother and mom. Can't even imagine what that must have been like. But I so agree with every single word you've said. We only know in part, and that's okay. I'm glad that you pulled through successfully. Thank you so much for sharing.