This past weekend the world learned sad and sobering news: Rick Warren’s youngest son, Matthew, committed suicide at the age of 27. In a letter to the staff of Saddleback Church, Rev. Warren wrote:
You who watched Matthew grow up knew he was an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man. He had a brilliant intellect and a gift for sensing who was most in pain or most uncomfortable in a room. He’d then make a bee-line to that person to engage and encourage them.
But only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.
The first thing to say, and that has been said many times: this is a time for prayer. It is good and appropriate to pray for Rick and Kay, their two other children, the rest of their families, their many friends, and for the staff and members of Saddleback Church. It is a good time to send notes of sympathy and love. And we can join with them in their grief. This would be a challenging journey for any family; for the Warrens, their lives will be scrutinized and discussed by the global media and hundreds of bloggers.
Given this intense scrutiny, what if we change course? I’d like to suggest we turn our attention to ourselves and reflect for a moment on how we perceive others. A little self-examination might give us a humbler, more gracious approach to the Warren family and to others who are regularly in the news. So let’s consider how we look at the lives of other people, particularly famous people, and see what we can learn about ourselves.
To start: from a distance, Rick Warren’s life seems to be pretty perfect. As a pastor, he leads the eighth largest church in the United States. As an author, his book The Purpose Driven Life has sold over 30 million copies. As a civic leader, he hosted a forum between John McCain and Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. In his family life, he has been married for thirty-two years, and has two surviving children and four grandchildren. As a speaker, he’s addressed the U.N., the World Economic Forum in Davos, TED, and other prestigious gatherings. In terms of his reputation, Time and Newsweek have identified him as, respectively, one of “15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most in 2004” and in 2006, one of “15 People Who Make America Great.”
But this weekend many of us learned of another side to his story: for the past twenty-seven years, Rick and Kay have loved their son, Matthew, through many challenging experiences. We don’t know how many suicide attempts there may have been, how many doctors’ offices they’ve gone to, how many medicines they tried, how many prayer meetings were held for Matthew, how many sleepless nights they tossed and turned in anxiety over their son’s health.
And who knows what other challenges they have faced? Every church and organization has difficulties among the staff and members. As a prominent, conservative, national pastor, Rick Warren has endured withering criticism for his theological and moral positions. We are in no position to know all the difficult and hard parts of his life.
There is a temptation to be jealous of successful people. And a temptation to celebrate the hard times of people we don’t like. (Apparently thousands of people have vented their anger at Rick Warren at this heart-breaking time, seeking to amplify his pain. To state the obvious, this is wrong and shameful behavior).
In a letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote,
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).
Paul’s context was quite different from ours, but the general principle is that if we have the wrong standards for evaluating our own worth, we will inevitably use the wrong standard to judge others too.
And how are his opponents in Corinth measuring themselves? “By one another.”
If we measure ourselves by Rick Warren’s life, we will get him wrong, but more importantly, we will also get ourselves wrong. In terms of career success, very few will do as well as he has. If his public career is the benchmark for our lives, there will be despair, insecurity, frustration, and jealousy. These negative emotions will distort our lives, our work, our friendships, and more.
Or, if in Rev. Warren’s most difficult private moments of grief, we compare his situation to ours, we may feel relatively pleased and happy with ourselves. You could think, ‘At least my children are happy and well’ or, ‘I’m glad I’ve never gone through such a terrible experience.’ Or, as noted above, some people see this as a terrific opportunity to try and hurt Rick Warren. Another terrible thought: ‘Well, good thing I don’t have such enemies!’
There are no shortage of parallel examples. An entire industry depends on it. The tabloids thrive on selling the dirty, shameful secrets of the rich and famous. What a treat: the lurid stories let the reader know that these people aren’t so admirable or happy after all!
But you see, comparing ourselves to others is the wrong standard. As we use this false standard to evaluate our own lives, we go astray and end up harming ourselves. How does this happen?
First, we are unnecessarily discouraged by our relative failures. For 99% of us, the people we read about in the news are more famous, wealthy, successful, and apparently happier than we are. A number of recent studies have shown that even among our own group of friends, the brightly positive updates we provide one another through social media tend to lead to depression. “Wow, she has a beautiful baby!” “Cool, my friend got promoted again.” “Looks like they had a pretty nice vacation.” Ten minutes later, you’re feeling depressed about being single, stuck in a lame job, with no vacations planned until Christmas.
Second, we are propped up by irrelevant facts. So someone else is going through a hard time. How does that make your life better? A friend is unemployed. Does that mean your job is awesome? A cousin is battling cancer. Does that mean you are healthy? Of course not. The inference is ridiculous. But those are the kinds of self-congratulatory feelings we have when we use others as our measuring stick.
Third, we are unduly influenced by who we happen to know or learn about. If you’re a “C” student at Harvard, it feels pretty rotten to barely be getting by. Every day you hear about a friend who, say, got into a dual degree at Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School, your roommate’s start-up business just cleared a million in revenue, and so on.
But if, as a fifth-grader, your soccer team just won the little league championship, after you scored the game-winning goal, there’s a tendency to think you’re #1 in the world, at everything. This may not be the right moment to gently explain that the really big trophy will one day look like a very small trophy. Still, we have a perspective the child does not.
Either way, whether you’re in fifth grade or a junior at Harvard, when you look around at the people who happen to be nearby, you’re looking at a very narrow slice of humanity. This narrow perspective inevitably skews the judgment of our own significance.
But most fundamentally, in all of this activity, it seems like you are thinking about other people. But what you are really doing is thinking about yourself in light of other people. And using other people as your personal measuring stick doesn’t make sense. It is a childish activity.
So how do we measure ourselves? If looking at our parents, siblings, friends, acquaintances, Facebook connections, celebrities, historical figures, fictional characters from movies and novels, and so on are not the right standard, where should we look?
We could seek refuge by measuring ourselves by our own made-up standards. For instance, we can compare ourselves to our past self: have I lost weight since January 1st? Gotten promoted since last summer? The same problems apply: we’ll be too discouraged by our failures and too encouraged by our successes. And our sample size is far too small. This is the set-up for an emotional roller coaster.
So where do we look? A few verses later, Paul points his readers – and us – in the right direction:
“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends (2 Corinthians 10:17-18).
Let’s say I work all day on a blog post. The next day I publish it and no one reads it. Was the article bad? Maybe. What if a major news outlet links to it and hundreds of thousands visit? Was the article good? Maybe. Would either result change the value of my life? No, not at all. It might change how other people value me or how I value my life, but it wouldn’t change the actual value of my life. For who decides the measure of our lives but God?
If God is the one who decides, then the immediate question is: how can we gain God’s approval? There are two answers in the Bible.
First, we can only please God by placing our faith in Christ for salvation. As Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Perhaps my favorite elaboration of this idea is in Ephesians 2, verses 8-10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
So what is the value of your life? The omniscient God knows that your salvation was worth the death of Jesus on the cross.
That doesn’t make sense to me. I struggle to believe that my life is so valuable that God himself should sacrifice His life to save my life. But it did make sense to God. Since God knows everything, and I don’t, whose opinion should I trust on the matter?
In light of the cross and the resurrection, do you see how silly it is to compare your life to others? God has quite clearly stated, in word and in deed, that you are infinitely valuable.
Second, as people who are forgiven of our sin, cleansed of all unrighteousness, adopted into God’s household, filled with the Holy Spirit, guaranteed eternal life, and all the other wonderful benefits of Christ’s work in our place, we are called to please God by living holy lives. As it says in the Ephesians passage, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” God saves us and makes us new creations in Christ Jesus that we might live new lives. Or as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians,
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification…For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3, 7-8).
As God’s beloved sons and daughters, we are called to a life of holiness. That fundamental commitment will send us in very different directions than if we try to find our self-worth by scanning the tabloids, checking Facebook, or reading the news.
I’ve gone far afield from the start of this article. That’s the point. In the weeks and months to come, as people subtly or overtly evaluate Rick Warren’s life, his ability as a parent, the quality of his ministry, the truth of his beliefs, I want to encourage you: don’t get distracted. Yes, there’s a time and a place to critically (but graciously) evaluate Rick Warren’s ministry (hint: this week isn’t that time).
And yes, this is a good time for evangelical churches to reconsider their approach to suicide and mental health, and to mature in their ability to discuss these sensitive topics. I’m sure there are other important lessons to be learned. And yes, this tragedy is not primarily a teaching moment, but a tragedy, and so we should sincerely pray for those most affected.
But after saying your prayers for them each night, I also invite you to take your gaze away from the Warren family and Saddleback Church. They need and deserve privacy and space to sort out everything that has just happened. So now is a great time to refocus your attention on the gospel and the pursuit of holiness. May God greatly encourage you with His love and lead you to grow in love for God and your neighbor. Your identity has been established, forever, by the cross of Jesus Christ. Press onward to live gladly for God.