My wife and I received the heartbreaking email yesterday morning from Rick Warren, our pastor at Saddleback Church in Southern California: His youngest son, Matthew went to be with the Lord.
Had the 27-year-old died in a car accident – like Christopher Laurie, 33-year-old son of Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Church in Southern Cal, who lost his life in 2008 – we might have lamented the vicissitudes of life.
Or had the young man been murdered – like Ryan Armstrong, 22-year-old son of Pastor Ron Armstrong of Cornerstone Church in SoCal (which my wife and I previously attended) – we might have decried the evil of this world.
But Mathew died from his own hand.
And we’re still trying to process how the young man who grew up in a most loving home, who faithfully attended the church his father founded, who celebrated Easter this past Sunday along with the rest of the Saddleback family, decided yesterday his young life was no longer worth living.
Pastor Rick’s email attested that Matthew “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 beeline to that person to engage and encourage them.”
Yet, Matthew also was a tortured soul. He struggled from birth, Pastor Rick confided, “with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts.” So it was that after a fun Friday evening with his parents, the young man yesterday finally succumbed to his inner demons.
What particularly troubled was, though Pastor Rick and his longsuffering wife Kay tried everything to help their son, including “America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing,” Matthew’s mental illness never subsided.
“I’ll never forget,” Pastor Rick recalled, “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?’”
After reading that, it made me wonder: If Pastor Rick truly has been anointed by the Most High – and I believe he has – yet his prayers for healing for his son Matthew went for naught, what hope have members of the Saddleback family who are praying for miracles of their own?
As I contemplated that question, I suddenly was filled with the Holy Spirit, which reminded me of the story of Horatio Spafford, a Chicago barrister and businessman, who was in many respects a latter day Job.
In 1871, Spafford’s only son died of pneumonia at four years old. Two years later, he booked his wife Anna and his four daughters to Europe aboard the SS Ville du Havre, which sank while crossing the Atlantic. Spafford’s wife survived, but all four of his daughters perished.
Spafford departed to meet his grieving wife. When his ship passed near the spot where his daughters lost their lives, he suddenly was inspired to write the words that would become a famous hymn:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
I do not know why Pastor Rick’s prayers for healing for his son Matthew went unanswered. I do not know why the prayers of many, many other parents for their beloved children go unanswered.
But, as Christ followers, we are to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding. And, in so doing, we are able to declare, even in the face of personal tragedy, it is well with our souls.