I keep thinking about Matthew Warren and William Cowper; men divided by centuries but who might understand each other. Matthew was the 27 year old son of pastor Rick Warren, and this past Friday Matthew took his own life. This, by itself, is a tragedy. But Matthew had already lived a heartbreaking story, according to the email Pastor Warren sent to his congregation, telling them of Matthew’s death:
Subject: Needing your prayers
To my dear staff,
Over the past 33 years we’ve been together through every kind of crisis. Kay and I’ve been privileged to hold your hands as you faced a crisis or loss, stand with you at gravesides, and prayed for you when ill. Today, we need your prayer for us.
No words can express the anguished grief we feel right now. Our youngest son, Matthew, age 27, and a lifelong member of Saddleback, died today.
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.
Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of relentless 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?” but he kept going for another decade.
Thank you for your love and prayers. We love you back.
My mother’s heart grieves not only for the Warren’s loss but for Matthew’s illness. How hard it must have been for the Warrens to see their son suffer and be unable to relieve his pain.
As for William Cowper, the English poet and hymn writer, he knew that pain well. His life was marked by episodes of depression that even his evangelical faith could not pierce. He believed strongly in the power of the gospel and (as a Calvinist) in the perseverance of the saints. But somehow he saw himself as the one exception to this good news, a man irrevocably rejected by God. Cowper’s heart condemned him and he lived under the weight of that condemnation his entire life.
Cowper, convinced he was damned, attempted suicide unsuccessfully many times before ultimately dying of an illness. His first suicide attempt was part of his undoing, in fact, because he saw it as the unforgivable sin. I recently read the Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock in which a character expresses a common view of suicide: “It’s a mortal sin…It’s despair….It’s the worst sin of all!” There was no happy ending for Cowper on this side of the grave. He died in a state of utter hopelessness, believing he had been abandoned by the only One who could help him. The same man who wrote, “….and sinners plunged beneath the flood lose all their guilty stains” went to his death suffocated by spiritual guilt. The last poem William Cowper ever wrote was called Castaway, and includes the lines:
No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone.
And yet, at risk of presuming upon the grace of God, I’ve always imagined a happy ending. Something was deeply broken in William Cowper, something that the truth of the gospel could never heal in his lifetime. His biography leaves room for theories about childhood traumas, but maybe there is no perfect explanation. Sometimes we can track the trajectory of mental illness and lay blame on abuse or deprivation or genetics. Sometimes we can only close our mouths and acknowledge that we live in a damaged world. Things are not as they should be, not as they were meant to be, and some of our brothers and sisters seem to bear far more than their share of the grief of this world. “The fall, the fall, oh God, the fall of man,” Michael Gungor sings and sometimes that’s about all we can say in the face of what Cowper suffered two hundred years ago, and what Matthew Warren suffered during his life.
But back to my hopes for Cowper. Was Cowper’s despair a sin? How can we possibly know? Only God can see how broken each of us is: only God knows what we choose in this life, and what we endure against our will. But even if despair is “the worst sin of all”, what of it? Didn’t Jesus die and rise to deliver us from even the worst that sin does in us and through us and to us? What is more powerful: our weakness or the love that crafted the universe, the grace that restores all things?
One of Cowper’s contemporary hymn writers left us with this assurance:
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes.
That soul tho all hell should endeavor to shake
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
Sometimes our foes are external, and sometimes our foes are closer to home – our own bodies, our own minds. When that is the case, I’m convinced that even if no one else knows, God knows, and He does not forsake us.
And so I imagine the moment when Cowper’s injured faith became sight, when he woke in the presence of God to find that he was not a castaway, but a beloved child. I envision the look of shock and wonder on William Cowper’s face when that truth sank in, when the darkness receded forever to be replaced by light, love and unrelenting joy.
I hope and pray and presumptuously imagine the same for Matthew Warren who bravely kept going through years of pain, and gave in to a moment of despair. I didn’t know Matthew at all, but I know something about “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). What is disordered in creation and in us will not have the last word. Evil does not triumph. Mercy triumphs. Grace reigns. Love wins.