On Rick Warren, Tragedy, and Prodigals

On Tragedies and ProdigalsRick Warren and his wife Kay suffered unbelievable tragedy over the weekend when their youngest son Matthew committed suicide last weekend at the age of 27. He had been battling mental illness and severe depression for years.

I can’t imagine how horrible this would be for a parent. To lose your child in a car accident is a tragedy indeed; to lose a child to suicide is even more so. There’s stigma, and there’s all the questions about what else you could have done (even if there really is nothing you could have done).

A good friend of mine’s brother committed suicide when he was 16, and she was just a teen. They were a strong Christian family who did things well. He had become moody and withdrawn, but nobody knew the depth of what he was feeling, and he left no note. Later on stories came out in the press about things that a high school coach had been doing, and there were always questions as to whether or not this had been a reason. But those questions cannot be answered on this side of heaven, and perhaps it’s those questions that drive us the most crazy.

I pray that Mr. and Mrs. Warren receive a ton of comfort, and prayer, and space. In fact, I’d ask everyone reading this to say a prayer for them right now.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the attitude that’s been in much of the media, and even many of the Christian blogs. When tragedy strikes, people are quick to assign blame. And so there’s so much vitriol on the media, and in news websites, and even on Christian sites of people who disagree with him politically.

I think this is completely wrong and completely unbiblical.

I read an amazing article about this phenomenon last night from the blog Rage Against the Minivan, where she says this:

When we hear about grieving parents it can be so tempting to try to assign blame, because if they aren’t to blame, then we have to grapple with the reality that sometimes, tragedy is senseless. This is an uncomfortable truth: awful things happen to children that parents cannot prevent.  It’s a truth so painful that we would rather throw grieving parents under the bus than face it.

Read the whole thing.

I believe she’s exactly right.

Whenever we hear of a tragedy, we immediately start to list all the reasons why it can’t happen to us–and therefore we implicitly blame the parents that it did happen to.

The Newtown school shooting? Thank goodness we homeschool. A child abduction? That’s why I don’t work outside the home; so I always know where my kids are. A teenager gets pregnant? At least we do family devotions every night.

We need to stop that, because it’s not biblical. We are to “mourn with those who mourn”, says Paul in Romans 12:15.

And we also need to become a little (or a lot) more humble.

I find the story of The Prodigal Son so fascinating on so many levels. One of those is the fact that the father figure in that story represents God. Is God a good father? You bet. Did God work so hard so that he never saw his kids? Nope. Did he discipline inappropriately? Nope. Was he prone to fits of rage? Of course not. God parents perfectly.

And  yet He had a prodigal (and, we know in fact He has many). The story is meant to illustrate many different points, but I think one of them is this:

When we have prodigals in our families, we should not assume that this reflects badly on the parents. Kids make their own choices. We all have free will.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn how to parent well, or that we shouldn’t try to raise our kids to love the Lord and to do what’s right. But there are never any guarantees. I’m not implying that Rick Warren’s son was a prodigal, by the way; anything I’ve read in the news says that he was a strong Christian; he just suffered from mental illness. I’m just saying that often we look at parents (not the Warrens, but others) who have kids who have turned astray and we tend to do just what people are doing to the Warrens: we blame them.

Why? Because we want those guarantees. We want to know that if we do everything right, everything will turn out okay, because we love our kids so much and we don’t want anything to touch them. We don’t want them to make mistakes and wreck their lives (or, God forbid, end them). We want to know, as we look into the face of a cherubic 4-year-old, that he will grow up to not use drugs, to love God, to get a good job, and to marry well. And please, no horrible illnesses.

But that doesn’t always happen. And perhaps one of the main lessons that God wants us to learn from parenting is that sometimes we just have to trust and realize that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. To live is not to be a parent. Our children cannot be our whole lives, and they cannot come before our love for God. And our relationship with God isn’t like that of a genie, where we do all the right things so that He’ll come through for us.

Our relationship with God needs to be one of trust and submission.

Not trust that everything will turn out the way we want it to; but trust that no matter what happens, God will carry us, and God will be enough for us.

When our son died seventeen years ago, we had people say hurtful things to us, things that they likely didn’t realize were hurtful. Things like, “it was just God’s will”, or “you have to ask what God is trying to teach you through this” (as if implying that if we failed to learn, God might zap our daughter Rebecca next), or “this is a good time to examine yourselves before God”.

No, this is simply a time to cry, and to weep, and to be a mess as you lie down before God and beg Him to help you be able to climb out of bed each morning, and continue to breathe even when your chest aches, and to one day be able to laugh again.

God did that in our lives. That doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything from Christopher’s death; I did. I learned to trust God more. But that does not mean that God causes tragedy because there is something wrong in our lives. Like Jesus said of the man that was born blind, he and his parents didn’t sin so that he was born blind; it was just so that the works of God could be displayed in his life. (John 9:3).How Big Is Your Umbrella

When tragedy strikes, let’s resist the temptation to list all the reasons that it won’t happen to us. Let’s resist the temptation to blame the parents. And let’s instead pray for those who are grieving, and use that opportunity to throw ourselves once more on God’s mercy, asking Him to teach us that no matter what happens in this life, He will always be enough.

Struggling with saying “God is enough”? Sheila’s book, How Big Is Your Umbrella, that she wrote after her son’s death, can help walk you through this journey of trust.


  1. Beautiful post, Sheila. I am continuing to pray for Pastor Rick Warren and Kay…..and for all those who have lost a child.

  2. Beautifully written, Sheila! Truly this is something beyond reason. Rational thought can not explain such tragedy. You speak to the heart of the matter on how all of us should be responding: seek hard for God’s mercy and that He may reveal His glory through it. It will come.
    Robert Ferguson recently posted…Values Quotes – Blaise Pascal on ReasonMy Profile

  3. melanie J says:

    Excellent post! My husband committed suicide. It was horrible! I know the pain his parents felt. I am sorry for the warrens. I pray for them in their time of loss.

  4. You summed it up completely. Such a tragedy for anybody. We simply cannot have or know all the answers. All we can do is trust and do the things we know to do that are good and right in His eyes. So sorry for the loss of your son. I simply cannot imagine. Thanks for telling us what we so often need to be reminded of.

  5. ButterflyWings says:

    Thank you for the touching post. It is a shame people think personal tragedy is to teach those who are suffering something. We live in a broken world where painful things happen. All we can do is be there for those who are going through hard times.

  6. Another good post with excellent points I don’t seem to hear anywhere else.
    I’m reminded of a song lyric my husband has always loved and shared with me: “A disaster’s a disaster, no matter what Christian language you drag it through.” (Manchester Orchestra)

  7. Well said, Sheila, well said. We mourn with those who mourn.

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  8. Thank you for this post. You’re right, God doesn’t cause bad things to happen; but He can use anything for good. (I forget where that is in the Bible.)

    After I attempted suicide, my mom told me that if I killed myself, it would kill her, and it would kill Dad. She meant literally as well as figuratively. So since then, even in my darkest times, even when I badly wanted to kill myself and seriously considered it, I never could, because I could never do that to my mom and dad. I could never do that to my siblings, my brother especially who feels things deeply but doesn’t communicate those feelings. I could never do that to my husband, because it would kill him too. I could never do that to my nephews. Sometimes the desire for death would overwhelm me, as I’m sure it will in the future at some points, but the thought of my family always kept me from it.

    Whose woods these are I think I know.
    His house is in the village, though;
    He will not see me stopping here
    To watch his woods fill up with snow.

    My little horse must think it queer
    To stop without a farmhouse near
    Between the woods and frozen lake
    The darkest evening of the year.

    He gives his harness bells a shake
    To ask if there is some mistake.
    The only other sound’s the sweep
    Of easy wind and downy flake.

    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    That last bit always brings tears to my eyes, especially when I’m struggling.
    Jenny recently posted…medication side effects and the power of positive thinkingMy Profile

    • Oh, I should say, that’s Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.” I know it so well that I forget other people don’t!
      Jenny recently posted…medication side effects and the power of positive thinkingMy Profile

      • ButterflyWings says:

        I too know that one and it can be quite a comfort. Robert Frost is a beautiful poet.

      • I pray for the Warren Family as I truly know how horribly devastating this feels. My son committed suicide 4 years ago. Yes i have blamed myself for what I didn’t do or see But either way God has a plan for this. Do I know why? No I don;t but the God will one day let me know why we don’t have custody of my son’s little girls anymore and why life doesn’t stop for no one.

    • Hi Jenny, I’m glad you’re able to fight through those dark periods. The Bible verse is Romans 8:28. And I made my girls memorize that poem in our homeschooling! It’s always been one of my favourites, too.

      • I hold on to that verse! My husband does now too, and reminds me of it when I have a hard time remembering it, just as I remind him of it when he has a hard time remembering it. :) We have seen it over and over again in our lives. I also read that our greatest ministry comes out of our deepest hurts, which is true!
        Jenny recently posted…medication side effects and the power of positive thinkingMy Profile

        • What I love about that verse is that it doesn’t say that all things ARE good. It just says that no matter how lousy and horrible and awful things are, God can and will bring good out of it. :)

    • Thank you Shelia for sharing – this hits close to home for me as well. I’ve always cared and respected Pastor Rick and his family… he is a true Christ follwer and leader. Thank you Jenny for sharing your story as well.. it helped me.

  9. Right on. Trying to assign blame doesn’t fix anything. I think people think if they can find something concrete to blame, it will bring some resolution. Make them feel better. It will make a horrible situation have some sense. Because we human creatures do not like it when something doesn’t make sense.

    I experienced a shooting very close to home. A young man walked into the parking lot of my church and opened fire. He took two lives – teenage sisters – before it was over. Then the blame game started. People wanted to figure out, what had our church done to deserve this? Well, the answer is…nothing. We did nothing to deserve to have what is supposed to be a safe place violated. Those two innocent girls did nothing to deserve to be murdered. Their parents and surviving siblings did nothing to deserve to live with the pain and grief for the rest of their lives. The parents of the shooter did nothing to deserve having the scarlet letter placed upon them of having raised a child who would do such a heinous thing. They were decent, honest people who had done the best they could. But there were things beyond their control.

    I suffer from depression. It is beyond my control. I had to go on medication and thank goodness that helped. But I remember how it felt before that. It was hell. And y’know what, the church at large doesn’t get it. The vast majority of Christians seem to think people with a mental illness can just “give it to God” and move on. Doesn’t work that way. A mental illness is an ILLNESS and we need to have the same compassion for those affected by it as we do for those affected by physical illnesses. Christians lose their battles with physical illnesses like cancer every day. We grieve with those families. The Warren’s son lost his battle with an illness. Even after his parents had done everything they could – medication, counseling, psychiatric help. But he had an ILLNESS. And he lost his battle. We should grieve with them.
    Melissa recently posted…Random Stuff Lately…My Profile

    • Amen. Well said.

    • I have been told so many times that if I just pray enough and trust God enough, I won’t have bipolar I disorder with psychosis (hallucinations, delusions, paranoia – most people don’t know what that word means) or panic attacks anymore, that it’s all in my head. “It’s all in your head, you don’t need medication, just get over it.” OMG that is such a dangerous thing to tell someone who struggles with mental illness, because if we get off our medication we would most likely die. Mental illnesses are real illnesses, just like cancer, as you said. You don’t say, “Oh cancer is all in your head, just get over it, you don’t need treatment.” It’s the same thing. You’re right that people in the church don’t tend to understand that a mental illness is an illness, it’s not a result of sin. Unless you want to say that childhood cancer is a result of sin, which I’m sure people do, because for many people (such as myself) mental illnesses begin in childhood. Praying and trusting God helps us to make it through symptoms sometimes, but it doesn’t make the symptoms go away. I remember one of the times I was severely psychotic, I would lie on my bed and just cower and cry, and my delusions precluded the existence of God, but even while there could not be a God, in the back of my mind in a very tiny place I felt God holding me and crying with me. He helps us get through it, but that doesn’t make it go away. Another thing that is damaging, speaking of hallucinations and the like, is to say that psychosis is demonic. It is very treatable with medication, but it does require medication. It’s not from Satan, it’s the result of chemical imbalances in your brain that causes those things to happen. It’s actually a physical illness, not a spiritual one.
      Jenny recently posted…medication side effects and the power of positive thinkingMy Profile

  10. Beautiful words and pure truth!

  11. Thank you

  12. anonymous says:

    By chance do you know of someone, anywhere, a Christian, who can speak to the Church about Depression? I have it, and I’m scared out of my mind (like I need that) to say anything to anyone at church because church people are so utterly clueless and pain inducing. Even my best friend told me that the joy of the Lord should be my strength, that true Christians should not be depressed. I almost felt betrayed. But the Church is supposed to be the one place I should be safe to go to for help and encouragement.
    Thanks for any help,
    Anonymous (you have my e-mail, as I entered it in order to place this post)

    • I do have a friend who is a speaker who has suffered from depression for a long time, and gives an awesome talk on it. She uses so much humor, too, which makes it even better. And her daughter has struggled with mental illness, so she really understands. Her name’s Joanne Goodwin, and you can find her here.

  13. Thank you, Sheila. Well said, and SO true. Prayers for the Warrens, and for all who suffer such a tragedy. May God be with them in their time of grief.

  14. It is so true. And nothing that is any different than from the beginning either. All of Job’s friends and even his wife went after Job trying to place all blame on him and / or God. Yet Job was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. We do pray for the Warren’s and that they have people of comfort to surround them.

  15. I suffered with severe depression. I was suicidal last summer. THANK GOD, He did let me actually go through with it. Part of my journey included seeking out different types of medical care.

    Prior to getting help, people were so closed minded I wanted to kick the next Christian who said “oh, you’re just not praying enough” or “you’re obviously not right with God. What sin have you not confessed?”

    I share this because I know I’m NOT the only person who is or has dealt with this. I started seeing a nautropath and we focused on what was wrong in my body rather than was prescription drug I could take. With her help, we found I was deficient in many essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids that support brain health. Just a few months later, I was a COMPLETELY different person. I can’t say it does or will work for everyone. But I TRULY believe that the foods we eat in our modern society do not allow for optimal body function. So I highly encourage ANYONE who is dealing with depression to look at alternative care approaches in addition to just anti-depressants. My nautropath can and does do both. But I have found MUCH more power and healing in food and nutrients than in anti-depressants.

    Just like most things, people who haven’t gone through it don’t understand it. As one who was there myself recently, if you feel like just being done living, don’t give up. There IS hope. Healing can be found, God used the power of his creation (food) and some wise people (my naturopath and counselors) to bring me healing.
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    • It’s true that being healthy can help in recovery. However, it can’t be “fixed” by solely that in most cases. When I was eating healthy all the time and exercising every day and taking supplements, I was at one of the worst times in my illness. (One of my mixed episodes with psychosis.) It was the same episode during which I cut my wrist, and overdosed in an attempt to kill myself.
      Jenny recently posted…medication side effects and the power of positive thinkingMy Profile

  16. Thank you for writing this post, Sheila. I don’t dare even look to see what people are saying about the Warren family online but I would not be surprised to see a lot of pointing fingers. It was like that after the Newtown shooting too and it nauseated me to see people being so judgemental in the face of raw grief. Like pouring salt on wounds. I understand that people do this as a coping method, thinking if they are a “better” person than so and so, such a tragedy won’t happen to them. But this is a lie from the pit and the book of Job is there to remind us. Bad things do happen to good people and I’d rather give folks the benefit of the doubt than try to claim that a tragedy has come as a punishment. How should I know in any given case? Every circumstance is unique and between God and the victims alone; it’s really no one else’s business. I would never want to put myself in a position of needing to be humbled for being self-righteous. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
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  17. Yes!! Exactly. If ever you wrote something that I agree with most, this is it!

  18. This post was beautifully written, Sheila. Thank you for writing.

  19. This is a wonderful post. Thank you, Sheila.
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  20. Thank you for this post. We have nine children and when one of ours became a prodigal, I learned quickly, there is no formula and there should not be “vultures” looking to lay blame. WhenI realized my son was rebelling against God not really me, it helped so much. It looked like it was at my husband and I, because of our beliefs, but it was between him and God. We decided very early to love our son and let God discipline him. While he is not walking with The Lord right now, we have a great relationship with him, which gives us a chance to model Christlike love. We are praying for the Warrens and praying everyone will out down their stones.

  21. Beautiful post. The key is to trust God and His perfect plan. My heart goes out to their family.
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  22. Your insight is spot-on here, Sheila. I am tempted to judge others at times, in an effort to quiet my own fears that something similar could happen to my children.

    Also, those who have not been through depression likely don’t understand how gripping and overwhelming it is. I have been through depression and, while I was never suicidal, it was a painful experience that saturated by body and seeped into my mind. It was not just a “snap out of it” or “say a prayer” kind of thing. Yes, of course, we should turn to God in those times! But we shouldn’t brush aside how deeply depression can affect a person.

    My heart goes out to the Warren families, and all families who have been through similar challenges and heartache.
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  23. Samantha says:

    Thank you Sheila

    We are experiencing the loss of a child in our family, and I have been struggling with anger and grief. But the Lord is sure putting out way signs for me to help me through – and I’m not even looking that hard!!! Your post is one of them today. Thank you for not being afraid to speak to the hard stuff.

  24. Very good post, Sheila. Thanks, it has helped me wrap my mind around the whole sad event and face/address questions like ‘ How could God let this happen?’ etc. As a growing Christian and a mom of young kids,I especially like this bit, “Our children cannot be our whole lives, and they cannot come before our love for God. And our relationship with God isn’t like that of a genie, where we do all the right things so that He’ll come through for us. Our relationship with God needs to be one of trust and submission. Not trust that everything will turn out the way we want it to; but trust that no matter what happens, God will carry us, and God will be enough for us.”
    I enjoy your blog alot and i’ve learnt a lot from what you share! God bless!

  25. I was a member of Pastor Rick’s church, Saddleback, for many years. I volunteered and served in many different ministries during that time (we moved out of state, otherwise we would still be members).

    There was never, and I do mean NEVER a time that I questioned Pastor Rick’s motives, actions, direction, guidance, or his love of Jesus, love of his family or love of his congregation. He is one follower of Christ that I can say I completely trust.

    He is a great example of who I would only aspire to be.

    One of Pastor Ricks quotes is ‘Jesus is concerned with our CHARACTER not our COMFORT, He wants to know how we are growing to be more like him.’

    I lost a child and was very angry at God…. putting it mildly. I wanted to know WHY?!?! I had done all of the ‘right’ things, I had taken my children to church, bible study, mission trips, involved in every sport and extra activity… why why why.

    As Pastor Rick and Kay go through these same emotions, I find comfort in knowing that they are still strong in their love for Christ.

  26. ButterflyWings says:

    L, not the quite the same but I too struggled with my christian counsellor’s lack of concern with my husband’s lack of interest in sex. For us, it’s not that he’s cheating, it’s just I am 100% sure he has a serious testosterone problem. But the counsellor made out that I was the one with the problem for wanting sex more than once a week. Even on our 15 day honeymoon we only did it three times. Unfortunately even good christian counsellors have a few blind spots.

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  1. […] your child choose to walk away from God, it should not reflect on you, as I wrote in this post on prodigals and tragedies. Yet nevertheless, as parents, we should still do what we can to make it more likely our kids will […]

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