By Martin Henderson
LAKE FOREST, Calif.—The worship center filled early and was abuzz with the largest crowd in its history. Was this a concert or a church service? It was a little bit of both as Saturday marked the return of Rick Warren to his stage, to his calling, to his people.
The founding pastor of Saddleback Church 33 years ago, Warren preached for the first time since the death of his youngest son, Matthew, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 5.
He brought a message of hope, but also some hard lessons from his experience. His sermon was mostly serious in nature, occasionally emotional and light-hearted and at least once, stunning.
"I'm afraid of nothing," Warren said at one point, confirming what he said two months ago that he stronger than ever spiritually. "I'm coming out of this fearless. The whole business of Christianity is fixing broken, messed up lives."
He shared the stage at times with his wife, Kay, for 76 minutes of the 90-minute program in front of the largest crowd to ever attend a Saddleback service. Normally, the Saturday, 4:30 p.m. crowd is about 2,000; on this day, there were 6,500 in attendance, another 3,200 watching online. The worship center, which seats about 2,900 at the mega-church, was filled to the rafters, while the overflow went to tents, patios and empty patches of greenbelt on the Lake Forest campus.
The sermon was the first in a series titled “How To Get Through What You’re Going Through,” and served as an introduction to six parts drawing from his grief and recovery process, though he said he still grieves over his family’s loss. The series will cover shock, sorrow, struggle, surrender, sanctification and service.
The last time Warren preached was Easter Sunday. Five days later, his family got the news it had dreaded for some time, he said, when their son didn’t answer phone calls or the locked door of his Mission Viejo house. The Warrens, who had no key for the home, revealed they called the Orange County Sheriff, then anguished for hours in each other’s arms waiting for confirmation their 27-year-old son had died.
In the days afterward, Warren revealed his son had suffered from a lifetime of depression and mental illness and had purchased an unregistered shotgun online.
But Warren and his wife have refrained from public appearances since, except for May 25 at the end of a Saddleback service to touch base with congregants.
The author of the best-selling The Purpose Driven Life, Warren’s international ministry—at least his contribution to it—had been reduced to tweets on social media that was as much a sharing of the things he needed to get through the despair.
That despair was a central element of his message, particularly when it came to the question of “Why?”
There are no easy answers, and life doesn’t always make sense, Warren said, explaining his son had the best doctors, medicine, therapists, had the most people praying for him and had a family of deep faith, but God never provided an explanation as to why Matthew, why the Warrens, or why their son chose the exit he did.
“Pain is not relieved by explanations,” Warren said, calling on circumstances that might be relevant beyond the stage such as broken relationships or terminal disease. “Pain is relieved by the presence of God in your life. …
“God wants to take your biggest pain, your biggest hurt, your greatest loss, and turn it into your greatest life message, and turn it into your ministry, your service, of helping other people.”
But he also took a blue collar approach to explaining the trial of life.
"The troubles we see now are temporary, thank God," Warren said. "What you're going through—you're just going through it. What do you do when you go through hell? You keep going. You don't want to sit down and have a party. When you're going through hell, you just keep walking. Your troubles here are temporary, but the [eternal] joys to come will last forever."
He took the stance that poverty, illiteracy and disease were not the biggest problems in the world. "We're working on" those, he said. "The greatest problem on this planet is hopelessness. That's why The Purpose Driven Life is a best-seller in 137 languages, because hopelessness is universal. ... It is without a doubt the epidemic of our age."
Warren said that in much the same way Saddleback has helped
remove the stigma of HIV-AIDS, it will work to shine a light on mental health.
He also said everyone is broken in some way, everyone is mentally ill with
fears, worries, doubts, compulsions, attractions, attentions, temptations,
discouragement and depressions.
"You may be struggling with your life, but I want to say to you, your illness is not your identity, your chemistry is not your character," Warren said. "God's grace not only covers you guilt, it covers your genetics. God's mercy doesn't just cover your dumb, stupid things you do, it covers your DNA."
He blamed Satan for the tragedy and recounted a week whose theme centered on “hope” as Warren geared up for the next big push in his ministry.
He said the Sunday Easter service was about “the hope of the resurrection,” and that the following Monday he announced he would finally relent and do a nationwide radio program and call it “Daily Hope.” He announced on Tuesday he would take a four-month sabbatical to write his first book since The Purpose Driven Life and call it The Hope You Need.
He said the next day he sent a newsletter announcing a series called “Surviving Tough Times” and the first installment would be called, “When You Feel Like You’re Being Attacked.”
On Thursday of that week, Christianity Today released an article titled “Rick Warren’s Final Frontier, Taking Hope to the Rest of the World.”
He also shared that on Friday, April 5, the day his son died, he went to the doctor who told him he had double pneumonia, and realizing he would not be able to preach, called brother-in-law Tom Holladay to advise him to speak on a subject other than the one Warren had intended and call it, “What To Do On the Worst Day of Your Life.”
It was eerily prophetic.
“I told him that [while] sitting in a doctor’s office at 10 a.m.,” Warren said, setting up the revelation that seemed to stun the crowd. “The coroner later determined 10 a.m. was the moment Matthew died. I had no idea I was going to experience the worst day of my life. And the message on the radio that day was ‘Winning the Battle For Your Mind.’”
But Warren said Satan picked on the wrong family.
“We often think when this stuff happens, this is the end of the world,” Warren continued. “It’s not. It’s the end of the moment, and you’re going to have the end of many moments in your life, because at the end of the world, Jesus is going to show up. That’s how you know it’s the end of the world.”
Warren’s teaching outline indicated "What a person knows is what gets
him through," and there were three key points, which he introduced by saying, “I
hope you’ll take notes this weekend because you’re going to need this some day.
You’re going to have many losses in your life."
• Life doesn’t make sense but we can have peace
because we know God is with us and loves us.
• Everything on earth is broken, but we can have joy because we know God is good and he has a greater plan.
• Life is a battle but we can have hope because we know there’s more to the story.
The Warrens thanked a number of people, Kay getting emotional when referring to a close confidential group that had filled her Hope Box with important insight and scripture as her son's condition became increasingly more difficult. She said it took a turn for the worse about five years ago, and a more critical turn about a year ago.
She went solo for several minutes in an address to the crowd.
"I would be an absolute total liar if I did not tell you that my hope was not severely disappointed when my son passed away," she said. "With his death, my hopes for a healed mind on earth died with him. ... My Hope Box mocked me."
She said her knowledge of God "prevents me from thinking God was a fake, a phony or a tease, and what I know about myself is I know there is nothing I could have done. ... There was nothing wrong with my faith. My love simply was not enough to overcome the brick wall of mental illness."
Kay Warren said she resigned to putting her unanswered questions into a pot "on the burners of my mind called 'Mysteries I Can't Solve.' ... I'm content to let it sit there until the day I meet Jesus Christ face-to-face."
In the meantime, she will rebuild her Hope Box that "with scriptures that strengthen my hope for the future."
At one point, she held the necklace she wore, specifically, as she awaited word of her son's faith; the inscription is "Choose Joy."
"God is still the Red Sea God, he still parts the waters that allows us to crawl across on dry land, He still heals others, he still heals broken lives and broken relationships," she said. "And if you're like me, who thinks your hope dies, I urge you to have audacious faith and hope again, go back out on the limb, rebuild your Hope Box. It doesn't matter what [God's] motives were because it's not the end of the story."
Rick Warren's most emotional moment appeared to be when he spoke about his two other children, Josh and Amy, “who loved their brother unconditionally, protected him in spite of his mental
illness and talked him off the ledge time after time. They’re really my heroes.”
Warren also talked about situations such as his, and people who say Matthew's death "must have been God's will, or people will say 'God needed Matthew more.' "
"There's a word for that. 'Nonsense,' " Warren said. "It's just nonsense. God didn't need Matthew more. God doesn't need anything, so don't tell me God needed Matthew. My son was robbed of his life by mental illness.
"The Bible says Satan comes to kill and destroy. He is a thief. Satan cannot hurt God, so how does he try to hurt God? By hurting his children. ... You hurt my kids you hurt me. ... When Matthew died, Satan thought he won, but he lost big-time, because Matthew is now out of reach of his torture. He is no longer in pain. In fact, he is cheering us from the grandstands right now."
And with that, the largest audience in Saddleback Church history applauded.