LAKE FOREST, Calif. – Pastor Rick Warren, author of the best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, and his wife, Kay, spoke about their grief after the loss of their son, Matthew, and their unfailing hope in God during the Saddleback Church founders' first time back at the pulpit since their son's suicide nearly four months ago.
In an at times gut-wrenching sermon during the first of five weekend services Saturday, the congregation at the Lake Forest campus welcomed the Warrens with a long standing ovation. The couple, who attribute their son's lifelong battle with mental illness as the cause for his death, vowed to remove the stigma of the disease.
"In the middle of all that intense pain, Kay and I have felt the favor of God because of your prayers and we intend to spend the rest of our lives comforting others with the comfort we ourselves have been given by God," said Warren, after reading 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 to open his sermon, "How to Get Through What You're Going Through."
During Warren's message, he and Kay shared three main areas of biblical truth that gave stability during their grief. First, life doesn't make sense, but people can have peace because "God is with us and loves us." Secondly, everything on earth is broken, but "we can have joy because we know God has a greater plan." And third, "we know that life is a battle, but we can have hope because we know there is more to the story."
"For 27 years I prayed every day of my life for God to heal my son's mental illness ... it didn't make sense why this prayer wasn't being answered," said Warren. "When you go through a difficult time, you automatically start to try and find an answer. But explanations never comfort. You don't need explanations; you need the presence of God."
Both Rick and Kay Warren described having something like a premonition on April 5 before receiving confirmation that their 27-year-old son had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound that day.
"The day Matthew passed away I had this terrible sense of foreboding. Without really going into all the circumstances of why, I had a pretty good reason to believe that Matthew had taken his life," said Kay Warren, during her segment of the sermon.
She explained how on that day she deliberately chose to wear a necklace having the same inscription as her book's title, Choose Joy, which was released last year.
"With hands shaking, heart pounding, stomach heaving, not really thinking clearly, but by knowing that by putting it on I was fighting back against the nightmare that I was pretty sure was going to unfold that day," she recounted.
Later, as their worst nightmare became a reality, she raised the necklace to her husband.
"I raised it to Rick in a very tiny, feeble attempt to affirm that which I really believed to be the truth, that I could choose joy even as my heart was shattering into a million pieces," she said.
Kay explained that the reason the couple was willing to accept the idea of choosing joy in such a terrible circumstance was because of their faith.
"How can I do that? And how can Rick receive my gesture and agree with it? …It is because we know that we can have joy in our deepest, darkest, most anguished troubles because for nearly 50 years we have been sending our spiritual roots down deep into the soil of God's grace, His mercy, His faithfulness, and His goodness," she said.
The Warrens, who have worked the last decade to remove the stigma of HIV/AIDS, said they are now called to remove the stigma of mental illness.
"If you struggle with a broken brain, you should be no more ashamed than someone with a broken arm," said Warren. "It's not a sin to take meds. It's not a sin to get help. You don't need to be ashamed."
At the beginning of the worship service, Warren thanked his family, local pastors, and his church staff of about 400 employees.
"This really is a purpose driven church because the purposes continue whether there is a personality in leadership or not," he said.
The church is scheduled to continue the "How to Get Through What You're Going Through" sermon series over the next six weeks by focusing on the six stages of grief – shock, sorrow, struggle, surrender, sanctification and service.
Founded in 1980 by the Warrens, Saddleback Church's main campus is located in Lake Forest. In addition, there are several regional locations throughout Orange and Riverside counties, and several international locations in the early stages of church planting. With an average weekly attendance of 22,000, it is one of the largest churches in America. For more information, visit Saddleback.com. All services can be watched live at Saddleback.com/onlinecampus.