Take us back to Easter last year…
The day that I prayed would never happen, the day that I figured might happen, happened five days after Easter last year.
Since Matthew was a baby, we’ve known that someday we would become spokespeople about mental illness. It was hard enough being my son, much less to struggle with mental illness; it was his story to tell, so to protect his dignity we kind of kept it quiet.
After his death I said we wouldn’t do any interviews for six months – we didn’t even know what we were feeling, we were just grieving parents.
Eventually, I started sharing my feelings on social media and I realised that people were coming out of the woodwork and saying, “That’s me, that’s my problem, or my brother’s problem.” The floodgates opened. I’m not exaggerating; maybe 10,000 people have written or connected in some way saying: “I lost a friend through mental illness.” Everybody knows somebody.
Can you describe what happened that day?
That week was what I call “my battle for hope”. Last Easter was the 33rd birthday of Saddleback and we had more then 50,000 in attendance – it was a big day for us. Many people came to Christ and I preached on the hope of resurrection. At the end of the message I said, “The more people I love that are in heaven, then heaven becomes closer and more real to me. My mum is there, my dad is there, my brother is there, and I have a lot of friends there.” I didn’t know that five days later my youngest son would be there too.
Matthew had been over the night before, all perfectly normal. We often watched TV together and laughed. He was a brilliant, really brilliant kid, with a tender heart but a tortured mind.
The night that Matthew died, we were standing outside the front of his house with the doors locked. We were waiting for the police to come and break down the door and we feared the inevitable. We were standing, Kay and I, holding each other, sobbing. Kay was wearing a necklace that had two words on it: “Choose Joy”. She said: “Choose joy.” I looked at her and thought, “Are you kidding me? How do you choose joy when your son on the other side of that wall has probably just taken his life?” But that’s faith.
Who has been there for you through this?
My small group was the stability for me in this last year. When Matthew died, within 30 minutes they were there on that sidewalk with us, hugging us, and just being with us. The deeper the pain, the fewer words needed.
That night they came and spent the night at our house. We didn’t have beds for them; they just slept on the couch and in the kitchen, saying, “We’re not leaving you alone.” The next day I sent a letter to my church saying, “I’ve been your pastor for 33 years, I need you now, I need you to pastor me for this time.”
I’ve done maybe 1,000 funerals in my time as pastor. I’ve been at the bedside when a lot of people have breathed their last breath. The most difficult is the death of a child, without a doubt. You’re not supposed to outlast your children. Suicides are the hardest funerals to do…and then I’m doing a child’s funeral, my own child’s suicide.
There were people on the Internet celebrating my son’s death, writing all kinds of vile things, and saying, “May he burn in hell.” Lots of people were actually celebrating and rejoicing, and armchair therapists were determining why he’d taken his life. That was pretty brutal.
It must have compounded the shock and the grief. How did you cope with it?
As a public figure there is never a day of your life that you are not criticised. You have to live for an audience of one; you can’t worry about what other people think. The fact is they simply don’t know. Jesus was perfect, and yet he was criticised, attacked and crucified. A lot of people think, “If I could just be perfect, then everybody would like me.” No they won’t – even Jesus was hated.
You have to learn to have a thick skin.
A thick skin, and a tender heart.
But the past year must also have changed you?
When Matthew died, I took a four month grief sabbatical. I did not preach, I did not teach, so I spent eight hours a day alone with Jesus. I’m not the same man I used to be. I’ve got the same personality, the same flaws, but I’m just not the same guy I was. You can’t spend four months alone in reflection, in the Bible, with scripture and with Jesus and it not change you, deepen you and sensitise you to the pain of other people.
When things happen to you, they become part of your life message. It doesn’t replace my life message, it just adds to the mosaic. It’s another piece that’s been added.
Looking back, is it possible to begin to see purpose in your pain?
I saw it from day one. In fact, we can’t handle pain unless we understand there is a purpose. The gospel doesn’t offer painless life on this earth, but it does offer us meaning, which makes pain bearable. The first stage was shock, which is a human emotion. Sometimes I’d be sitting at home at night, expecting him to walk in through the door and watch TV with us, as he often did. Then it went to sorrow, which is a godly emotion. The Bible says, “Jesus wept.” The only reason you are able to grieve is because God grieves. The Bible makes it very clear; we were made in his image.
The third phase is what I call struggle. All the “why” questions. The biggest one for me is, “Why didn’t you answer the prayer I prayed every day for 27 years?” The prayer I prayed more than any other prayer went unanswered. But explanations never comfort. What you need in tragedy is not an explanation, you need the presence of God.
Then you come to the stage of surrender. Surrender is when you say I’d rather live and walk with God and have my questions unanswered than have all my questions answered and not walk with God.
Has this shaken your faith in any way then?
Not at all. Piers Morgan asked (we finally did one interview, and we chose CNN because we knew it would go worldwide) whether I ever doubted God or his existence. I said, “No, I never did, but I doubted his wisdom.”
My kids have never doubted that they had a father and that I loved them. But they’ve often doubted my wisdom. I remember when Matthew was 17, he came to me and said, “Dad, it’s really obvious I’m not going to be healed of this mental illness. We’ve gone to the best doctors in the nation, I’ve taken the best medicine, got the best therapy, we’ve had prayer, lawyers, intercessors, everything you can imagine and nothing has worked. Why can’t I just die and go to heaven?” What do you say to that as a father? He was a kid who had been in pain since he was born.
I said, “Matthew, you may want to give up, but I cannot. As your father I have to believe, always, that there may be an answer out there somewhere.” He made it another ten years.
What are your abiding memories of Matthew?
I think he is probably one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. He could walk into a room at a party and instantly know who was in the most pain, as he was also in pain. He’d make a beeline for that person and spend the rest of the evening encouraging them; he would have made a great Christian counsellor.
When Matthew died I received 5,000 letters of condolence from around the world. Everyone wrote from rock stars and prime ministers to presidents. But the ones that meant the most to me weren’t from the VIPs; they were the letters from people that Matthew had led to faith in Christ. They said, “I’m going to be in heaven because your son brought me to Jesus.” I wrote in my journal: “In God’s garden of grace, even broken trees bear fruit.” And we are all broken…God only uses broken people.