The Witness of Mourning Well
- John Stonestreet
In September, Rick and Kay Warren appeared on Piers Morgan’s show on CNN to talk about the tragic death of their son, Matthew. As you probably know, Matthew Warren killed himself after a long struggle with clinical depression.
My friend Warren Smith of WORLD magazine was in the Charlotte airport when the interview aired and was, as he wrote to me, “astonished to see people gathered around televisions in the bars and restaurants of the airport” listening to the Warrens, unable “to take their eyes off the screen,” many with beers in their hand.
Also astonishing was the Warrens’ honesty and willingness to share both Matthew’s pain and their own. Warren quoted his son telling him “Daddy… it’s real clear I’m not going to get any better, so why can’t I just die. I know I’m going to heaven so why can’t I just die?”
For his part, Rick Warren told Piers Morgan that he “cries every day.” Yet, through prayer and the love and support of other Christians, the Warrens are not only working through their grief, they’re finding the grace to turn the suffering into an opportunity to do good for others.
Warren’s honesty made me think about an especially harmful phenomenon: preachers and teachers who would have us believe that Christianity is about maximizing human potential and living “your best life now.”
This comes in many guises, the most famous of which is the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which defines “prosperity” to include great health, great relationships, great kids and, yes, great finances. But it also comes in the even more popular attempts to turn faith into merely therapeutic application, as if the point were that we would all feel better about ourselves.
The message is clear: Being a Christian is a way to avoid suffering. Such nonsense brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s saying that there were two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity.
Of course, what’s being offered—faith as a means of pain avoidance— isn’t Christianity at all, at least not the faith proclaimed in the scriptures, the faith whose chief symbol is an instrument of suffering and death, the Cross.
When Paul asks whether “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom 8:35), he’s clearly assuming we will experience some or all of these.
All of this was driven home for me as the lector read the New Testament text on All Saints Day at my church. The reading, from Revelation 7, talks about how at the end of time God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. As she read, she broke down in tears, overcome with the promise that our suffering and death, though very real, will not have the last word.
Though I don’t know her story nor can I imagine the pain of the Warrens, we all share in hope. And it’s this hope–grounded in the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ–that ultimately distinguishes Christian mourning from non-Christian mourning.
As Paul told the Thessalonians, “we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” Thus, while we mourn, we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”
The people at the Charlotte airport were glued to the television watching the Warrens because they saw something they rarely see: people mourning well. People with hope.
The Warrens didn’t deny their pain, but they showed their viewers and us that their pain doesn’t define them. What defines us takes place on the first Easter Sunday.
It’s the stuff of astonishing hope.