LAKE FOREST, Calif. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., returned to the pulpit July 27 for the first time since his son's suicide.
Warren, author of the bestseller "The Purpose Driven Life," had taken a 16-week absence after Matthew Warren, 27, took his life in April following a long struggle with mental illness.
Matthew Warren's death brought an outpouring of support for the Warren family, including from Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee and a former SBC president, who lost his 32-year-old daughter Melissa to suicide in 2009.
"My heart is broken as I've heard the news about Rick Warren's son," Page said via Twitter the day after Matthew Warren's death. "Please pray. Unfortunately, I understand that which they experience now."
Rick Warren took the pulpit at the Saturday evening service to a standing ovation, thanking Saddleback staff, members, his family and local pastors who supported him.
"In the middle of all that intense pain, Kay and I ... and our entire family, we've all felt the favor of God on our lives because of your prayers," he said.
Rick Warren, with comments from his wife Kay, shared the first message in a new sermon series titled, "How to Get Through What You're Going Through."
Rick Warren said when he is asked how he and his family are getting through this time, the answer rests on three truths that never change.
The first one, he said, is that life doesn't make sense, but we can have peace because we know God is with us and loves us. Rick Warren said that as we go through grief, God grieves with us, and He wants to take our pain and turn it around as a means to help others who are suffering in the same way.
"He wants to use it as your life message and your life mission," Rick Warren said.
He added that he still does not understand why his son's mental illness was never healed or why he died, but having an explanation is not the point.
"I would rather walk with God with all my questions unanswered than to have all my questions answered and not have Him in my life," he recalled writing.
The second truth Rick Warren explained is that everything on earth is broken, but we can still have joy because we know God is good and has a greater plan. Nothing works perfectly in this world, Rick Warren said, and sin is wearing us down. But we can still rely on God.
"His plan is bigger than the problem you're going through, and it's a good plan," he said.
Kay Warren took the platform to explain how she could choose joy even when her hopes were crushed by Matthew's death. The third truth, she said, is that life is a battle, but we can have hope because we know there's more to the story.
Kay Warren said that during her son's mental illness, she did so much to build up hope that God would heal him, and she believed that He would. After Matthew's suicide, all the things she had used to give her hope seemed to mock her, and she had to figure out what to do when the outcome was not as she expected.
"What I know about God prevents me from concluding that He is a fake or a phony or a tease, and what I know about myself prevents me from concluding that my faith wasn't strong enough ...," Kay Warren said.
What she is left with, she said, is an enormous mystery, but she is content to leave her questions unanswered until she sees Jesus, because she knows He has never forsaken her or her family.
"Hope may not look the way that I thought it would, but hope is alive in us because we know," she said.
Rick Warren returned to the stage, telling the congregation that he comforts himself by knowing that even though Matthew's life on earth was full of suffering, he is in his heavenly Father's arms. Rick Warren announced that just as Saddleback fought to remove the stigma from having HIV/AIDS, the next fight will be to remove the stigma from mental illness.
"If you struggle with a broken brain, you should be no more ashamed than someone with a broken arm," Warren said. "It's not a sin to take meds. It's not a sin to get help. You don't need to be ashamed."