Rick Warren wrote The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold 30 million copies. He has also faced controversy and heartbreak, most notably the suicide of his son Matthew, who had a long history of mental illness. Warren pastors Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., which has a Sunday attendance of more than 20,000 persons, and I interviewed him there.
Matthew committed suicide at Eastertime last year. You and your wife Kay went into seclusion for a season, but beginning with an interview on CNN you started talking very openly about Matthew. Obviously, I want my son back. But if you’re going to go through pain, you may as well use it for good. Corinthians says, “God allows us to go through pain and comforts us so we can comfort others with the comfort we’ve been given.” Kay and I have known from Matthew’s birth that at some point we would be spokespeople for mental illness. You can’t have a child who was mentally ill his entire life and not know that God wants you to use that pain for good. When Matthew died, it was news around the world. I took four months off after Matthew’s death and spent literally hours a day with God alone. I didn’t do interviews during that time.
How did that experience change you? I’m not the same man I was six months before that time. During that time as I wrote in my journal, sometimes I would write something and think, “That would help somebody else.” I’d post it to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I discovered everybody’s touched. There are 60 million people in America who have dealt with some form of mental illness. Everybody knows somebody. I really think this is the last taboo. I can give a testimony as a grieving father. I am an authority on that. I’m certainly not an authority on mental illness. We’re in a startup phase. Ten years ago God called Kay to be a spokesperson for HIV/AIDS. We knew nothing about AIDS, literally nothing, and we had to start going to conferences, reading books, and coming up to speed. We’ve been doing that. We’re just putting our feet into the water.
I’ve heard that you put your feet into the water of prison ministry a while back. Ten years ago, after The Purpose Driven Life came out and we were suggesting “40 Days of Purpose,” one Christian inmate asked, “Could I do this in my prison?” I said, “Of course,” and from doing the 40 days he started a church in that maximum-security prison.
And you went to preach there. I had two hours to speak to the entire prison. There were 4,000, maybe 5,000 people out on the yard. Nobody was paying attention except a couple hundred people right up front. I was standing on the ground with no stage, just a microphone, but the microphone could be heard through the entire yard. I pulled out a $50 bill, held it up, and said, “How many of you would like this $50 bill?” Five thousand hands went up. I had everybody’s attention. Then I crumpled it in my hands, tore it a bit, and said, “How many of you would still like this $50 bill?” Five thousand hands went up.
What came next? I spat on the $50 bill, threw it on the ground, stomped it into the dirt, held it up, and said, “How many of you would like it now?” Five thousand hands went up. Then I said, “Now, for many of you, this is what your father did to you. You’ve been mistreated. You are abused. You are misused. You were told you wouldn’t amount to anything. You’ve done a lot of dumb things too. You sinned. You’ve done some crimes, and you’re paying for them. You’ve been beaten. You’ve been torn. You’ve been dirty, but you have not lost one cent of your value to God.”
You had their attention. That day, I think 79 guys gave their lives to Christ. I baptized all of them on the yard that day. We brought out a big laundry bin, filled it with water in front of the entire prison. The church in that prison grew to 500. Later, authorities decided the prison should be smaller, and many prisoners went elsewhere. We commissioned them as missionaries to start churches in those other prisons.
A lot of people have heard about your battle against the temptation to overeat. About two years ago I was doing baptisms and we had a huge membership class: I baptized 867 people myself. Along about number 500, a thought went through my mind. It wasn’t a very spiritual thought. It was, “We’re all fat.” The second thought was, “I’m fat, too. I’m a terrible example of this. How can I expect people to get in shape if I’m not in shape?” The following week, I said in front of the whole church, “I need to repent. The Bible says God created my body. Jesus died for my body. The Holy Spirit lives in my body. He’s going to resurrect my body. I’m supposed to take care of my body, and I haven’t. I’ve only gained two or three pounds a year, but I’ve been your pastor for 30 years. I need to lose 90 pounds. Does anybody else want to join me?” Fifteen thousand signed up by the end of the week.
You wrote a bestseller about the weight you and they lost. Do you worry that you’ll relapse? That would be a public failure. Last year was the worst year of my life. My back went out so I had to go into the hospital and couldn’t exercise for several months. At Easter my son took his life. I went through grief, didn’t sleep well for the next six months, and gained back 35 pounds of the 65 I had lost. But I knew what to do because the doctors had taught me, and I lost those 35 pounds again. It’s not like you lose weight and the rest of your life you’re fine. For the rest of my life, I will struggle. I use my own weakness to try to encourage others.
How do you disagree with people without becoming disagreeable? At heart I’m an evangelist. I spend time with people I completely disagree with. Some say if I disagree with you I must be afraid of you or hate you. That’s false. There’s a difference between approval and acceptance. Jesus accepts me without approving of everything I do, so I try to accept other people without approving of everything they do.
What do you do with your spare time? I play with my grandkids. They gave me Legos for my birthday, and I told them, “You gave me a gift that I get to do with you. I love that.”