Nobody’s Messiah

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When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matt. 11:2-6)

Our Failure to Save

This past April 5, approximately a week after Easter Sunday, Matthew Warren, son of Evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren, took his own life at the age of 27.

Rick Warren is one of only a handful of pastors in the country who could legitimately lay claim to the “America’s Pastor” title in post-Billy Graham American Christianity. Regardless of your opinion of Pastor Warren’s theology or ministry, everyone who heard the news grieved and felt the painful irony – the son of the man who gave us The Purpose Driven Life, one of the best-selling Christian books in history and considered the most influential of the past decade, was unable to find enough meaning to press on.

The very first section of The Purpose Driven Life is titled “What on Earth Am I Here For?” Whether Matthew Warren was able to answer that question or not, I don’t know. But apparently the sadness he experienced was so overwhelming that, purpose or not, he couldn’t bear it anymore.

As someone who has carried the weight of depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder for the vast majority of my life, Matthew Warren’s story sounded eerily familiar. Never once did I really doubt that God could/would accomplish something positive during my lifetime, but the question was always whether or not the sadness I was experiencing at the time was worth enduring. I knew God didn’t need me to accomplish his purpose. What’s been fascinating to me is that, to some degree, I’ve come to believe that it’s me who needs to take part in God’s good purpose in order to kill my sadness.

I think that for people who know that Jesus died for their sins and that a heavenly home awaits them, potential “purpose” is not the thing that keeps them alive. The fear of a possibility of hell or hurting my family, which would be a different kind of hell, is what kept me from thoughts of taking my life as much as anything.

Matthew Warren was diagnosed with mental illness at age 7. He’d seen many therapists and fought through many different diagnoses. As Rick Warren told People Magazine in this past week’s issue, “If love could keep a mentally ill kid alive, Matthew would be alive. He was in a stable family, church system, friends. I’ve got a doctorate. I’ve done a lot of counseling.” Thousands upon thousands look to him for encouragement and hope. And even he couldn’t save the young man who grew up in his home. I’ve read a decent amount from Rick Warren and listened to many of his presentations – he is highly intelligent, an excellent communicator, and if anyone had the credentials to talk someone into feeling satisfaction in life, I might assume it’d be him – the man who has convinced over 38 million Americans that God indeed has a “purpose” for their lives.

To his credit, Rick Warren (and wife Kay) have not tried to find an answer to the natural “Why?” question regarding the tragedy. Asked about the natural temptation to question God, Rick replied, “Some things in life you are not going to get the answer to. What I get from God is not explanations, it’s comfort.” 

Our Messiah Complex

As painful as the story is to hear, it did provide a healthy reminder to me – that we mere mortals are nobody’s messiah.

Whether you credit Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, or any other prominent psychologist with developing the theory of the “Messiah Complex,” it’s a real thing. According to Dr. Stephen Diamond:

“..identifying oneself as God or Messiah is a disastrous form of ego-inflation. Such inflation is a grandiose narcissistic defense against profound feelings of inferiority and powerlessness. The wounded ego, with its debilitating, neurotic feelings of guilt, badness, shame, emptiness, unworthiness and helplessness falls prey to the equally neurotic (or psychotic) compensatory spiritual pride the ancient Greeks called hubris, providing self-righteous justification for evil deeds.” (“What Exactly is a Messiah Complex?” in Psychology Today; May 20, 2008)

I have no idea what Dr. Diamond’s faith beliefs might be, but I think he’s exactly right in the cause of a messiah complex – consciously or subconsciously wrestling with our own inadequacies, we feel that if we can turn someone else into something more, if we can save them from their wayward path, then we ourselves must have value and purpose – the craving of every insecure human heart.

Now no one is suggesting that Rick Warren had a messiah complex. I’m simply suggesting that it would be fairly easy for Satan to convince someone in Rick Warren’s position to think he should have been able to do more. Consider this: over 50,000 people came to listen to Rick Warren preach on Easter this year. Don’t you think having that many people listen to you might suggest to you that you have answers to life’s important questions? Don’t you think that such influence might lead you to feel like you could help people, maybe even save them?

The potential exists for anyone, particularly those in positions of influence, to think that they are in this world for the purpose of saving others from all their troubles. Parents may feel this about their children. Girlfriends and boyfriends may feel this way about whomever they’re dating – and some even seek out a good candidate to rescue. Teachers may feel this way about certain students. And yes, even pastors often tend to feel this way about their members, their city, or, if we’re having a particularly delusional day, all humanity.

Whether our behavior fits the criteria of a DSM-5 category or not, keep in mind that a lot of these “complexes” are merely labels that we put on behavior for convenience. The reality is that we all want to believe we’re important and significant. The way many of us do this is to take on other human “projects” to validate our lives. As a result, the good thing of serving others becomes a bad thing, as the end goal, without our realizing it, has shifted from Christ-like service of others to Messiah-like pride in ourselves.

The messiah complex can lead us to do crazy, unhealthy things. Again, this is certainly not exclusive to pastors, but since that’s the easiest example for me to expound on, give me a second to illustrate. I’ve known pastors who never/rarely say “No.” They have big hearts and want to help people. Their schedule is packed with good, caring activities. But they’ve forgotten that as mere humans, sometimes we have to say “No.” This is because we’re not messiahs. Jesus himself will NEVER say “No” when you ask him for help. But, as true God, he has the resources to be on call 24/7. Mere humans don’t. My job as a pastor got less stressful when I realized that my job wasn’t to be a hero like Jesus, only to tell people about my hero Jesus. And I’d suggest that this principle stands true no matter what relationship you’re in where a “Messiah Complex” is a temptation for you.

One True Messiah

It doesn’t matter who you care about – friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, child, parent, brother, sister, student, co-worker, neighbor, or church member – you’re still not Jesus. While we are compelled to love like Jesus, Christians have a clear distinction in their minds between the amazing things that God can accomplish through us and the things that our Savior Jesus alone can do.

God can accomplish extraordinary things through his people, but only Jesus can save this world. Only he can save our loved ones. We can pray for them. We can be God’s bold voice of truth to them. We can be God’s compassionate ear in listening to their cries of pain. We can be God’s helping hands in their time of need. But only the Great Surgeon can operate on their hearts. There’s still only one Messiah.

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8 thoughts on “Nobody’s Messiah

  1. Beth says:

    “I’ve come to believe that it’s me who needs to take part in God’s good purpose in order to kill my sadness.”

    Pastor Hein, could you please explain what you mean by this statement? What are some things you’ve learned to do to manage these emotions when you do question whether enduring them is worth it?

    • Beth,
      What I was trying to suggest there is that I’ve found when I’m essentially living for myself – my own glory – I almost invariably find sadness, or even depression. It feels hollow and meaningless. On the biggest of levels, who cares if I become the most intelligent, most successful, most famous person on the planet? When I die, I’ll eventually be forgotten and no one will care. What was the point? But, if I tap into God’s good purpose, there is impact that seems more substantial – which makes sense, because according to the Bible, the acts of a believer have eternal significance.

      As for enduring the sadness….even when I’ve wanted to die, I can’t escape the thought that since God created my life and since he’s the one who reserves the right to end it, and since he hasn’t taken my life yet…he must still have a purpose for me on this planet. I don’t claim to always know specifically what that is, but I’m confident that it closely parallels the gospel – sharing the truth of God’s grace and seeking to serve as salt of the earth and a light to the world. Because I don’t know what the future will bring, I’m not sure what kind of impact I may make, but the fact that I’m still here means I must still have impact to make. The theology of the sanctity of human life means that I’m incredibly unique and that God is going to use me specifically to touch lives that only I can touch. I cannot, therefore, receive the Bible honestly and not be convicted of the thought that my life has meaning and purpose.

      So, in the sad times, I try to approach life like Paul says, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)

      Anecdotally, had I opted out of the toughest emotional of times, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I would have missed out on all of the incredible people I’ve met and been able to share the gospel with by my thirties. And to take it a step further, I don’t know that I would have had the opportunities I’ve had to share the gospel had I not gone through those tough times. I always find it very humbling to think about. But God, in his wisdom, sometimes allows the sour to be so sour so that the sweet is that much sweeter.

      • Beth says:

        Thank you for answering, even though my questions weren’t related to the topic of trying to ‘save’ the people we love so we feel better about ourselves, rather than letting Jesus be the Messiah. You provided a lot of good things to think about.

  2. I agree, a bold piece to pen. This touched me in a lot of ways, Pastor Hein. Too many times and two many marriages, I tried to rescue someone. All too obviously, it didn’t work. They weren’t rescued nor was I… in fact, with each failure my self-esteem took a nose dive. Another point you mentioned also struck home. I have a daughter, now an adult, who has had serious mental illness since childhood. How many times I’ve heard — even from close family — that she wouldn’t be this way if I had just been a better parent, or that a Christian upbringing would fix everything. God’s Word doesn’t return void. I pray every day that this lost child will return, maybe not into my life but into His flock. Right now there is a close friend in my life who has battled mightily all his life with serious mental health. It uplifts us both that you do pen boldly and personally about this. We are blessed by what you share. Thank you for all you do to help erase the stigma but more than that to share your hero, Jesus.

    • Thanks, Kara! It’s amazing how knowing that past pains help present people actually helps erase old scars.

      I know a lot of Christians who beat themselves up about parenting issues. Can any of us be perfect parents? Of course not. Could we all do better? As a Christian, you can say this about any aspect of your life. So, while I’m not being dismissive of any past mistakes, I take comfort in the idea that God is ultimately the one who alone can create and sustain saving faith. So that’s what I now ask for. At this point, the best thing parents can do for children who are no longer under their care is pray for their child – that God would open their heart and restore them to relationship with him. Of course, we’re always there also ready to share the gospel truth when those opportunities present themselves. I also think it helps to be honest and humble with grown children about flaws as parents. But ultimately, God will not let any of his children be lost. So he doesn’t call us to save anyone. He calls us to faithfulness. And when we fail, which we all do at times, he forgives us.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing as well 🙂 Very courageous.

  3. Jim says:

    Pastor Hein; I was diagnosed with a mental illness, after a car accident, when I was 6. More recently I was diagnosed with schizo-effective disorder around 1999. Even though it’s been a long bumpy road, I’ve always considered my mental health as an asset and that’s how I treat it. Later on this month I will be traveling to St. Paul in order to attend a 2 day NAMI support group facilitator training. Thank you for speaking out. Together we can help remove the stigma of living with a mental illness.

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