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.