Orange County, California — In his first interview since his son's suicide in April, famed pastor Rick Warren told CNN that he knew his son, Matthew, had bought a gun, dismissed rumors that Matthew was gay and said he doesn't blame God for the tragedy.
"I have cried every single day since Matthew died," Warren said Tuesday in an exclusive interview with CNN.
"But that - that's actually a good thing. Grief is a good thing. It's the way we get through the transitions of life."
Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, founded Saddleback Church in Southern California in 1980, growing it from a small congregation to a multisite megachurch with some 20,000 weekly worshippers.
Warren is also author of the spiritual self-help guide “The Purpose Driven Life,” one of the best-selling books of all time, with more 36 million copies sold.
But even as the Warrens grew in prominence - attending conferences with presidents and prime ministers - their son Matthew struggled with borderline personality disorder and deep depression, they said during an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan.
The Warrens said they are opening up about their son’s tragic death because they hope to end the stigma of mental illness and save another family from the pain they suffer.
They have slowly returned to the spotlight since grieving in private for five months.
Matthew Warren visited his parents on the night of April 5, just like so many nights before.
“I had made him dinner,” Kay Warren told CNN. “He laid his head down on the kitchen table and he just said ‘I'm so tired.’ He just said ‘I'm so tired.’”
After a hug from his dad, Matthew left his parents' house and went back to his own. He and his mom began texting, and the conversation veered toward suicide, Kay Warren said.
“I knew it was very desperate. And I also knew he – I knew he had a gun.”
Earlier, Matthew had told his parents he had illegally obtained a gun online - but if they called the police about the gun he would kill himself instantly.
Matthew Warren had tried to legally purchase a gun many times, his family said. Each time he was rebuffed because he had been forcibly admitted to a mental institution, a red flag on a California background check.
“We're grateful that the laws kept Matthew from getting the gun for as long as it did,” Rick Warren said.
When Matthew hit a roadblock buying a gun, he turned to other options.
"He was so desperate to end the pain,” Kay Warren said.
Ten days earlier, Matthew had tried to end his life by overdosing on pills, the Warrens said, one of several suicide attempts in his young life.
Matthew had begged his mother to help him die, Kay Warren said.
“I will do anything to help you live,” she recalls telling him, “but I will not help you take your life.”
The texting between Matthew and Kay Warren went on for hours on the night of April 5.
Then it stopped.
The Warrens headed to Matthew’s house. He did not come to the door. The lights were on, and they decided to leave, worried if they called the police Matthew would make good on his fatal promise.
The next morning they went back to his house. The lights were still on.
This time they called the police.
Rick and Kay Warren stood outside their son’s home sobbing in each others’ arms.
A nod from a police officer who inspected Matthew's house confirmed the worst.
“I just hit the ground," Kay Warren said.
Matthew had access to mental health care and all the love in the world but not even that could spare him, Rick Warren said.
“If love could have kept my child alive, he'd be alive today, because he was incredibly loved,” the pastor said.
The evangelical Christian said he doesn’t blame God for his son’s death.
“I never questioned my faith in God; I questioned God’s plan,” Rick Warren said. “God isn’t the blame for my son’s death. My son took his life. It was his choice.”
Kay Warren said the family’s faith and community support got them through the past five months. Condolence cards poured in from around the world; 30,000 by Saddleback Church’s count.
In their grief, Rick and Kay Warren said they turned to a familiar source, the Bible.
For Kay Warren, a verse from the New Testament brings comfort, she said. “It says our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory.”
She recites the verse when visiting her son’s grave.
"Matthew's body was broken. That gun broke his body and he was buried in brokenness. But he's going to be raised in glory.”
The Warrens said they struggle with anger that their son died using an illegally obtained firearm.
Before his death, Matthew told his parents he bought the gun online, but wouldn’t tell them from whom.
Investigators said the serial number was filed off when they recovered it from the scene. So far police have not been able to determine who sold Matthew Warren the gun.
“One of the hard things was forgiving the person who sold him the gun,” Rick Warren said. “Because I didn't want to forgive him.”
But the Warrens said their Christian faith, rooted in the belief that their own sins had been forgiven by Jesus, enabled them to forgive the person who sold the gun to their son.
“I don't want to be tied to that person emotionally for the rest of my life,” Kay Warren said.
Slightly more than half of Americans - 53% - think churches should do more to prevent suicide in America, according to a new poll by LifeWay Research, a Christian company based in Nashville.
Nearly half of evangelicals (48%) say people with serious mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be cured by Bible study and prayer alone. Sixty percent of Americans overall disagree.
The Warrens said Matthew had access to good health care, but the system sometimes puts obstacles between families and their mentally ill loved ones.
Kay Warren pointed to difficulty families have in getting mentally ill family members help because of laws on patient privacy.
“The right to privacy and that right to autonomy, it's a dance,” she said.
“I don't have good answers. It's a dance. So we've got to do a better job with that.”
Because the Warrens are conservative Christians who oppose same-sex marriage, rumors circulated about Matthew's sexuality in the days after his death.
The Warrens dismissed those rumors in the CNN interview.
“Well, first, Matthew wasn't gay, " Rick Warren said, "but if he was, we would have loved him unconditionally anyway. It wouldn't have made one difference at all.”
The Warrens said they have tried to stay away from online criticism and the rumors surrounding Matthew’s death so they can focus on his legacy: raising awareness about mental illness.
Asked why they had not prioritized mental illness earlier, the Warrens said that they did not want to thrust their troubled son into the limelight.
“It was his story to tell,” Rick Warren said.
Now telling Matthew’s story falls to his parents.
They want the world to remember a young man who was “funny, quirky, ridiculously silly.”
On his headstone the family put “compassionate warrior.”
They have established the Matthew Warren Fund to honor his memory. Rick Warren said they will wait a year and then hope to use the funds to help those struggling with mental illness and their families.
The Warrens want to spread the word that even though their story had a tragic ending, “There’s hope,” Kay Warren said. “It’s so important that people know, no matter how desperate their despair, there is hope, and not to give up.”