Return to the Lord by Maria Sibaja

Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.

Joel 2:13

At the age of 15, I was exposed to a world that until that point I hadn’t believed truly existed. One of my classmates and close friends tragically passed away one Friday night while we were all at a school function. We were in the midst of celebrating when the school’s director got on stage and shared the news. I don’t remember exiting the theatre or how I got to a bathroom stall but sometime later another girl found me where I was huddled in a corner, in shock. Finally, as I was surrounded by my family and teachers I remember turning to the school director and asking her how it happened. It scares me to know that upon asking that question, somewhere a part of me knew that this hadn’t been some accident. She merely looked down and I knew that my friend had made the decision to say goodbye.

I knew what suicide was but in my world it wasn’t real. It was portrayed on TV or in books, perhaps the opening scene of a cop show or Holden Caulfield’s blasé remarks. It was so removed from the world I lived in that it felt like it was meant for shock value; nobody you knew actually committed suicide. Worst of all, I thought that if someone were to ever decide to take their own life you’d know. You’d see the warning signs, the obvious suffering. Never, in my very short 15 years did I ever think a 14 year-old boy, who seemed relatively happy, would decide that the world was so unbearable he didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.

I don't remember much about the days that followed but bits and pieces stand out. His mother’s anguished cries as she held on to me and tried to thank me for being her son’s friend through a mixture of tears and mucus. The colourful balloons used in the ceremony we had at school. The whispered conversation in the kitchen while my aunts discussed the friend of a friend who had also taken their own life and how tragic it was that I was going through something similar. A whole summer went by without my noticing, but throughout it I was left with a constant burning sensation inside and along with this burning sensation was the heavy aching of three questions. Three questions that had been playing on repeat inside my head since that night:

  • Was I not a good enough friend? 

  • What could I have done differently? 

  • Why did God allow this to happen?

That burning and aching, I would later learn, were the physical signs of fear and anxiety. I now lived in a constant state of alertness, tense like a rubber band that’s about to snap, always checking for signs that this could happen again. If a friend said “goodbye,” I wanted to be sure it wasn’t a permanent goobye. If anyone was sad or angry I needed to check throughout the night that they were still around. I had constant nightmares of finding out my loved ones had chosen to leave their lives behind prematurely. In the years that followed, that anxiety spread into every area of my life and with it spread anger and resentment. I had lived in a world of safety, love and comfort. I’d grown up extremely active in the church, a place that told me that there was a God who loved us so much he had sacrificed his only son to save us. He loved us so much he’d always be looking for us, protecting us, fighting for us. How could this same God let this happen? How could I live in a world where a boy suffered so much he chose to leave it? 

At some point in my late teenage years, my anger and resentment continued to grow until one day I decided God did not exist. There was no way the God I grew up loving and worshipping would allow this type of suffering in the world. With that decision came a break that at the time I saw as a break to freedom but in reality was a break in my relationship with God. All my life God had been the hard rock that I leaned on, my anchor and focus point; with him gone I thought I was free of the “silly” Christian rules that governed my life. What truly happened is I was left in a kind of void, like an astronaut whose tether has been severed, aimlessly floating in the cold vacuum of space. My lifeline was gone.

The years that followed were hard, my anxiety developed into a more serious problem and invited its friend depression. I entered university and was constantly in an exhausting state of mind where everything felt too big to tackle and I was living in a constant state of panic and fear. Small things like ordering a coffee became so stressful that I avoided leaving my dorm; big things like exams and projects felt like they could potentially end my world. Finally one night, during finals week of my sophomore year it all became too much.

I remember sitting on my dorm room floor, surrounded by my friends as I bawled my eyes out over a calculus exam that was the tipping point after a long series of events. I came to the point described in Joel 2:13 where my distress and grief were such that I might as well have been rendering my garments. My world was falling apart. Later that evening, as I was trying to pull myself together from hours of crying I got a message from someone I hadn’t seen in years, an old coworker of my father’s who had no reason to be messaging me. In this message he wrote that he’d been praying that evening when he saw a picture of me, sitting on the floor crying in grief. Upon seeing that picture he felt God tell him to reach out to me and let me know that everything would turn out okay.

You can imagine what this did to me. Here I was, five years after my friend’s death, after years of turning away from God, lost and angry and yet God was still reaching out to me. He was still trying to love me whether I wanted him to or not. In that moment I realized what I had known all along. God was always there for me, still willing to look for a lost sheep that had stubbornly run away. He is gracious and merciful. I had pretty much renounced him, turned my back on him and yet he held on. He was not angry with me; he didn’t disavow me, or give up on me. It took a long time after that for me to forgive myself but God had already forgiven me. Like the father in the Prodigal Son, he’d been standing with his arms open waiting for me to return home. 

He is our Father, who gives his grace freely to those who ask for it, rich in mercy and always ready to forgive. He is slow to anger, he doesn’t pour out the wrath that our sins deserve nor does he retain anger forever. He is our good and kind father, who will never leave or forsake us.

Maria can currently be found at Redemption Church’s office where she is the office manager. She is originally from Costa Rica but has fallen in love with Vancouver and its people. Her greatest treasure is her cat Sherlock, who is a truly wonderful ginger purr-ball and she loves talking about him.