“I visited him in prison and said the words: I forgive you. There was an incredible weight lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t even know that I had been carrying it around. I cried with relief for days.”
This weekend, thousands in our community were moved by the video of Sonja Maletta, Campus Director at Clinton Township, who shared her own journey of forgiving her father and how she ultimately found freedom in Christ. Here is a follow-up interview about her new-found freedom and how God has redeemed her past.
1. I’m sorry about the timing of this…is Father’s Day difficult for you?
It is hard on Father’s Day – it’s a trigger, but not as powerful as it used to be. At one point everything was a trigger (like seeing a prison), but that was when all this was still an open wound. I do feel at peace now, but I miss him and wish things were different. I longed for a normal family.
2. What words would you use to describe your father?
Unpredictable – you didn’t know what mood he would be in. He could be really loving and really mean. He was a drug addict and a violent drunk. I wonder now if he also had some underlying mental health issues. Whatever the case, he was emotionally unstable.
3. What specific memories are burned into your memory?
He beat my mom…a lot. I remember sitting on my friend’s front porch and seeing my mom run by, then my dad running after her. He pulled her home by her hair. Often, my sister and I would listen to them fighting at night and cry ourselves to sleep, terrified. Sometimes, I was woken up in the middle of the night to run because someone had warned Mom that Dad was drunk and coming after us. I would jump on my dad’s back to try to stop him from beating my mom.
4. How did this difficult relationship affect you and your other relationships?
What did you think about God? When I was young, it created walls between me and my friends. I couldn’t have them over. I was ashamed and embarrassed. As a young adult, I felt like a self-protecting survivor, and I vowed no man would ever lay their hands on me. I did not trust men, I didn’t plan to get married because I would never wanted to go through what my mom went through. I was really angry with God and didn’t feel loved by him at all.
5. When did you become aware of the need to forgive him? How did it happen?
God drew me to Himself through two things: becoming pregnant with my first son and realizing the intricacies of human life and all creation, and through my friend, Rachel, who loved Jesus and discipled me. God was changing my life, and when someone shared with me to ask God what was not pleasing to Him before taking communion, I kept thinking about forgiving my Dad.
6. Did you ever say to yourself “he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven”?
I wrestled with this for a long time. I didn’t think he was really remorseful so why forgive him? Now, I realize that the forgiveness was for me – not him. It’s my life, my territory. When we forgive, we are released. We’re giving the weight over to God – the one person who can shoulder the burden. I think a lot of people don’t know that they are carrying around unforgiveness and so are kept captive and weighed down.
7. What would you say to a reader who feels like the offense they are carrying around is un-forgivable?
The person that wronged you is likely walking around without thinking about you or the offense. Don’t give them that power over you to rule your life. Unforgiveness eats you alive. You dwell on it, things will trigger your memories – reminders are all around us. It’s time to give it up so that you will be free from it. With God, nothing is impossible.
8. What does un-forgiveness feel like? What does forgiveness feel like?
Unforgiveness is like a dead weight that holds us down. Maybe it’s a general heaviness, maybe it’s a tightness in the throat, or a queasy feeling in the stomach. Or, emotionally speaking, it’s a scar that never heals and keeps busting open. Forgiveness, on the other hand, feels like a weight has been lifted off of our backs. It’s weightlessness. A sense of zero gravity. It also seems like clarity to me: like everything in the world becomes sharper, more colorful, more beautiful all of a sudden when that cloud is lifted.
9. What did forgiving him look like? Was it a conversation, a one-time prayer, a process?
Forgiveness was both. There was a long battle leading up to the words, “I forgive you.” Then the ongoing work to stay in that place of forgiveness. In the beginning, I battled with God for by saying he did not deserve forgiveness. When I visited him in prison and said the words: I forgive you, there was an incredible weight lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t even know that I had been carrying it around. I cried with relief for days. I had no idea I was the one that was the prisoner. When you forgive somebody you began to see the person as God sees him– with a completely different kind of love. I saw his brokenness and felt compassion for him. He had been kicked out, rejected, homeless. He needed love.
10. How has forgiveness effected you and your other relationships?
I am much quicker to ask for forgiveness when I have offended someone and to accept someone’s apology when I have been offended and to truly move on. Otherwise, we are giving that space in our minds and hearts over to darkness. It’s really true that we can repay evil with good.
11. Your dad passed away from cancer in prison while you were petitioning to bring him to your home. Tell me about that?
I feel like I fully forgave my dad a year prior to his death. When he got cancer, I fought to have him come to my home to die with family. It was devastating that he passed away one week before I got the approval. I was angry with God for taking him when he did, but I also trust that God is good all the time. We only see the front of the train and God sees the whole train. Maybe it was better for me this way…I’ll ask Him when I get to heaven!
12. Has any good come from all this heartache? What has God done in your life?
I want people to know that Jesus has worked in all of this. I have love, joy, and peace. I now know my identity in Christ, and it has given me freedom. My hardships have helped to make me empathetic. I just love people. Empathy is my number one strength. Even in the court room, I was thinking of the mother who lost her son. I know that all things work for good. And, I don’t need pity from anyone for the past because I have been redeemed. Fully redeemed! God has sent me people with similar situations to minister to and speak encouragement over.
Watch the video of Sonja’s story here.
– Sonja Maletta | Clinton Township Campus Director