Another popular adage is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What I say in response is, “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” We all know that words can break our hearts. The Bible puts it this way: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
Words can kill a relationship. Words can murder our motivation and inspiration. This truth was recently driven home to me when I was leading a conference in Indiana.
“How many of you have really struggled with forgiveness? You’ve had a huge struggle forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply?”
Immediately hands go up… about one-fourth of the audience. Quickly I scan those with raised hands, looking for someone physically fit.
My question comes at the beginning of my talk on forgiveness, but it isn’t until the final 15 minutes that I point to the 30ish-year-old man.
“Sir, I need some help. Would you be willing to join me on the platform?” Surprised, he nods with a smile and saunters up to the stage. Now we both stand next to a table that has a mound of rocks. “Would you share your name and something about yourself?”
“My name is Rick. I’m an accountant, and my hobby is running. When I’m not at work, I’m usually running because I plan to enter a marathon this year.”
“That’s great, Rick! And thanks for being willing to help.”
Reaching over to a small table, I pick up a large gray meat hook, more than two feet long, and a burlap bag. The top of the hook is able to fit around a person’s neck like a horseshoe. A straight shaft extends down a couple feet then arches back up, like a very large fishhook with a sharp point.
“Here you go, Rick. Slip this meat hook carefully around your neck.” His eyes open wide—the hook looks ominous. He gives me a wary glance. Some people in the audience groan (probably just glad they weren’t picked!). Slowly, cautiously, Rick slides the top of the hook around his neck. The shaft of the hook reached down his chest to waist level, and the pointed tip was in front of him. I push the top of the burlap bag over the tip of the hook.
“Rick, at the beginning, when I asked if anyone had struggled with forgiveness, I noticed you raised your hand.”
“What has been so hard to forgive? Would you tell me what happened?”
At this point I reach over to the mound of rocks, knowing that every time Rick mentions an offense, I will drop a rock or a small boulder into the burlap bag. Each rock represents a wrong someone has committed against him—a wound he is carrying.
Rick begins by going back to his childhood. It doesn’t take long for us to learn that all his “rocks” come from the same source—growing up with a harsh, sometimes tyrannical father who was unaffectionate and inflexible. As Rick focuses on his father and the wrongs suffered, he speaks softly:
“Never accepting me for who I am….” His father’s critical, caustic words force the first rock to fall.
“Zero affection….” No hand on the shoulder, no hugs, no pats on the back earn a fist-sized rock flung into the bag.
“No play time….” No playful wrestling, no playing catch, no playing anything—they all warrant another weighty rock. The more Rick remembers, the more he elaborates on what he has missed.
“No father-and-son times….” No hanging out together, no talks about manhood, no career conversations. This drives another rock downward. Rick continues pushing the emotional “replay button” buried in his memory.
“Screaming….” A sudden, fearful flashback causes Rick to wince. All the yelling and verbal attacks generate a sizeable jagged rock.
“Hurting my mother….” His father’s grating emotional and verbal abuse sends a sizeable sandstone dropping into the bag.
“Get out of my sight!…” His devaluing, denigrating words propel a big hefty boulder.
“Rejection….” sums up the emotional impact of all his father’s wounding. Momentum drives a very large, hard rock into Rick’s bag. It crashes against the other rocks inside, leaving some small, sharp-edged fragments. Jagged pieces are painfully wedged in Rick’s memory. Ultimately, rejection says it all.
Expanding on the visual, I tell Rick he has a bag of rocks residing in his soul. For years he has been hauling rocks of resentment, stones of hostility, and boulders of bitterness. Then I point to the bag hanging from the hook around his neck—the burlap now straining from the weight of the rocks.
"What would happen if you were to keep walking around with that bag of rocks hanging onto your hook the rest of your life?”
He immediately responds, needing no time to think, “I wouldn’t be able to run anymore.” I am surprised and glad at his answer. Instead of saying, “I would become bent over,” or “It would be difficult to walk,” Rick, the devoted athlete, expresses concern that he could no longer run.
His response articulates so well the cost of failing to get rid of cumbersome “rocks.” Think of all the scriptures that refer to running. The apostle Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” And he asked, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?”
What Rick said from a physical standpoint—“I wouldn’t be able to run anymore”—is just as true emotionally and spiritually. Weighed down by too many rocks, the best we would be able to do is trudge our way through life. If more rocks are added to the pile, we’ll barely be able to move forward. And if even more rocks are thrown on the heap, we will completely collapse under the weight.
But when we learn to forgive—even when we don’t feel like it—we get rid of the rocks dragging us down and depleting our strength. As we work through the process of forgiveness, we are set free from the pressure of the strain…we feel unshackled…we feel released…we feel free!
The prophet Isaiah describes what this freedom is like: “They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”
Now back to Rick: The last thing I want to do is leave this wounded young man weighed down by emotional pain. I want to see him run!
“Rick, do you want to live the rest of your life carrying all this pain from your past?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Then are you willing to take all the past pain off of your hook and place it onto God’s hook?”
"Yes, I am.”
“Would you be willing to take your father off of your emotional hook and place him onto God’s hook?”
“Yes, I want to.”
In prayer, we both go before God’s throne of grace. “Lord Jesus,” I start.
“Lord Jesus,” he echoes, “thank You for caring about my heart… and how much I’ve been hurt…You know the pain I have felt… because of my father’s treatment…his anger…his lack of affection… his abuse…his rejection.”
All of a sudden, throughout the crowd, the unexpected occurs. As Rick repeats the prayer, making it his own, an undercurrent of prayers—barely above a whisper—waft across the room. Goose-bumps rise on my arms. Feeling a holy sense of awe, I realize that on this day, more than one bag of rocks is soon to be empty.
“Lord, I release all this pain into Your hands….Thank You, Lord Jesus…for dying on the cross for me…and extending Your forgiveness to me…. As an act of my will…I choose to forgive my father.”
As Rick continues to pray, a remarkable change takes place. His voice, initially reserved, swells with determined strength.
“I choose to take my father…off of my emotional hook…and right now, I place him…onto Your hook…. I refuse all thoughts of revenge…. I trust that in Your time You will deal with my father… just as You see fit. And thank You, Lord, for giving me…Your power to forgive…so that I can be set free…. In Your holy name I pray. Amen.”
Rick’s tears of gratitude reveal he is now experiencing the freedom of forgiveness. And at this same time, through the power of forgiveness, many bags of bitterness throughout the auditorium have been emptied.
About June Hunt: As founder of three radio programs: Hope For The Heart, Hope In The Night and Moment Of Hope -- June Hunt pours out God’s love and life-changing truth to thousands. Her warmth, wit, and wisdom come through the microphone day after day and night after night. June's heart to help others is also revealed in her books, Seeing Yourself Through God's Eyes, Bonding With Your Teen Through Boundaries and Healing the Hurting Heart. Her Counseling Through the Bible course, which covers nearly 100 topics, is being translated into more than ten languages and continues to be used by pastors and spiritual leaders worldwide. Because she knows firsthand how emotional pain can paralyze a person for life, June is never shocked by the traumatic experiences of others, and she clearly communicates that there is no pain too great for the healing hand of the Great Physician! For those whose lives have been shattered, June gives this assurance: "God mends the broken heart when you give Him all the pieces."