In my growing-up years, I remember hearing many catchy sayings that made a lot of sense, such as, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” and “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”

 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.”

“That’s right.”

“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.