While leading a Forgiveness workshop in Indiana, I asked attendees, "How many of you have had a huge struggle forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply?" Instantly, hands shot up across the room. Though my question came at the beginning of my session, it wasn't until the final 15 minutes that I looked out into the audience, made eye contact with a young man who'd earlier raised his hand, and asked him to join me on stage.
Rick and I stood by a table I'd covered with rocks before the workshop started. I grabbed the two-foot-long meat hook and burlap bag that I'd brought along as props. "Here you go, Rick. Slip this meat hook around your neck." I could hear a few in the audience gasp … probably just glad they weren't picked!
The hook looked ominous, and Rick gave me a wary glance. But he slid the top of the hook, shaped like a horseshoe, around his neck. The shaft extended down to waist level then arched back up in front like a very large fishhook.
Pushing the top of the burlap bag over the sharp tip, I said, "Rick, when I asked if anyone had struggled with forgiveness, I noticed you raised your hand."
"Yes, I did."
"Would you be willing to share with me: What has been so hard to forgive?"
I put my hand on a rock, preparing to drop one into the bag every time Rick mentioned a violation. Each rock would represent a wound he still carried.
Hesitating at first, Rick started with his childhood. It didn't take long to realize that all of his "rocks" came from the same source – growing up with an abusive father. Rick spoke softly as he began recounting his painful past.
"Never accepting me for who I am …" His father's critical attitude ushered the first rock into the burlap bag. In halting succession, others soon followed.
"Zero affection … no hand on the shoulder, no hugs around the neck, no pats on the back."
"No father-and-son times, no hanging out together, no talks about manhood, no career conversations." Rick continued pushing the emotional "replay button" buried in his memory.
"Screaming, and all the cursing and verbal attacks. Complete rejection."
Ultimately, rejection said it all. Expanding on the visual, I told Rick he had a virtual bag of boulders residing in his soul. Then I pointed to the bag hanging from his neck, now straining from the weight of the rocks.
"What would happen if you were to walk around with that bag hanging from your hook the rest of your life?"
He immediately answered, "I wouldn't be able to run." Rick's response perfectly articulated the cost of failing to get rid of our emotional "rocks."
Off your hook … and onto God's
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" (1 Corinthians 9:24). And Paul asked, "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?" (Galatians 5:7).
What Rick said from a physical standpoint – "I wouldn't be able to run anymore" – is true both emotionally and spiritually. Weighed down by too many rocks, the best we'll be able to do is trudge our way through life.
But once we learn to forgive (even when we don't feel like it), we get rid of the rocks that are dragging us down and depleting our strength. As we work through the process of forgiveness, we are set free from the pressure of the pull.
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 be faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
Now back to Rick: The last thing I wanted to do was leave this wounded young man weighed down by emotional pain. I wanted 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 would you be willing to take your father off of your emotional hook and place him onto God's hook?"
"Yes, I want to."
With heads bowed, I led Rick in prayer: "Lord Jesus," I began. "Lord Jesus," he repeated. "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."
Suddenly, throughout the crowd, the unexpected occurred. As I led Rick in a prayer to release his father to God, an undercurrent of prayers – barely above a whisper – wafted across the room. Many in the audience spontaneously began praying along with Rick. I realized that on this day, many heavy bags would soon be empty.
As Rick continued to pray, a remarkable change occurred. His voice, initially reserved, swelled with determined strength. As we concluded, I lifted the heavy bag of rocks off Rick's hook. At that instant, he looked as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. Tears of gratitude revealed that Rick was now experiencing the matchless freedom of forgiveness. What's more, on that day, through God's enabling, many bags of bitterness throughout the auditorium were silently emptied.
This is the good news that we, as Christians, have to offer: We have a choice! Because of God's grace and forgiveness, we have the option either to keep carrying the weight of our accumulated abuse or to release our bag of grief and grievances into the hands of God – and allow it to rest forever on His hook.