TREVIN WAX  |  FEBRUARY 2, 2023 

Of all the spooky “bad guys” you find in novels and movies, I don’t think anyone can top the Ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings, those hooded, shadowy figures of darkness and terror. They are the Nazgûl, mortal men who fell under the dominion of evil until they became “shadows under his great Shadow.”

I remember watching The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater, my heart beating out of my chest as Frodo and his fellow hobbits hid in the woods, with Ringwraiths on the hunt. The specter of a wraith frightens us, but scarier still is the possibility of becoming wraiths ourselves.

This is an insight I gleaned from Tim Keller’s newest book, Forgive, which makes a connection between anger and wraiths I’d never considered before.

Why Watch Yourself

Whenever you are wronged, you’re likely to pay attention to the wrongdoer. Look what they did to me! How could they say that? That’s a terrible person. What’s wrong with them? Why did they treat me this way? I didn’t deserve this!

But according to Jesus in Luke 17:3, this is precisely the moment you need to watch yourselfHebrews 12:15 warns against the “root of bitterness” that might spring up.

When we’re wronged, Keller says, we will likely downplay the severity of our anger “to maintain our image of ourselves as good people” and to mask our remaining bitterness:

“‘I’ve forgiven,’ you say (meaning you aren’t actively seeking revenge), ‘but I can’t forget’ (meaning that you are rooting for the person’s downfall and that you are still filled with resentment).”

If we take seriously these commands to examine ourselves, we ought to assume the best about others and the worst about ourselves. In other words, Keller believes “we should assume that we are more resentful and less forgiving and more controlled by what people have done to us than we think we are.”

If you want to be a truly forgiving person, rather than assuming ulterior or bad motives in the person who hurt you, you should always assume you still have bitterness that needs to be rooted out of your heart. Only then will you do the hard work of digging out the roots of your selfishness so you can forgive deliberately and thoroughly.

From Wrath to Wraith

Here’s where Keller makes the connection to wraiths:

“Our English word wrath comes from the same Anglo-Saxon root as our word wreath. Wrath means to be twisted out of your normal shape by your anger. . . .And the same Anglo-Saxon word also gives us the now somewhat archaic word wraith. We don’t use it much anymore (unless you read The Lord of the Rings), but it’s an old word for a ghost, a spirit that can’t rest. Ghosts, according to legend, stay in the place where something was done to them, and they can’t get over it or stop reliving it. If you don’t deal with your wrath through forgiveness, wrath can make you a wraith, turning you slowly but surely into a restless spirit, into someone who’s controlled by the past, someone who’s haunted.”

The frightening future for the unforgiving isn’t in encountering a ghost but in becoming a ghost yourself, perpetually haunted by resentment and wrath until your humanity is diminished.

Grumbling Ghost

C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is memorable for its portrayal of ghosts in the afterlife who relive certain events and repeat the same traits, haunted by their own selfishness until they lose their solidness.

One of the female phantoms, in response to a spirit beckoning her to the mountains, does nothing more than grumble. And in this, we see the danger: gratitude for one’s blessings is replaced by grumbling over one’s burdens until bitterness saps a person’s last remaining happiness. Wrath turns you into a wraith, until isolation, discontent, and utter misery become the marks of an unfulfilled existence. As Lewis wrote,

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine.”

True Forgiveness as the Antidote

The only antidote to this miserable existence is true forgiveness—choosing the harder path of rooting out bitterness rather than allowing the grumble of your spirit to grow until it chokes out your humanity.

Much of the resentment we see on display in the world showcases the “human anger [that] does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (James 1:20, CSB). This is why we must watch ourselves. Keller is realistic. Live long enough in a world where “canceling, ghosting, and insults are the norm” and yes, “you will experience snubs on a regular basis, and in some cases will experience real injustice.”

But the question remains: “How are you going to keep it all from turning you into a wraith controlled by the past?” Only through the undeserved forgiveness you receive from Christ, which you then extend to undeserving others.