Watch Yourself

Let’s not overlook Jesus’ very first sentence. He says, “So watch yourselves,” and then he goes on to talk about forgiveness when someone wrongs you. That’s counterintuitive. When someone wrongs us, we pay great attention to the wrongdoer. Jesus says, however, “When someone does something wrong to you, that’s when you need to be looking especially closely at yourself.”

The premise behind this warning is that it is extremely easy to develop an unforgiving spirit and to not see it in yourself. Hebrews 12:15 (ESV) says, “See to it that … no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” The image is telling. You go to a corner of a field that belongs to you, and you say, “I don’t want this tree here anymore,” you cut down the tree and you pull out the stump and you say, “That’s that.” But that’s not that, because some time later you come back to that corner of the field and, to your surprise, you find there’s a young tree that has sprung up again. Why? Because there were roots left under the surface, hidden from your sight, that grew.

The Bible means it is hard to admit how angry you are at the people who have wronged you. Our first response is always to say, “Oh, I’m fine. No, I’m not angry—maybe a little upset.” To maintain our image of ourselves as good people, we deny how embittered we are. “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).

When Jesus says to those wronged, “Watch yourselves,” and the Hebrew writer says, “See to it” (a term that means to pay close attention to something), it means 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. Hidden roots work in hidden ways; unless you dig around to find them, you may never see them until they have sprouted and you have done or said something cruel that shocks you.

Unless you forgive deliberately, thoroughly, and with all the help Christ offers, your anger will “defile” you, as Hebrews says. Our English word wrath comes from the same AngloSaxon root as our word wreath. Wrath means to be twisted out of your normal shape by your anger.

And the same AngloSaxon 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.

For example, if somebody has done something wrong to you and you haven’t been able to forgive, at the very least you get a lowlevel spiritual fever called selfpity. That gives you a sense of entitlement—you feel that for what you have gone through, you deserve a break, some good treatment. If that good treatment is not forthcoming, you may slide into joyless cynicism about people and life. Or say you can’t forgive the person who broke up with you. That may affect your whole attitude toward romantic relationships.

If you cannot forgive your parents for the things they’ve done, it will distort your relationship with authority figures. If you have your own children, you may overcompensate and do either more than or the opposite of what your parents did to you. You might end up parenting your children not according to their needs but according to your own.

Watch yourselves. We live in a world where canceling, ghosting and insults are the norm. You will experience snubs on a regular basis, and in some cases will experience real injustice. How are you going to keep it all from turning you into a wraith controlled by the past? You must forgive and forgive well.

From Forgive, by Timothy Keller, published by Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Keller.

Timothy Keller
Timothy Keller

Tim Keller is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a frequent conference speaker and the author of many books, including "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism," "The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness," and "Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City."