One afternoon while serving as a volunteer chaplain at a local jail, I saw the letters “S-I-N” printed on the marker board. Seeing it capitalized was a startling experience. There was that big “I” sticking out in the center! Before this it hadn’t really occurred to me that I couldn’t think of a single sin that didn’t have a skewed sense of “I”—the human ego—at its center. Neither could any of the inmates who were there that day. (If you can come up with one, I’d be glad to hear from you!)
The following week I was explaining this discovery to another inmate who hadn’t been there during my previous visit. He smiled at me and with profound wisdom observed: “Yes, and what we have to do is change that ‘I’ into an ‘O.’” “S-O-N.” There it was, so simply expressed: the universal need to experience that primary relationship to our heavenly Father. It’s abundantly clear that we can’t drag an inflated, or even a self-condemning, sense of ego into this relationship.
In doing a word search in II Peter, I found an interesting answer as to how this relationship should be approached. In the King James Version the demand reads: “Be clothed with humility.” In looking up the Greek word translated here as “clothed,” I learned that it refers to girding on the linen apron worn by a slave, very much as Jesus did in preparing to wash his disciples’ feet, a task normally reserved for a slave. Now the abject submission associated with slavery certainly clashes with our sense of freedom and justice, but I discovered a definition of “doulos,” the Greek for “slave,” often rendered “servant” in the KJV, that seems to fit this context: “one devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests.” I think the word “devoted” is critical. Grudging servility is not what being “clothed with humility” is about. But the loving devotion that leads us freely and willingly to gird on that figurative apron in order to serve God and our fellow men is something else entirely. It’s the way to change the “I” into an “O”—the route to sonship. As I John affirms: “every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.”
Loving service, then, leads out of sin and into sonship. Great. That’s all I have to do to be in a good relationship with God, to be happy. Uh-oh, there goes the big “I” again. What ever happened to the “disregard of one’s own interests”? No, this has to be done out of unselfed love, pure and simple.
And then there’s the possibility that I may be feeling quite proud of myself after engaging in loving service and perhaps a bit scornful of people who don’t seem to be doing so, too. Hmmm. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Even if this service is willingly given, the “humility” part can’t be overlooked. Otherwise the big “I” thinks it’s in the driver’s seat.
Speaking of the big “I,” the most memorable statement I’ve ever heard about it was from a woman engaged in the practice of Christian healing who was asked how she was able to do this remarkable work. She replied simply, “You must get the human ‘I’ out. I know no other way.” There are no shortcuts. In fact, it’s a lifelong struggle. But that’s where God’s grace comes in. That’s how we learn that, as Jesus puts it, “I can of mine own self do nothing.” And that very realization may well be the first step to being “clothed with humility,” to getting “the human ‘I’ out,” to progressing from “S-I-N” to “S-O-N.”