The first one to plead his cause seems right, Until his neighbor comes and examines him.
—Proverbs 18:17 (NKJV)
A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart. To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
In some ways, being born in the United States gave me a leg up in my ability to study the Bible. I live in a time and place of widespread literacy, in a country where most households own multiple Bibles, where Christian Education is widely available in nearly every neighborhood, where Biblical phrases and references pervade everything from advertising to pop music. I have benefited from decades of Bible reading, teaching, preaching, and study from my earliest days to today.
But one characteristic of US culture placed a major impediment on my ability to understand the Bible: America’s deeply entrenched bias towards individualism.
We Americans hear the word “you” in the Bible and assume it means one person—namely, me. But in reality, the word we translate “you” in the Bible is nearly always plural, better understood as “y’all.” In other words, nearly all the commands, promises, encouragement, warnings, sin, and redemption in both the Old and New Testaments, the Gospels and the Epistles, are not spoken to individuals but to communities.
As Americans, we read the Bible and assume the primary message is to me, the individual. We think of sin as a personal, individual thing, a heart issue between me and God. So then, of course, we see salvation as the individual solution to this individual problem. This itself is not wrong; we do individually sin, we are individually created, known, loved, redeemed. But this personalized experience does not make up the full picture of sin and salvation; it doesn’t even make up half the Biblical picture. The Bible is chuck full of messages to the community, to society, to the full body of Christ, to the full nation of Israel, warning and convicting of communal sin, promising and delivering communal redemption and salvation—if we can learn to read “y’all” instead of “you” as the Hebrew and Greek most often says.
Not one day goes by that I don’t hear a Christian criticize conversations of systemic sin or calls for collective repentance and restoration as distractions from the gospel message, which we assume is about individual souls and God. But the Bible message, the gospel message, demands we hold room for both.
Questions for reflection and discussion: How were you taught to understand God’s word and sin/salvation? How does the message change when we imagine it spoken to a full group or community?