Contextualization. It’s a watchword in our society today. I think I was first officially introduced to it when I entered a program focused on intercultural studies, but the concept is one that we all catch on to early in life.
As infants and young children, we quickly learn the sorts of ways we can express ourselves with our parents or our siblings that will truly result in them understanding what we mean to communicate. We also learn that what translates to one parent or one sibling might not do so effectively with another. This is the heart of contextualization: learning about another person, in order to shape a message, so that the receiver can understand exactly what is meant by the sender.
When we are young, our efforts to communicate may often be based in purely selfish desires. But as we grow, we develop a sense of desiring to know and communicate effectively with another person because we want to know them! Our love for others and their needs begins to grow.
Communication for the Sake of Love
With those we share many common experiences with in life, the process is fairly easy. We have high context. We often don’t need to shape our messages very carefully because we have such a stock of shared background that communication and understanding comes effortlessly.
However, with people we do not have a lot in common with—called low context—the process of effectively communicating becomes more laborious and can be fraught with dangers and snares [insert your own miscommunication experience here]. In low context situations, to communicate as clearly as possible, we have to think carefully about the words we use, the expressions on our face, the gestures we employ, etc., and we need to know something about the receiver in order to communicate well.
As humans, God has made us to know and be known by others in love. Paul explains, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled [the] law” (Rom 13:8). But more importantly, God has made us to know Him and be known by Him—to love Him and be loved by Him. John tells us, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). We do this best by moving from low context to high context, with God and with others, through sending and receiving messages—which is communication. This means we have to get to know others and of crucial importance, to know God.
The Incarnation: The Ultimate Contextualization
We can know God because He has revealed Himself to us in His written word, the Bible. As we seek to know Him through the Bible, we encounter Jesus—the only one who truly knows God (John 1:18, 6:46, Luke 10:22).
Jesus performed the ultimate act of contextualization; we call it incarnation. He became a human. John tells us, “And the Word [Jesus] became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Of course, simply being able to communicate with humans effectively was not the ultimate goal of Jesus’ incarnation. It was to restore us to relationship with God. He did this through taking our sins upon Himself, suffering death on a cross as the punishment due to us for those sins, rising again in life, and ascending back to heaven to sit at God’s right hand.
The key aspect of Jesus’ incarnation that I want to note here is the love for us that He expressed in His work. He became incarnate because He loves us (John 3:16-17). He took our sins upon Himself because He loves us (Rom 5:8-9). Rising from death and ascending back to the Father demonstrates His love for us because He has made the way for us to be with Him (John 14:2-3). Everything about Jesus’ act of contextualization is steeped in love, which suggests that our efforts to contextualize should also be founded in love. And as John told us above, “love is from God.”
Letting God’s Love Flow
When we seek to learn another person in order to communicate our message clearly, it should not be for selfish reasons, so that we might be understood or to ensure the outcome we want, like when we were children (1 Cor 13:11). Rather, it should be founded in love; to know and understand the other person as they are (1 Cor 13:12). So, with John I say: let us love. Let us love God so that His love will flow through us to others as we seek to know them and communicate with them in ways that will truly express the messages we intend.