Chinese Church Voices

True Luxury

Chinese Church Voices is an occasional column of the ChinaSource Blog providing translations of original writing by Christians in China. The views represented are entirely those of the original author; inclusion in Chinese Church Voices does not imply or equal an endorsement by ChinaSource.

China’s rapid development has brought many positive benefits to society. Development, however, has also been carried along by waves of consumerism. As some Chinese grow richer and enjoy material success, most live modestly and gaze at luxury from the outside.

This article from Territory describes how many Chinese today are obsessed with gratifying themselves through lives of luxury. At root, says the author, is a desire for identity and recognition that can only truly be found in the gospel.

Where’s the Luxury in a “Luxury Life”?

“Earning 30,000 a month three years after graduation—if you don’t earn a million by age 30, you don’t count. If you don’t have a car by age 25, life’s not worth living. . .” Is that really true? Since going online on June 18, the fourth season of Table π has stood out among many popular webcasts by chatting about contentious topics in a relaxed manner.

In the second episode of this season, the discussion revolved around “luxury life.” The theme explored by the four guests included topics such as high spending and overspending common among young people. After the episode was aired, it drew a large audience, and many netizens called it “the episode that most cut to the heart.”

If you’re not excellent, you’re not worthy of life?

The host Dou Wen-tao began the show by quoting from an article online: “Some stories of people becoming famous and earning a lot of money at a young age have been infinitely amplified, leading many people to feel like if you don’t have these things you’re not worthy of living, not worthy of marriage, not worthy of having a partner, not worthy of dignity, and will never escape the label of being a failure.” Many young people think of a luxury life as the standard life.

From the guest Liang Wendao’s perspective, we see young people today taking out loans to upgrade themselves, and ultimately going bankrupt—sometimes they are only aiming to reach the lowest bar of entering this or that group. “I think of some Japanese white-collar workers I used to know. In the 90s, before the bubble economy, they all wanted to buy beautiful golf clubs and get equipment that they aren’t afraid of showing off. You might still be minor staff today, and have never been to a golf course, but you need to be ready just in case the president of the company summons you to network and play golf one day. And you need to compare yourself with your coworkers: what brand is your golf club?  Finally, it becomes a bar that is continually raised higher.”

In reality, at its root, this search for “luxury” is a desire for affirmation. But luxury can also be addictive. Placing an order now takes less time than opening the door for the courier, and “smile-to-pay” [through facial recognition] brings greater satisfaction than actually receiving the purchased product. Liang Wen-dao says, “What do modern people use to prove and define our existence? We use our possessions to prove who we are. ‘I shop, therefore I am.’”

From the perspective of the guest Wu Zhi-hong, this consumerist mentality comes from people’s narcissism. When people lose control and chase after things they are completely unable to afford financially it is because they are seeking fulfillment of the most primitive “complete narcissism.” Wu Zhi-hong explains “complete narcissism” in his book Nation of Giant Infants: Complete narcissism is a normal psychological trait of the infant stage, because infants cannot differentiate themselves from the world. When he cries, someone feeds him. He feels that the moment he has an urge, the world should respond accordingly at his will. It is as if he is an almighty god.

If a person’s basic survival needs have not been taken care of during his infant stage, his complete narcissism has not been fulfilled, and he will continue to remain in that psychological stage, seeking opportunities of fulfillment. Such people will seek after perfection, as if they had an “obsessive compulsive disorder of excellence,” feeling as if “It’s not worth living if I’m not excellent.” When he encounters different situations, he will overly blame himself, “It’s my fault. If only I were perfect, the events would be completely under my control.”

Loving oneself more than anyone else.

Narcissism is loving oneself too much and being overly concerned about one’s image and reputation. “Narcissism” actually exists to a different extent in each person’s heart. Narcissists are willing to increase their own status, looks, and importance at all costs.

In her book The Narcissism Epidemic, American psychology professor Jean M. Twenge mentioned the company Celeb A Day, headquartered in Austin, America. This company’s business is helping clients create the feelings of being a celebrity or a famous person. This includes providing paparazzi who trail the client for the entire night, arranging dates for the client, or having accompanying staff photograph them. At the end of the evening’s event, the client will receive a fake celebrity magazine with their photo on the cover. It is very similar to the plot of the movie Personal Tailor starring Ge You. The surprising thing is that this service is very popular. Many people are willing to pay 3,000 USD for this.

Our society is obsessed with the idea of self-love, which, honestly, means loving oneself more than anyone else. Narcissists have fans, but not friends. They receive praise, but have no real intimacy. They want to be with people who recognize them, affirm them, and promise to be good to them, but do not want to be with true friends. Narcissists are prone to use others to establish themselves, but will not make the effort in personal relationships.

Beautiful appearance and a fit figure is the path to cultural affirmation and social capital. On magazine covers and billboards, people see everywhere countless photographs of airbrushed and photoshopped supermodels. With the media’s encouragement, vanity is no longer a sin, but a virtue. Many people try to maintain their figure and appearance at all cost. This obsession over appearance is revealed by the great increase in frequency of cosmetic surgery, breast implants, botox injections, and hair removal.

Christians who exist in such a culture might at any moment be influenced to the point of losing the new identity their faith has brought. In his book The Vertical Self: How Biblical Faith Can Help Us Discover Who We Are in An Age of Self Obsession, Mark Sayers shows us how the surrounding culture causes Christians to assimilate. It is vanity caused by narcissism that forces Christians to define themselves by secular identities, thus establishing a horizontal identity and losing the vertical connection with God above.

In this culture, our desires only increase. “Our needs are not actually that great, but once desires are mentioned, then things are different. Our desire is that we have the very best.”

We like the glory that comes from man.

In order to live a “luxury life,” people are continually seeking more and better, hoping for new heights, new satisfaction. In the words of author Diane Mastromarino, loving oneself means knowing how great we are, and not letting anyone, any place, or anything become a stumbling block to loving yourself. The urge to continually proclaim our own reputation is ultimately rooted in narcissism. At its roots, our natural desire is to make our own glory known.

Everyone is born with a desire almost like a thirst, but this desire is centered on our self. When we are still children, we already have all sorts of dreams. As we receive attention and applause from others, we want to stand out. As we grow out of our childhood dreams, our desire for glory only intensifies and enters mature fields: social standing, academic achievements, career developments, wealth, marriage, and family. All these become means of realizing our goals, and realizing goals is for the sake of satisfying our desire for glory.

We seek from others even the slightest hint or indication that we are viewed as important. We thirst for applause. And with this thirst comes a fear of rejection. We despise thoughts of being neglected, unappreciated, or unloved.

In John 12, we read a tragic story about people who thirst after their own glory. Many religious leaders began believing Jesus. However, if they are open about the fact that they believe in Jesus and acknowledge his name, they would be put out of the synagogue. Being put out of the synagogue at that time signifies losing one’s public status and social capital. It is not simply a matter of losing "face." Once you lose your reputation and become an outsider, it is impossible for you to regain it.

John gives us a glimpse of their inner thoughts, “They loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” They loved the glory that came horizontally from man. To preserve the good evaluation of their lives from mainstream culture and to keep their own “luxury life,” they “gave up” Jesus.

This is what it’s like to love the glory that comes from man. Our lives will be bound by the approving or disapproving gaze of others. It will be as if we could feel the gaze of others pressing closer, forcing us to perform, so as to win their applause. If we care too much about the applause we receive from others, then we will refuse to acknowledge Jesus in this society full of idols. We will refuse to live out our faith, for fear that we might be branded as narrow-minded, becoming the so-called stumbling block to “societal progress.”

Today we are willing to do some things to preserve our place in our “cultural synagogue.” Narcissists will always be thinking of ways to preserve their throne of glory. We thirst for our names to be upheld. When our thirst for glory falls out of control, we thirst for a godlike existence for ourselves. Because of pride, Satan fell to the deepest depths, and the way he fooled Adam and Eve was to tempt them to become gods themselves. From this, sin and death entered into this world.

What is a true life of “luxury”?

John 12 reveals to us that the people who chased after glory from man got what glory they were able to get, but it was only a cheap knockoff. We think that if we are able to string together sufficient honor, achievements, beauty, bodily build, and intelligence, then we can live a “luxury life.” We attempt to satisfy our inner desires by futile methods, trying to create for ourselves what others see as a perfect image.

Just as Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover their lost glory, we continue sewing fig leaves, hoping to make up for our lost glory. We hope that we will be praised by others for our fig leaves, but fig leaves will eventually wither. Our perceived “luxury” will never satisfy our desires.

American author Philip Yancey writes, “Suppressing desire cannot solve the problem. Instead, we must link our desires to their supernatural source so as to find the path to joy. . . God wants us to accept desires as a gift, not as possession, as a symbol of love and not love itself.” Our desire for enjoyment and happiness is only a small part of the many blessings God gives us. And yet, we often become lazy, losing ourselves while lying on our gift. We even worship this gift, and forget the God who gives us gifts.

These desires cover our eyes like spider webs, so that we cannot find our true selves. In a world filled with self and sated with personal glory, Jesus displays for us the path to life. Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” His invitation is for us to first give up pursuit of our own glory, give up our excessive attention for ourselves, and let God’s glory be our new desire.

Simply changing the carrots that we chase after will not bring fulfillment and happiness to our lives. When we place the focus of our lives on an existence outside ourselves and greater than ourselves, when we link ourselves to something transcendent, up high, abundant meaning naturally pours down, and we are filled with a full and happy life.

God has chosen a path for us, for us to discover who we truly are. This path is not to build our life here on earth, and is not to run from our desires. Instead, we are to place our hopes, dreams, brokenness, desires, under the rule of Christ.

The gospel has the power to free us from seeking our own glory. True “luxury” is definitely not accumulation of similar things in a horizontal direction. After all, base features lack depth, how can they be “luxury”? Jesus has already won for us the ultimate glory. When we are in him, we receive the eternal status that God grants us. Only when we are willing to pursue such a “luxury” life here on earth, are we able to display our true meaning, are we able to burst forth in dazzling light. We can have the freedom of not being bound by anyone’s opinion. We have no need to prove our worth to anybody. Because he is our worth.

Original Article: “高配”人生,高在哪里?by Territory 
Translated, edited and reposted with permission.

Image Credit: 20131104上海环贸中心iapm_ A New Shopping Mall, @Rd. Huaihai,Shanghai by DvYang via Flickr.
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