The pavement outside my home is sizzling; my children are frazzled and fractious; traffic is terrible; and all I want is a cool stream or a breezy beach somewhere outside the tinderbox of city life. It’s almost humorous that we are praying for and trying to develop a heart for the city in the middle of July, because I think it’s this time of year when cities fray on my nerves the most.
But although I’m speaking here of my American context, in a lot of ways, urbanites in global cities such as Shanghai, London, or Los Angeles face many of the same struggles. Where does any exhausted believer find motivation to engage in their city, especially on hot, sticky, long, grinding days? There are only a few choices.
First, we can look within ourselves.
But it only takes a few minutes to figure out that this is not realistic. While an idealistic do-gooder may muster up the strength to love their community, it usually only takes one jerk flipping you off as he cuts you off in traffic to short-circuit that love and melt it into anger.
Second, we can look to external motivations to get us through another day.
Many of us put one foot in front of another because we have no choice. But these outer motivations like money or success – although compelling in the short run – offer no lasting hope. In recent months I’ve thought a lot about how popular Internet language explains much about contemporary Chinese society. Nei juan (内眷), which means “involution” in English, is just such a term.
Nei juan, according to a 2021 New Yorker article, is “the experience of being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless.” The same article went on to explain that this phrase applies to workers who realize “they have become just like their devices: interchangeable and emblazoned with a sheen of productivity, for no real higher purpose.” This seems to perfectly describe the culture of young urbanites, in China but also in the States. What is the point of exhausting oneself in a meaningless competition for money or status? Looking to outside factors for motivation is effective for a time, but ultimately fruitless.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Christ is the only place to find meaningful motivation.
This is true for all people at all times; for city-dwelling Chinese and for frazzled American parents like me. Our impetus for life cannot come from something that itself is inherently broken. Jeremiah 2:13 speaks of how God’s people abandon “the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Inner motivation and outer motivations are both, ultimately, containers that leak. It is fruitless to try and find strength anyplace but in God himself.
How do you love your city when it is full of injustice and you “wish to escape”? For that matter, how do you love your children? Your imperfect church? Your friends? The only way is by being filled with Christ himself. John 7:37-38 says: “Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’”
This well of living water springs and fills without any human work. All that is required is belief. This is good news for those of us, like me, who are feeling burned out by the end of July. When I pray for Chinese cities, ultimately I am praying for Chinese Christians to know Christ, to be found in him, to be filled with him, and to overflow with his life-giving Spirit. Now is a difficult time to live in Chinese cities: threats of severe Covid lockdown loom continually, the economy seems to stand on wobbly legs, and for many people, it seems there is no way to get ahead. Christians face an additional challenge, as they seek to love and serve cities that legally persecute them and despise their God.
Yet God is good, God loves the city, and God loves his precious children. I pray that he will give Chinese believers strength to bring his hope to their families, their neighborhoods, their companies, and their cities. May they display God’s heart to all he puts in their path, and may Chinese cities become shining beacons for the Lord’s glory.
E.F. Gregory is a mom of three young children. She lives in the San Gabriel Valley on the border of East Los Angeles, where her husband is a P.C.A. church planter.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Chinese cities to become places where God is known, worshiped, and glorified.