Jason Chu is not your typical Christian artist — or more accurately, does not appear like it. He sits across from me at a Hong Kong style cafe, with his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a big cross tattooed across the center of his chest. His fingers are adorned with oversized silver rings, which match naturally with his drooping silver necklace, and combined with his undercut hairstyle Chu gives off the vibe of an Asian Macklemore.
I would be tempted to tell him all this, if it weren’t for the fact that up until this point, I have never met the man. Fortunately, Chu does not reflect my reservations. Just minutes into our coffee session, Chu begins to open up to me as if I were his therapist. As he speaks, Chu chops it up with a sort of language that is refreshingly positive without overly trite church jargon, and at times in a cadence that is true to his craft as a rapper.
“My mission statement is speaking hope and healing in a broken world,” Chu says. “A lot of our core, shared humanity comes from darkness and death.”
My mission statement is speaking hope and healing in a broken world.
Any fringe observer of Chu’s work would affirm the former in his statement. But the power of his message is nestled deep within the “darkness and death”. It is there, where Chu begins to open up about the brokenness he felt during his adolescence.
As a child growing up in Delaware, Chu struggled with fitting in and trying to be perfect. From his perspective, the burden to be perfect was a mix of outside pressure and self-prescription. Chu would recall the affection he felt toward key figures in his life. His parents would consistently encourage him toward a bright and promising future. He also recalls the support he had received from school and church teachers, who regarded him as diligent and high achieving. Ironically, it was their encouragement that was morphed into a crushing sense of burden.
“They just wanted what’s best for me. I don’t think, in their mind, it was pressure,” he says. “It was encouragement to have a good future, to be motivated and productive. But somewhere between their wishes and hopes, and what I heard and took away from them, the message became ‘We want you to have a good life so you have to do well, or you will have a bad life.’”
Before long, Chu was crumbling from the weight of perfectionism. Every time he failed to live up to the standards he had set for himself, the pressure mounted. Less than a perfect grade? More weight. Less than a perfect relationship? Add another stone. The need to be perfect and constant keeping up of appearances became too emotionally and mentally exhausting.
The need to be perfect and constant keeping up of appearances became too emotionally and mentally exhausting.
“It means you have to be performing at 100 percent, 100 percent of the time,” he says. “And if I failed? Then I’d might as well be trash, I’d might as well be filthy and dirty all over. Perfectionism means you’re either perfect or you’re imperfect, and just as bad as the worst possible version of yourself.”
The stress and pressure eventually resulted in a period of self-harm. He began to cut himself, something he acknowledges in his single, “Red Lines”. He speaks of cutting as a coping mechanism for his failures.
“Cutting came from the brokenness, because the message you got from culture is, ‘You got to reach the bar,’” Chu says. “But reality is, I always failed myself. If the bar is perfection and I still can’t reach it, something must be wrong with me. Cutting was a way to punish myself, as a result of this inability to meet a perfect goal.”
If the bar is perfection and I still can’t reach it, something must be wrong with me. Cutting was a way to punish myself, as a result of this inability to meet a perfect goal.”
Though Chu recognized this dangerous behavior, he could not stop. In fact, cutting soon became a sort of negative feedback loop — his compounding guilt about his self-destructive behavior would only compel him into further harm.
One week before his 18th birthday, Chu hit rock bottom. In the previous months, his cutting had signaled the careful watch of many close friends and family. However, it wasn’t until his overt public declarations about suicide and self-harm that the authorities became involved. Chu ended up being institutionalized.
Somehow, in that dark, isolated psychiatric ward, Chu found hope. In the kind of place that prohibited shoelaces, belts, knives and even mechanical pencils, Chu was forced to come to grips with his own thoughts and actions. He recounts being tired of thinking and having to define and prove everything. He turned to the only thing left — God.
“Straight up, and I don’t say these kinds of words unless I mean it a thousand percent, but I found healing when I started opening up to God,” he says. “And by that I don’t mean theology or even going back to church. I mean when I started to believe that maybe, maybe, God really exists and really listens, speaks, and is present with me. What will happen if I just listen and see if God will say something? And I felt God in that moment. It wasn’t audible or anything, but I felt an emotion in my heart that I knew I couldn’t put there.”
I felt God in that moment. It wasn’t audible or anything, but I felt an emotion in my heart that I knew I couldn’t put there.”
Chu miraculously survived and recovered, mainly relying on the power of prayer. After that episode, he began living in a community that instilled the discipline of reading and studying the Bible. It was the embodiment of a lifestyle lived with God being present.
Looking back, Chu acknowledges his perfectionism was a skewed and dangerous black-and-white perspective, a hauntingly ungracious way to view the world and himself in it. Now, Chu uses his platform to speak against the idea of perfectionism. Instead of aiming for perfectionism, Chu exhorts our culture to strive for perfection. He explains the subtle difference:
“Perfectionism is a really narrow place to stand where it’s hard to keep your balance. On the other hand, striving for perfection means I’m on a journey every day, and I don’t have to reach the endpoint today. I just need to take steps, and maybe there’s actually no end point, but the whole point is the journey.”
Striving for perfection means I’m on a journey every day, and I don’t have to reach the endpoint today. I just need to take steps.
In relating his story, Chu is careful not to magnify his own suffering or downplay the suffering of others. “The church suffers from what I call missionary porn,” he declares boldly. “We want to feel so bad about others, that we’ll watch these videos about Africa, Chicago, inner-city violence, Japan and suicides, and North Korea to feel this sort of cathartic badness. But I want to avoid that because everybody suffers.”
Chu seems particularly passionate about this subject. We lose the ability to empathize and connect with people, when we begin to compare our suffering with others. Citizens of the First World might look at the Third World and feel guilt or shame because their problems might not seem as deep on the surface. But everybody experiences a degree of pain, and the hurt that a person feels due to social isolation is no less real than the starvation and persecution of someone who is suffering.
Chu also hopes his story would serve as a wake-up call for the Church. In fact, Chu suspects, some Asian churches might even contribute to the problem of self-harm.
“They put this expectation to achieve on a lot of young people, which contributes to self-harm,” he says. “It’s this idea of letting others down, so I need to punish myself. It’s the misunderstanding of grace, thinking God will help you to be perfect, instead of loving you as you are and helping you to change.”
It’s the misunderstanding of grace, thinking God will help you to be perfect, instead of loving you as you are and helping you to change.
To this point, Chu offers perhaps the greatest hope to our culture: be free about your suffering because everyone is broken. This is an incredibly bold message, especially in an Asian-American culture that tends to value saving face and sweeping issues under the rug for the sake of so-called harmony.
“I’m on this middle-ground of coming to people as co-strugglers, meaning I struggle as much as you do,” he says. “I really hope to dignify everybody’s suffering, to say that it is real. Just because someone seems to be suffering more than you, it should not be held over your head.”
Where Chu goes from here remains to be seen. He hopes his story will continue to serve as a testimony to bridge the gap between the hurt and the Healer. Though the world is broken, he acknowledges one of the strongest things Christians have to offer is hope.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be completely healed, not in this life. But I no longer want to self-harm. I’m learning new things about where I’m hurting, where I’m still dealing with lies that I told myself, or wrong ways that I interpreted stuff from others,” he says.
"I don’t think we’ll ever be completely healed, not in this life."
“But I can say this: on that day when things started to change, I found myself at peace in a way that I never would have thought. The life I’m living today is a life that I would only have dreamed about 12 years ago.”