This week, my husband took me to see Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” I loved the film. It is masterfully made. From the original score to the singing, dancing, and overall musicianship of the entire cast, there is no shortage of beauty in this movie. But the very last couple of minutes exposes the tragedy of our culture’s search for purpose amidst love and ambition.
The movie chronicles the romance of a young couple living in Hollywood, each struggling for a big break and realizing that personal sacrifices must be made to pursue their dreams. In the final scene (spoiler alert) the female lead is reminded of her former love and re-envisions her life had things been different between them. Of particular note, though, was that in this dream sequence, she still made all of the same career decisions and took advantage of all of the same opportunities, ending up in the same place – it was only her lover denying his career opportunities to make a happy ending. In her fantasy, he would have been able to stay by her side for all of her accomplishments by foregoing his own. Intentionally, I’d imagine, the sequence places him in the same exact places and situations as her present-day husband, with their would-be child replacing her actual child. She returns to reality with a sad, knowing smile.
The husband swap stand-in fantasy stood out to me, as it calls into question the validity of the entire romance, which was ultimately eclipsed by a desire for personal success. Yet both characters are sympathetic and genuinely lovable – you feel for them in this tension between achieving their dreams and being devoted to each other. In this whimsical, suspended view of reality, seemingly everything is at stake. And even in success, no one comes out whole.
While this movie didn’t do anything for my husband, I found its themes to be very apropos to our generation, myself included. We romanticize the drama of forks in the road, applaud people who succeed, envy people who can maintain a lasting marriage and idolize people who can do both. We easily veer from a Biblical pursuit of excellence to an all-encompassing mission to “be somebody.” We encourage other people to “be all they can be” and “reach their potential.” As a result, when it doesn’t work out, or when we fail, or when we can’t even decide what our dream really is, we find ourselves in a perpetual identity crisis.
The struggle for direction is something I’ve wrestled with violently in my post-college years. Like many other Christian millennials, I’ve often found myself caught between Biblical truths and the individualistic Western ideas of purpose. Yes, I know that my life is not about me. But how does that play out logistically in my life? Is rigid self-denial the only call? Am I forbidden to pursue academic, vocational, or creative goals? What can I do with my talents, time, and energy that will bring God glory if I’m supposed to have died with Christ (Colossians 3:3)?
While more and more ‘Christian’ messages are becoming about fulfilling potential and loving one’s self, it is becoming harder and harder for us to hear the still, small voice calling us to “come and die.” And while I want to be clear that I’m not scorning the underlying themes of “La La Land,” I am trying to give fellow believers a lens through which to view those themes: the real call of Christianity is to find our love and meaning by trusting in, submitting to, and abiding in Christ.
The beginning of the end is when we place ourselves as the protagonists of our own stories. When we focus on ourselves, there are unending ways to get off track and wreck it all. Previously obvious truths about the meaning and mission of life become swallowed up by other concerns – and even well-meaning Christians are susceptible to this kind of skewed focus. As pastor Dean Inserra has said, “identity and purpose are found in Christ, not around Him.” Whether you are a writer, an accountant, single, married, famous, or anonymous is secondary to your obedience and devotion to Christ. That’s the calling.
So here are some reminders from Scripture for any Christian struggling with purpose and ambition:
You are a reflection of glory, not the source.
For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16).
I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me (John 15:5).
You are not a brand, give up the self-promotion.
Let another praise you, and not your own mouth – a stranger, not your own lips (Proverbs 27:2).
Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves … Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave (Philippians 2:3, 5-7a).
You are not self-made. You are God’s creation, made for His purposes.
For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
But I count my life of no value to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24).
You are dearly loved, uniquely designed, intentionally created.
For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will (Ephesians 1:4-5).
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
Whether or not you feel you have a “voice,” if you are in Christ, your message is that you once were dead and now are alive because of His goodness, and that same life is available to anyone who would trust in Christ. Once you had not received mercy, now you have (1 Peter 2:10).
Your daily life is not a performance for a nebulous crowd of fans and followers – it is a steady stream of opportunities to know God more, love Him more, rely on Him more, and seek His direction. He knows what He wants you to be: a unique reflection of His beauty, an enthusiastic testament to His grace, and a faithful soldier in His mission to make His glory known to the ends of the earth.
You can make pizzas to the glory of God. You can write films to the glory of God. You can file taxes and drive cabs and lead classrooms to the glory of God. But you can’t be your own god to the glory of God.