Everything was perfect—a surprise date, a quiet candlelight dinner, a couple in love reconnecting after weeks apart. It’s what every romantic wants. But then the mood began to change—slightly at first—as the conversation strained under the weight of unmet needs. Then tainted motives were assumed and accusations were lobbed. Attempts to clarify only led to more hurtful words and greater misunderstanding. My muscles tightened and my heart sank as it all unraveled. I hate conflict.
But this wasn’t even my conflict. It wasn’t even a real fight between real people in real life. I was just watching my new friends Mia and Sebastian in the film La La Land. Yet from my front-row seat the fictional unraveling triggered a very real emotional reaction in me.
I’ve lived similar scenes with my beloved, and although our relationship has survived the times of assumptions and accusations and unmet needs, I hate them nonetheless. Conflict gives me the sense that the ground is disintegrating, like sand pulling out from under my feet with a receding wave.
Despite my aversion to conflict, La La Land is one of my favorite films. But why would this conflict avoider love such a story as this?
The Scientific “What” Meets the Spiritual “Why”
Research shows that when we see a problem or dilemma, our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol. As stress rises, we seek a resolution. That’s when the solution swoops in to save the day. With a solution at hand, our stress gives way to relief.
Science explains what is happening when we encounter stories. And the Christian worldview provides the why: God has designed the human brain to process life through a narrative framework.
I found it difficult to watch the conflict between Mia and Seb, but I was able to stay in the story because I knew that some sort of resolution was certain by the film’s end. I can love a story full of fictitious conflict. It’s not as easy on my heart when it’s happening to me and those I love— when it’s not my narrative framework.
The Narrative Arc of Our Lives
Few of us are master storytellers, but all of us know how to share our own stories. Our lives as a whole, as well as specific events in particular, follow a basic plot line or narrative arc. German writer Gustav Freytag divided the narrative arc into five parts, known as Freytag’s pyramid: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement (conclusion).
Exposition sets the story in motion, introducing the characters and the scene. The story moves forward when an Inciting Incident is presented—some sort of dilemma or problem that requires attention. Rising Action pushes the protagonist into motion for the Climax, where the conflict must be faced. Falling Action wraps up the conflict and sets the stage for the story’s Denouement.
There’s a binding agent among these plot points, one that gets the story rolling, calls the characters to act, and forces change—conflict. For Mia and Seb, all the romance in the world couldn’t erase the strain of their relationship. Their careers had them going in opposite directions, separating them for months, and preventing the regular investment relationships need to thrive. The conflict was painful to watch, but it was the catalyst for honest dialogue. The conflict of this story pushed both Mia and Seb to look at their choices and correct course. Conflict brought the change that led them to the next step in pursuing and eventually achieving their dreams.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve gotten the idea that conflict could be avoided—or should be. But not all conflict comes wrapped in an argument or misunderstanding. Sometimes conflict comes in the form of a decision or an opportunity, a choice of one thing over another. Every day is full of these choices, these little conflicts, that shift our lives ever so slightly. Conflict is the one thing that stories can’t exist without. And it’s the one thing I want to eliminate from my days and my life as a whole. Conflict, it seems, is the most essential component of all.
Conflict As a Necessity
If this narrative arc is the driving force of our lives, the hinge on which the story swings is conflict. It is present in the decisions we must make, the obstacles we must sort out, the busyness we must resolve, the disappointments we must overcome, and more. It is what drives into the action. Without it, we carry on with the status quo because there’s no pressure point forcing us to change.
But when a new conflict presents itself into my story, gathering ominously on the horizon, I attempt to skirt it, whatever the cost. Conflict has suffered from some serious typecasting, viewed as the perpetual enemy in our stories—a cruel bully, the scary villain, the monster out to get us.
But in a sin-marred world we need conflict. Conflict pushes us from stasis, where we’ve grown dangerously comfortable and into a more vibrant life. Relational conflict opens our eyes to places we are blind with selfishness, pride, and bitterness. Professional conflict forces us to evaluate our priorities and change course. Spiritual conflict compels us to dig deeper into the mysteries of faith.
One significant conflict of mine unfolded while I was serving at my church. I was on a ministry team with a woman I didn’t know well. After a month or so, I could sense tension between us. It grew until a meeting was called, and I was confronted for not reaching out to her in friendship and not trying harder to make her feel included. I was completely taken aback and unaware I had an effect on her in that way. It was distressing.
I now see the ministry opportunity set the stage (exposition), my perceived slights pushed the story forward (inciting incident), presenting me with the opportunity to face the trouble (rising action). As I acknowledged my ability to cause another person pain (climax), I could ask forgiveness and practice new relational actions (falling action) so the relationship could heal (denouement).
It wasn’t so neat and tidy in real life, of course. The conflict tore me up inside for the better part of a year. But it changed me in profound ways. I learned that not only do I need to be mindful of others around me and to care for them in specific ways, but I also learned to not take the blame for every relational trouble. The lessons of that story have stuck, and I continue to value what God taught me about relationships. Without that experience, I would be lacking crucial skills.
Far from being an enemy, conflict is what presses us toward spiritual maturity, which is why Paul says we can “exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3–5 NASB).
As much as I don’t care for it, spiritual growth—consisting of perseverance, character, hope—begins with tribulations, or conflict.
This doesn’t make me want to run out and find tribulation, but really, I don’t need to. Conflict has already found me. Life is full of it, both big and small. Conflict is here, presenting opportunities for a story to unfold. Conflict is what will refine me as I make choices, practice faith, depend upon God, and trust that he will see me through to the resolution, whether that’s sooner or later.
In this way, conflict in all its many forms is a place of fellowship. When conflict alerts me to the unfolding of a new story, that’s my cue to turn toward God and to become aware of how he is going the way with me. He is a constant in the stories that are making me who he intends me to be when the last scene closes and the last word on the page of my life is written.
Storytelling is an art. It’s more than communicating a list of facts or transferring a bit of information. It’s finesse and flair. It’s connecting to others, mentally and emotionally. And we know the greatest storyteller of all.
Cover image by Frantzou Fleurine.