Christian thinker Dallas Willard once said that “the main test for Christlike character is whether one spontaneously responds to one’s enemies with love.” Ever since I read that I have been thinking about this question:

Can Christ’s character become like an instinct?

I think most of us have to stop and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” in response to our enemies, to respond lovingly. If something is spontaneous in us, then wouldn’t it be something more like an instinct?

Humans are somewhat different than animals in terms of instinct. Animals are born with instincts to survive in the wild and they don’t have 18 years of preparation to do so. They must be able to defend themselves, run away, and learn to feed themselves within weeks of birth or they will not likely survive. But humans take years to develop these skills amongst many others.

The scientific world agrees on two basic human instincts: self-preservation and sex. These two instincts are about the survival of our species. We share these instincts with every living being on the planet. If these are our only instincts, then the kind of love that Jesus taught goes directly against our instincts. Jesus’ love is self-sacrificing. However, other scientists believe that there is a third instinct that boils down to a social drive. We seem to have a fundamental drive to connect in relationships and not just for sex, although you could argue that this instinct is for survival. Humans evolved in tribes for survival.

However, attachment theorists observe that it is not just about survival, it is about flourishing. We do not flourish just by being fed and protected, we need something more: love. To maximize our human potential, we must be loved and living in loving relationships with others. But is love instinctual? If a baby is not loved, it will be more difficult for her to love others. When we are not loved we believe that we are not worthy of love and that others cannot be trusted to love us. This leads to a life of fulfilling the other two human instincts: self-preservation and fulfilling sexual desires or more generally, our appetites. That’s not loving. So if we only love under the condition of being first loved, then we really can’t call it an instinct. Attachment theorists, tell us that love is learned.

How is character like an instinct? 

It might be easier to think of what we call character instead of instincts. Our character is who we are at the core of our being. We think, feel, and act out of our character. When someone says, “That was out of character for you” it is never true.  We act precisely out of our character. We may cover it up well on our good days, but on our bad days, the truth of our character will be on display. We may act lovingly until our survival is threatened or if someone gets in between us and our appetites.

But that’s not what Jesus did. It was not who he is. When his life was threatened he continued to love and even on the cross he loved. He commanded his disciples to love others in the way he loved…even on a bad day…including our enemies.

So, to love like Jesus loves we must have the character of one who loves as Jesus loves. It’s not an external change of behavior. It’s not even a matter of habit. It is a matter of changing character. And for the sake of our discussion, we will equate instinct with character. It may not be what we were born with but it is how we think, feel, and act even under threat. It is what we spontaneously do without thought. Therefore, what Dallas Willard is saying is that our instincts must change to be mature followers of Christ.

So how do you change your character?

Many say it is a matter of changing your beliefs, but neuroscientist and theologian Jim Wilder says that our character is “transformed by who we love more than what we believe.” Love never starts with us. “We love because [God] first loved us.”(1 John 4:19) God brought love into the world. For many of us, it comes to us through our parents. We love because mom and dad first loved us. But what Wilder is saying is that being loved doesn’t change our character. It lays a foundation for growing a healthy character, but our character forms by whom we love. I am not like my dad because he loves me, but because I love him.

Believing in God itself does not change my character. I have to actually love God. And to the degree that I can love God above anyone or anything else is the degree that I become more like him than anyone or anything else. Perhaps when God said, “Thou shall put no other gods before me” he was thinking about changing your character into the character of God’s son or daughter…God’s people.

To love God starts with realizing that God loves you. Not just as a nice warm feeling, but in an active nourishing way. A loving mother feeds her baby not just with milk but with her love. At some point, the baby will grow to return her love and therefore be shaped by her. The same is true with God. The more we recognize the ways that God takes care of us and feeds us lovingly, then the more our love will grow for God. We respond with thanks and praise and at some point that thanks and praise will turn to love. The more we grow in love for God, the more we will grow into the image of God, the less we will resemble the world, and the more our instinct will be to love…even on a bad day…and even our enemies.

Are you ready to start working on your character to make Christ your instinct? Let’s talk. 

Rev. Dr. Paul Burns

Executive Director and Founder of Soul Metrics

Spiritual Health Coach


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