Friday, January 2, 2015

Lessons from butterflies

I had the opportunity to use the word metamorphosis today, (the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly) which got me to thinking about that process, and about butterflies in general.

As I pondered this wonder of God's creation, I began to understand some lessons about life and faith that parallel the life cycle of this common - but usually welcome - insect. Some of them might seem pretty basic, but bear with me.

All butterflies start out as caterpillars. Even though their destiny is to fly, butterflies begin life from eggs laid by adult butterflies, and you'd think that the hatchlings would resemble - at least somewhat - the finished product. 

Photo "Monarch Caterpillar" courtesy of
Lisa McDonald at
They don't. They're fat, squirmy, earth-bound critters that think of nothing but eating the next piece of greenery. And the next.

Just so, the expression "God has no grandchildren" can apply here. Just because you are a child of God doesn't mean that your children are. They must each come to faith the same way - through a personal experience of rebirth by the Spirit of God. Every single person is a born sinner.

The caterpillar's entire existence is geared toward consumption. It consumes food almost all of the time! Its entire focus is downward, toward the business of survival: the next bite, the next leaf, the next plant. Yet even this limited existence serves a purpose - it will help the caterpillar have enough physical resources (or building blocks, if you wish) when it eventually has to stop eating and form its cocoon, or chrysalis. Every experience in our lives, even the ones we've had prior to becoming Christians, has the potential of being a tool to help us or to help someone else later on.

When the time is right, the caterpillar knows. Each individual caterpillar knows when it is ready to enter the next stage of its life - the transformational stage. It doesn't know that this is what will take place. It just knows that it needs to go to a protected spot and do something other than eat. No other organism can make that decision (if you can call it that); the little critter just KNOWS. The Holy Spirit is the only One who can bring someone to Jesus. All the "witnessing" in the world, all the singing, programs, manipulation or whatever you can name, will not bring even ONE person into the Kingdom of God. That moment is holy; it belongs to God and to Him alone... and it is extremely personal.

Once the process starts, there is no going back. Driven by forces of instinct, the caterpillar envelops itself into its cocoon ... and a process begins that is irrevocable. There is only one possible outcome: a butterfly will emerge. Let's also keep in mind that the caterpillar is not aware of the changes that are happening. It can't see what it's becoming. These two thoughts give hope to those of us who have no idea what God is doing in us, can't see a clear path, and wonder if anything is even happening. God will finish what He started, and He will make something beautiful come out of what seems like chaos, even if we don't have a clue what that something beautiful is.

Everything the caterpillar is, is fundamentally changed.  Many people are not aware of this, but the process of metamorphosis changes the caterpillar into a gelatin-like soup of cells and organic molecules. In essence, the caterpillar is de-constructed down to the level of the cells themselves. It ceases to be what it was ... and it is then re-created into the form of a butterfly. Over the space of a few weeks, (which in most species is a significant portion of its lifespan) this old creation is re-created into something it has never been before. This reminds me of the verse in 2 Corinthians 5 that talks about us being new creations in Christ Jesus: "...the old is past; the new has come!" (vs 17)  While we may not feel regenerated, we are. While we may not feel holy; God declares us as such - in fact, the courage of Scripture says, "He has made Him [Jesus] to be sin for us, [He] who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him [Jesus]!!" (vs 21)

It takes as long as it takes. The process of realizing all the facets of that new life, that new nature, might take a while, but it happens. And although - for the chrysalis - it might happen in a cluster of chrysalises, each process is individual, and it will take as long as it takes. The same is true in the spiritual realm. While it is true that we need others in the body of Christ, the most important relationship there is happens in the secret place, where the Spirit of God transforms us from the inside out.

This is not the time for pouring into someone else's life. Starting to "minister" too soon is one of the top reasons that I've seen that explains why people in ministry burn (or fizzle) out. I sometimes remind myself that Paul the apostle had to go to Arabia for 3 years and "unlearn" all of the mind-sets that he had as a Pharisee before he could be used by God in the Church. 

Photo "Monarch Butterfly" provided by
Liz Noffsinger at
When it's time to emerge, it's time. After the butterfly is fully formed, it is time to come out of the cocoon. This is not a comfortable process, and nobody can help with it, or the creature will not be able to fly properly or reach its food source, and will therefore starve to death. The struggle of emerging from the chrysalis is essential, as is the resting period following it. Only then can the necessary internal juices flow into the wings and harden them; at first the wings are soft, wet, floppy, and small. The waiting allows the power to transfer from within to where it is needed. 

The shell that was so important before, the boundary of the transforming creature's world, has already served its purpose after the wings harden. It can be discarded. There are no limits now. The butterfly is free, learning to ride the air currents and feed on totally different food, covering more distance in one minute than it did for its entire existence before beginning the process. 

It will act like a butterfly because it IS a butterfly. A caterpillar can no more act like a butterfly than a pig can act like an eagle. And it would be ludicrous for a butterfly to act like a caterpillar. That isn't what a butterfly is anymore. 

This is a metaphor, a picture, of the completeness of our transformation as believers, whether we are aware of it or not. I won't belabor the point by drawing the obvious parallels; I will only say that they are there - and that God will do what He said He would: in gazing on His glory, we will be transformed - just like a butterfly is transformed - into the image of Jesus by the Holy Spirit who lives within us (2 Cor 3:18). And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (vs 17).

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