The transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly is not only one of Creation’s most incredible acts, it also mirrors so well our own spiritual growth. No wonder Paul drew on the metaphor in Romans 12:1-2 to contrast how the world seeks to press us into its mold, while God invites us into a process of surrendered transformation.
A couple of years ago Sara planted a butterfly garden in our backyard, on the advice of a lady I met in Wisconsin on a trip there. It consists of collection of milkweed plants, which are the host plant for the monarch butterfly, pictured at left. This is the only plant on which they will lay their eggs and the only plant the caterpillars will eat. We have now watched two growing season with our grandkids as the eggs hatch, the caterpillars grow, then change into a chrysalises, and finally emerge as butterflies. It seems to hold endless fascination for all of us as we check each day to see how the caterpillars are growing and how the chrysalises progressing. My daughter just blogged on this recently on her blog, with pictures of what’s going on in our own backyard. She has some awesome pictures there that capture of the wonder of this process.
As astounded as I am when a new butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, I am even more astounded how a butterfly becomes a chrysalis. If you’ve never seen this process, you can view it here in time-lapse photography. I have long wondered how it happened, but until I saw this video, I had no idea it merely shed its own skin and the chrysalis forms from the inside. One day the caterpillar simply wanders away from the milkweed, sometimes going as far as 15 or 20 yards, to find another tree or bush for it to crawl up into. There it hangs upside down in a small curl, and this amazing transformation begins. While it does not have the drama or beauty of the butterfly’s emergence from the chrysalis, it is perhaps an even greater miracle.
When I see the caterpillar hanging from the branch ready for this part of its transformation, I am reminded of Jesus’ words in John 12,
Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal. (John 12:24-25, The Message)
I know he’s talking about wheat, but the analogy still holds in transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Who wouldn’t want to give up life as a caterpillar to take to the sky as a butterfly? The more difficult choice is first to become the space in which that kind of transformation can take place. For that to happen, the caterpillar has to give up life as it has always known it, stop its voracious activity, and submit to a process it can’t possibly understand. But it cannot embrace the final step until it takes the next one. And the next one isn’t nearly as much fun.
That’s so true for us as well. Somehow we want God to wave his magic wand and suddenly everything become glorious and fruitful in our lives. We want the fruit of transformation, without embracing the process of it, and because of that we miss out on the beauty God wants to call out of our hearts. We, too, have to let go of life as we know it, and when he invites us, to lay down what we already have. There is no growth without risk, and if we always stay safe by our own reckoning we’ll find ourselves growing stagnant and empty.
In the current issue of Living Loved, I write about the importance of following God onto the narrow road in the simplest of choices. Almost always these moments seem too risky and it feels far safer to ignore them. The only thing that makes them safe is to realize who it is that is inviting us. God is not interested in destroying you, but letting the person he created you to be emerge from the twistedness of what sin, religion, and this world has done to you. What takes all the risk out of it, is knowing that the Father who loves me is guiding me and that I’m the one who truly loses when I seek to save myself.
When I’m feeling so much at risk in the way God’s asking me to live right now and what he is reshaping in both Sara and me, I have found great encouragement and insight watching the process by which God makes a butterfly. It encourages me to let go even more, so that what remains is truly what brings him great joy. I know that’s where my joy lies as well.