Some of the greatest miracles in life take place before our very eyes, and yet go practically unnoticed. Consider, for example, the “March of the Monarchs.”
Every fall millions of these beautiful butterflies make their annual pilgrimage from North America to a small enclave in central Mexico where they will hibernate for the winter. The following spring they will suddenly abandon the safe confines of their Mexican retreat center and return north in order to “be fruitful and multiply.”
It’s an astonishing feat. To think that these fragile insects have been equipped by their Maker to travel thousands of miles every fall and spring, instinctively following the same path taken by their ancestors for centuries, is mind-boggling to say the least.
As amazing as this is, the thing that I have always found most fascinating about the Monarchs is not their patterns of migration, but the process of transformation they must undergo to make the journey from caterpillar to butterfly. This process is known as “metamorphosis,” a term that finds its origins in the Greek verb, metamorphoo, meaning “to change from one form to another.”
This is the word that Matthew and Mark use to describe the “transfiguration” that Jesus experienced in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2). It’s also the same word that Paul uses to capture the dramatic change that takes place in each of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ when we allow Him to “transform” us into His very likeness (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18).
There are many aspects of this transformational process known as metamorphosis that are noteworthy, but these are the ones that immediately grab my attention as a follower of Christ:
• The caterpillar must die to its old self by becoming “entombed” in its chrysalis in order to enter into this process of transformation. It must be willing to leave its old, mundane caterpillar life behind if it hopes to move into a new and glorious life as a majestic butterfly (cf. Colossians 3:9-10).
• The developing butterfly must give the process the necessary time to complete its work. Any attempts to short-circuit this process will be disastrous. I should know. As a boy, in a naive but well-intended show of compassion, I decided to hasten a monarch’s escape from its painful struggle by cutting its chrysalis loose a pair of scissors. I was horrified to discover that instead of helping the butterfly I ended up crippling it and cutting its life short. The very encumbrance I sought to remove was actually designed to serve as a critical component in the healthy development of the butterfly’s wings. I learned the hard way that the stress and strain of the struggle was a normal, necessary part of the mature butterfly’s growth and formation (cf. James 1:2-4).
• Even though their physical appearance is dramatically different, the pre-formational caterpillar shares the exact same DNA with the post-formational butterfly. The caterpillar was born to be a butterfly, with all of the necessary raw material in place, but it must be willing to submit to the transformational process in order to arrive at its glorious destination (cf. Romans 8:29).
So how’s your process of “metamorphosis” going these days? Unlike the Monarch, which undergoes this dramatic transformation instinctively, we must choose to submit to this process voluntarily, by surrendering our will to the will of our Maker. By using the present, passive, imperative form of the Greek verb, metamorphoo, Paul would remind us that we must let God change us as we enter into the ongoing process of spiritual transformation: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
As we enter into the tomb, choosing to “die daily” to sin and to engage in an ongoing struggle against the stress and strain of this fallen world, we find over time that our lives increasingly bear a surprising resemblance to the glorious One who has created us in His own likeness: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
It’s amazing how much you can learn about Christian discipleship and spiritual formation from a few fragile, yet fascinating insects.
David O. Williams, D.Min., is a Professor of Discipleship & Spiritual Formation, the Director of the Center for Spiritual Renewal and the Director of the MATL-Spiritual Formation at Barclay College in Haviland, Kansas.