The Butterpillar and the Caterfly

The caterpillar to butterfly transformation is a frequently used analogy to describe the conversion/transformation aspect of the Christian faith. Writers and speakers like to use this imagery to spark our imaginations and inspire us as we think about what it means to have new life in Jesus Christ. This imagery speaks of a transition that is one of totality.

In a recent conversation based on writing by D. Gelpi and ML Branson (italics added after initial post) on the “initial” and “ongoing” aspects of conversion, a friend described several different kinds of conversions that he had witnessed in people: affective (the emotions, emotional health, etc), intellectual, moral, socio-political (the move toward corporate ethical solidarity), Christian (responding to God on God’s terms), and church (moving from individualistic and fragmented practices to interdependence in a congregation). He reflected on how these conversions can take place at different times and how there is really no prescribed order for them to occur. For some it was a Christian conversion that prompted a moral conversion. For others it was a moral conversion that prompted a Christian conversion.

I found myself challenged by this notion that we can bring parts of us ‘to the other side’ of our Christian conversion as if our good morality or strong intellect could be brought over unchanged when we made the choice to follow Christ. Is it really possible to say that parts of our lives were Christocentric before Christ was at the center? Perhaps in our churches we have a bunch of Butterpillars and Caterflies running around.

C.S. Lewis writes:

“The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down…. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.'”

Mere Christianity


  1. I think that, created in His image and for His glory, it is inevitable that there is something of God that we bring with us. After all, if Christ teaches us that we can discover Him in the “least of these”, how could we not have been the same before our “conversion”. Lots to think about. Thanks!


  2. Thanks for your thoughts Jamie! Here is what came to my mind immediately after reading your comment: is it that we find in the ‘least of these’ pre-transformed aspects of a holy people or that we can see in the ‘least of these’ the likeness of the One who became like them among us?

  3. Doug,

    I think about our pre-marital (or was it pre-engagement 🙂 ) counseling where we read that Wangerin book that talked about how who you are as a single or engaged person dies when you are married and you genuinely become something else. That’s how I think about what you are saying here: that everything that comes with us in our conversion (and everything that was in us pre-conversion) DOES essentially change. There is a death and a re-birth. There is a new creation. Lewis hits this so hard when he points to all that stuff we think is good already, even that must submit, die, and be made new.

  4. One difficulty I’ve run into with conversion language is the search for a unique moment in which we move from point A to point B. I have heard numerous theories on what A and B are, the means by which we cross over to point B, the evidence that proves B, etc etc etc.

    This leads to subtle pressure to have a “testimony” in which we can trace a genuine period of depravity, a genuine moment of conversion/vow, and a genuine period of newness.

    I’m wondering how vital it is for our lives to fit such a model. Mine certainly has not.

    An aspect which occurs to me is not so much the movement of our decisions in the life of discipleship, but the moment of God.

    The important questions, to me, seem to be:

    How has God pursued you in your past? How does God pursue you today? How are you responding to His pursuit?

  5. Important and cool stuff on a lot of levels.

    I like Jamie’s take. Sin mars God’s intention and creative work but doesn’t rival it or affect the fundamental creative signature of God on fallen individuals or situations. I think even the most fallen people and situations reflect God much more than they do sin.

    They say ‘you can’t take it with you,’ but I think–in one very important theological sense rooted in the creation–folks take most of the old with them into the new at baptism.

    Seems like both of you, D and E, were making a similar point about the radical departure from the old to the new that Christian conversion represents.

    I think that’s true too.

    But how is it a drastic departure in a very practical way? I’d love to hear your take since this is such an important topic that–in my experience–is sort of at the heart of the question of motivation for post modern folks considering overseas or inner city mission. I know you guys are in the middle of a post modern wave that denies the need for traditional Christian conversion.

    What should a 30 year old American missionary living in a slum in Bangkok say to the Buddhist slum dweller who in a practical way is more forgiving and more committed to non-violence than anyone that Christian missionary has met?

    Will that slum dweller’s values and lifetime concrete practices ‘go with them’ into the Christian community if they decide to follow Jesus? If not, how will the meaning or expression of those values and practices change dramatically and practically a la Lewis?

    I appreciated Masaki’s comments too. From my point of view don’t want to mistake the incarnationally necessary dramatic and literary linear sequences God uses to communicate ideas about conversion for how God often does it in real life.

  6. Great comments all and an apology for not getting back to this sooner!

    There are a lot of things happening here on so many levels ;-). I think we have blurred the notion of conversion which may be why we have trouble on this issue – and who is to say who mediates how it is cleared up.

    Thank you all for your additions. Is our notion of conversion too affective? Is it too ceremonial? Does it have to include a good testimony story or can it simply be the decision that your orientation and identity come from Christ and the participation in his people?

    One of the things that has always bothered me about the butterfly analogy is the notion that the caterpillar is plain while the butterfly is beautiful and heartwarming, etc. Here is where Erika’s analogy may be a better one. Anyone who is married knows that it is WONDERFUL and so much better than being engaged – but also so much harder and requires a huge amount of learning. The engaged to marriage shift is not so much a change from something ugly (sinful?) to something beautiful (holy?) but rather a drastic change in orientation.

    Are our churches truly acting like the bride for the bridegroom? Are our communities of faith taking seriously this role? It is in this that I think your issues are most important, Tom. The wedding is a one day party full of fanfare and wonder but the daily grind of the marriage that follows requires concrete practices.

    All of this is follows the thought line of my previous posts about the nature of the congregations we are inviting people into and what and how we are teaching people about what it means to be the people of God. A renewal of what it means to be baptized will be required for us to regain what it means to convert. Is baptism (historically the marker for the crossing over into the new humanity – as Paul describes it) the wedding ceremony that has been gutted of much of its “new creation” substance and import? Has our hyper-individualization of the baptismal event (and prep for baptism if it even exists) rendered butterpillars and caterflies inevitable and made the whole notion of conversion ambiguous and a solo rite of passage?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *