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Of Moths and Memory

Moths and butterflies can remember lessons learned as caterpillars, but they still kill themselves trying to get to the light
By Scott Williams


Spiritual lessons often come from the strangest places. This morning as I was driving to work listening to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition feature on moth memory.

Scientists exposed tobacco hornworm caterpillars to foul smelling gas just before giving them an electrical shock. The caterpillars learned not to go near anything with a similar smell for fear of a shock. When the moths came out of their five-week metamorphosis in the cocoon, they always chose the fresh air over the air that smelled like the gas they had been exposed to. Those who hadn’t gone through that pre-moth experience didn’t always make that choice.

In listening to the NPR report, two quotes jumped out at me. The first:

"Caterpillars don’t just change their clothes when they turn into moths or butterflies, according to biologist Martha Weiss. Instead, they go through a biological meltdown that reduces them to soup."

"I mean, that’s what I learned, is that the caterpillar turned to minestrone, and that those ingredients that made up the caterpillar were completely reorganized into a butterfly, that threw away the leftovers that it didn’t need from the soup, and was off."

The second:

"The question that we asked is ‘Can a moth or a butterfly remember something that it learned as a caterpillar.’"

"…they can make connections that are relevant to their lives."

"For example, which red flowers are the poisonous ones, and where is the safest place to lay your eggs?"


Whenever I hear about metamorphosis, I immediately think of 2 Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore if any person is [ingrafted] in Christ (the Messiah) he is a new creation (a new creature altogether); the old [previous moral and spiritual condition] has passed away. Behold, the fresh and new has come!" (Amplified Bible).

I never realized what happened when a caterpillar disappears into his cocoon. It doesn’t just sprout wings and get modified legs and mouth parts. When a caterpillar enters its cocoon, it can never go back. It basically dissolves. When it emerges, even though it is made of the same basic material, it is reorganized into a totally unique creature with a completely different look, function and nature altogether.

As new creatures in Christ, we’re not just given the spiritual nature, we are completely remade. We’re not just caterpillars with wings. Sure, there are a few things leftover from the old that make us resemble what we once were, but we’ve been completely recreated in Christ. Even though I knew this, knowing more about the transformation process suddenly made it more vivid.

And the second thought that the NPR story provoked. Although we’re completely new, we’re of the same stuff and still have the experiences of the old life.

I’ve often wondered why God doesn’t just take away the nature that causes us to be inclined to sin. I guess the next best thing is a memory of our past life and past mistakes, and the knowledge that we don’t want to repeat the things that are detrimental to our lives. Unlike my children who are facing the lures of sin’s appeal for the first time in many new ways, I’ve learned what to avoid, and I’ve seen the end of some things that looked good at the outset but never delivered.

But there’s still one question about the moths that scientists haven’t yet answered, though: Why don’t they ever learn not to kill themselves by repeatedly banging into bright lights at night.

I guess there might be a good spiritual lesson there, too.

I know that the new nature doesn’t do away with the sin that so easily entraps us; we’re still made of the same matter we were in our unregenerate lives. But because our new nature allows us to get closer to the light, we too often beat ourselves up trying to attain what we never can in our current states.

Thankfully, our confident hope is that this new nature is just a foreshadowing of what is to come when God returns us to our intended state with glorified bodies as his sinless creations. Only then can we realize the deep longing to truly be in the presence of the Light.

Copyright © 2008 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

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