My husband loves all critters in the Animal Kingdom, so a couple of months ago, he purchased two baby tarantulas.
Part of a tarantula’s maturation involves molting (aka, moulting). Molting is the process by which an animal sheds feathers, skin, hair, and/or its outer shell at distinct times throughout its lifespan, in order to make room for new growth.
Several weeks ago, one of the tarantulas, the poecilotheria regalis, molted (since I started the post talking about the Animal Kingdom, it’s important that I use the appropriate Latin name. We also don’t have a name for the spider yet). When we looked into the enclosure one morning, my husband and I thought we were looking at the poecilotheria regalis until we saw him huddled at the top. My immediate (and more limbic) thought was, “How in the world are there two spiders in there?!” Then, when my cortex took over, I realized the initial “spider” I saw was the molted skin of the actual spider.
What I didn’t realize was that this natural process would be an object lesson for Paul’s mandate to the church in Ephesus to “put away your former way of life, your old self…and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self…” (Ephesians 4.22-24, NRSV).
Yet, this was the very verse that ran through my mind upon seeing the molted skin.
To provide a bit of historical context, Paul’s audience is a mixed bag of converted Jews and Gentiles. In these particular verses, Paul is most likely targeting the Gentiles, who lived a morally different life pre-Christ. He’s reminding them that their old way of life—one of greed, licentiousness, impurity, and lust (Ephesians 4.17-21)—is like a pair of old, dirty clothes, which must be shed in order to put on new, clean clothes (the verb Paul uses for “put on,” ἐνδύω, literally means to put on one’s clothes). Paul encourages them to take off their old, dirty behaviors, essentially shedding their previous identity, for the sake of embracing their new identity in Jesus. Each individual is a new person (a “new self”), made in God’s image, and therefore, made to reflect this very image—one of goodness, love, purity, righteousness, and holiness.
Now, back to molting.
When I saw the molted skin, I couldn’t help but think how easy this whole process seemed. It was like “ta-dah!” poecilotheria regalis just jumped out of her old skin into the new. And, to some extent, it was true.
However, molting is actually an exhausting process. In preparation to molt, the tarantula undergoes significant biological distress, which manifests in not eating, loss of hair, lethargy, and even lying on their backs as if they were dead. Even after a successful molt, the tarantula’s new skin is very soft, sensitive, and vulnerable. Yet, these pre-molt regressions and post-molt fragility yield a glorious newness. Each molt increases the tarantula’s size, intensifies its color, and prepares it for its new life stage.
When I read Paul’s words to the Ephesians, I also can’t help but think how easy it sounds. It’s as if letting go of our pre-Christ habits and behaviors, and embracing our post-Christ thoughts and actions, is as simple as unzipping our outdated, tattered jumpsuit and putting on a new, colorful cashmere sweater (or whatever your clothing of choice might be). And, to some extent, it’s true.
However, like molting, conversion can also be an exhausting process. It takes vigilance, determination, and courage, to say “yes” to our new self, while allowing our old self, mired in unhealthy, negative habits, to slough off. Like tarantulas, we often regress before making a giant leap forward. Once we take this giant leap, our new identities, though rooted in Jesus, may be a bit fragile, and take a while to fortify. Yet, this process, this spiritual maturation, is necessary for the magnificent renewal that Paul speaks of.
And, like molting, conversion is a continual process that we go through at key moments in our spiritual lifespan. It’s not a one and done, but rather, a constant progression towards Jesus. Each time we shed our old self, we become more Jesus-like. When we step out of our old skin, and see it lying on the ground, we can look at it, and see that we’ve undergone a legitimate conversion. Each sloughing off of the old self, increases our love, joy, hope, and kindness, prepares us for what God is calling us to do, and readies us for our next stage in life.
If I were to translate Paul’s words in our contemporary context (my own version of The Message Bible; perhaps the Tarantula-Lovers Bible), I would say, “molt your old self, making way for your new skin.”