It may be an inspiring image, but it really has nothing to do with reality. If eagles lost all their feathers at one time – or even just their large wing pinions – they would be unable to fly, and as raptors they would not survive while the supposed process of transformation took place. Ornithologists know that eagles do not lose all their feathers at once and become transformed in such a short space of time. In fact, the story really tells us nothing about eagles, but it does tell us a lot about human psychology.
The process of transformation is not easy. It’s a painful and tiring one that most humans dislike and would gladly avoid if it were possible. Hence there is appeal in the stories of eagles that are completely renewed in a few months, mythical Phoenix birds that rise, transformed, overnight from their ashes, and so on. They are great stories, but they mainly show how much humans would like transformation to be quick and easy. We want to fast-track the process, skip to the end of the story, and avoid the pain of the slowness of actual change.
So how are eagles transformed? The answer is simple: one feather at a time. Feathers do become worn over time, but eagles and other raptors generally do not pluck them out. Like all other birds, they go through a slow, ongoing process called a molt in which each feather is replaced, one or two at a time. And that is really how we change, too. And change we must. Christian change or “transformation” is not seeking salvation in works, but seeking to please and honor God in our lives.
The apostle Paul wrote: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2), and: “… we all … are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord …” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Being changed to reflect the nature and character of Christ is one of the great goals that every Christian aims for, but we must be realistic about it. It is a process of transformation that takes time. Notice that in 2 Corinthians 3:18, above, the ongoing, “ever-increasing” nature of the change is made clear.
It’s easy to become discouraged when we don’t see change occurring quickly in our spiritual lives. But it is the nature of all real change that we don’t always see it happening before our eyes. The part of our nature we seek to replace is worn away slowly like a stone in a stream – but it is gradually worn away. The part of our nature that is growing to what we want to be is growing like the seed in the earth – we don’t see the growth, but it is happening nonetheless (Mark 4:26-29). We may know this intellectually, but it is a great key to encouragement to realize at the end of each day, no matter how discouragingly slow our growth may seem, as long as we are continuing to fight against what we have rejected and to work for what we believe – the stone is being worn away, the seed is growing.
We know that according to the plan of God, eventually “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and Philippians 3:21). That is something to which every Christian looks forward. But for now, until we get to that point, transformation comes slowly, with patience: one feather – one small change – at a time.