The Marshmallow Test

The Marshmallow Test

Dec 29
The Marshmallow Test

God has had a lot to say to me lately about waiting.

I got to experience an unpleasant reality about myself this morning.  It started with a buy-one-get-one coupon for a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich that would expire at the end of the year.  On my way to work this morning I was hungry, but not hungry enough to eat two sandwiches.  I decided that I’d use the coupon and save one of the sandwiches for tomorrow.  I ate the first sandwich and was content.  But the other sandwich was sitting on my desk.  Within probably 20 minutes I ate the second sandwich.

This reminded me of the Marshmallow Test.  The Marshmallow Test was originally conducted in the 60’s by Dr. Walter Mischel.  It’s a very simple experiment.  Seat a pre-schooler at a table in a room with no distractions.  Place a marshmallow on the table.  Then explain to the child that he or she can have the marshmallow now, but if the child hasn’t eaten the marshmallow by the time you get back then you will give the child a second marshmallow.  The decision is simple:  eat the one you have now or wait and then you will have two.

Go to YouTube and search for “marshmallow test” and watch some of the videos – the behavior of the children is a brilliant commentary on how we act as adults.  Some of the children lick the marshmallow, hoping to satisfy themselves so that they can wait.  Some try to take tiny bites, hoping that it won’t be noticed.  Some smell the marshmallow, some play with it, but almost all of the children fixate on the marshmallow in some way.  They try to figure out how to get something now.  They are practically shouting, “What can I get away with now and still get my reward?!”

Two-thirds of the children were unable to wait and ate the first marshmallow.

Dr. Mischel continued to follow-up with his first test subjects over the period of several decades.  Over the course of their lives, the children who were able to wait and get the second marshmallow have a lower body mass index, lower rates of addiction, lower divorce rates, and higher SAT scores.

In other words, the ability to delay gratification is a very important one in life.  His research suggests that weight gain, addiction, and divorce are related to our inability to tell ourselves, “No.”

Dave Ramsey, in his recipe for financial peace, phrases it this way:  “Live like no one else, so that you can live like no one else.”  Learn to tell yourself “no” now so that you can tell yourself “yes” later.  By learning to curb your desire for instant gratification you can have a more full life later.

Unfortunately, most of us have an unrealistic belief regarding our self-control.  This is lived out year after year with the promises we make to ourselves and then fail to keep.  Every year we buy gym memberships or exercise equipment, promising that we’re going to use it and get healthier.  Just not this minute.  We say that next month we’ll start saving more, or that next paycheck we’ll do this or that.  But when reality arrives, we find ourselves unable to follow through on our good intentions.

Any way you slice it, it comes down to most of us being unwilling to go without in this moment.  We have all sorts of great sayings and rationalizations to justify it:  “the present is all you have,” “tomorrow may never come,” and “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” (to list a few).  Most of us are absolutely unwilling to risk what we can have right now for the possibility of having more later.

Another way of saying it is to say that most of us are “risk averse” when it comes to rewards.  We want the sure thing, not the thing that we might get.  We know what we can have right now; we don’t know what we will have in the future.  Right now, I see a marshmallow (or a breakfast sandwich).  Who knows if it will be here later or if there will ever be another chance?

So we make promises with what we don’t have so that we can have what we want right now.  We may do this with the best of intentions, but the reality is that we will rarely follow through with our promises about the future.  Sure we’ll pay you back later.  Sure we’ll skip our next meal so that we can have that extra piece of cake now.  Sure we’ll put in extra time at the gym to make up for not going tonight.  Sure we’ll set aside extra money next month to make up for overindulging this month.

Dr. Mischel observed that the children who were able to delay gratification used creative ways to distract themselves from the temptation of the present.  They would hide the marshmallow, or turn their chair away so they couldn’t see it.  They would sing songs.  But they wouldn’t engage with the marshmallow.

This theme plays itself out over and over again in the Bible as men and women refuse to wait on God.  When God promised Abraham a son, Abraham chose not to wait and instead slept with his wife’s maid.  God reminded Abraham that He doesn’t need our help.  In fact, His gifts are HIS gifts to give, not ours to take.

My favorite example of this involves King David.  He saw a beautiful woman taking a bath and he wanted her.  So he took her.  It set a terrible chain of events in motion.  God’s words to David are humbling:  “I chose you to be the king of Israel.  I saved you from Saul.  I let you take his family and his wives, and I made you king of Israel and Judah.  As if that had not been enough, I would have given you more and more.” (2 Samuel 12:7-8).  God tells David, “If I had not given you enough, I would have given you more.”  This isn’t God saying, “Learn to be content with what little I give you.”  This is God saying, “I have been amazingly generous and would have continued to be generous if you would let Me give to you rather than taking what you wanted.”

The trouble is that we don’t trust God to be generous.  We don’t truly believe that He will give us what we want, or give it when we want it.  If anything, we expect God to make us wait an unpleasantly long time just to make a point.  That’s quite the commentary on God.  It says that we basically see Him as stingy, miserly, begrudging, and not at all kind or interested in our happiness.  We live and act as if God is exactly the opposite of who He truly is.

Is it any wonder that “self-control” is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit?  A person who is rooted in God and filled with His Spirit learns to be self-controlled because that person knows that God gives the better gifts and that His timing is perfect.  The self-controlled know that God can and will give them two marshmallows if they’ll just trust Him and wait.

If you never tell yourself no then you’ll never want God.  Let’s that “giver” and “God” are interchangeable.  God = Giver.  Giver = God.  If you are your own giver, then you are your own god.

One of the things I find amusing is how much of the world seems to view the wealthy.  We see the wealthy as those who can say “yes” to whatever they want.  Perhaps that is true.  Most of them got there by first saying “no.”

I firmly believe that practically every issue we struggle with as individuals begins with our inability to tell ourselves “no.”  We are overweight because we want to eat it NOW.  We are in debt because we want to have it NOW.  We are stressed because it has to happen NOW.

We are so focused on NOW that we forget what happens when we turn it around.  Don’t you realize that “now” spelled backwards is “won?”  It isn’t until we learn how to wait, how to turn now around, that we will have finally won.

If you love your family, learn to tell yourself no.  And teach your children the value of no.  Learn to use “lay-a-way” rather than debt.  Learn to have leftovers.  Learn how to work two jobs.  Learn how to go to bed on time so you’ll get up in the morning.  Learn how to wait so that people can give you a gift you truly want on your birthday.  Learn how to walk away from temptation, to remove yourself from it rather than giving in to it.

I believe the single greatest thing you can do is tell yourself no.  It changes everything.  Jesus told us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.  He said to deny yourself – to say no to yourself.  He did not say that you would go without or that He would tell you no.  He said to tell yourself no so that He can tell you yes.  If He isn’t your giver then He isn’t your God.

Holy God, my Great Giver, You who know my heart better than I know myself, please forgive me when I take things for myself.  Please forgive me when I try to turn Your gift into mine, when I try to give it to myself and replace You with me.  Thank You for teaching me the value of “no.”  I beg You, my Father, to give me the discipline to tell myself no more often.  I want You to be the only yes in my life.  Amen.

1 comment

  1. Good stuff… hard to read but good.

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