If you were to take some version of the Marshmallow Test, how would you fare?
The original “Marshmallow Test” is a somewhat-famous study done in 1972 at Stanford University, testing the willingness of children to forgo immediate gratification for a greater reward later. Children were given a marshmallow and told that if they could resist eating it for 15 minutes, being patient while the tester was out of the room, they would get another when he or she returned. There was a lot more to the actual test, but the concept has come to be shorthand for a willingness to exercise self-control for greater reward later.
As we go through life, we are constantly tested on our ability to resist the urge of the moment, for the promise of greater gratification later. The ability to exercise self-control is an important mark of emotional maturity. It is also an important virtue which allows those that possess it to advance further in life and to have greater and more lasting rewards., not to mention more stability in the various circumstances of life.
Self-control, and the ability to look ahead to a greater reward so as to resist the temptations of the moment, is one of the key virtues of Christian doctrine (cf. 2 Peter 1:6). It is a hallmark of those who belong to Christ, for as the Scriptures note, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7; ESV).”
Christians are instructed to consider Moses, who, “By faith…, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:23-25; ESV)”
We too are encouraged to set our minds on those things above, and to trust in the promises of God as we travers the various trials and temptations of life (cf. Colossians 3:2). This anticipation of reward to come is what allows for the internal strength to face and overcome the sorrows that are promised in Christ. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12),” writes the apostle Paul, and for those who wonder why anyone should be willing to put up with suffering in the moment, the same apostle supplies the answer: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:32; ESV).”
If we can exercise self-control now, the reward to come will be worth it, when Jesus returns to His people, bringing His salvation with Him.
Going back to the aforementioned, “Marshmallow Test,” for just a moment, one of the things understood to be relevant to the results of the study, as well as follow-up studies, is that the children who trusted the ones giving the test were more likely to resist the impulse to eat the treats right away. If the child, for cultural or other reasons, felt distrust concerning the one making the promise, they were more likely to go for the reward right in front of them instead of waiting for later.
Relatedly, our willingness to endure hardships in the moment, and turn away from the immediate gratification of sin has a lot to do with our faith in the one making the promises to us. To the atheist, the promise of a heavenly reward can never be sufficient so as to encourage self-control in the moment, for they have no faith in the One making the promise. Practically speaking, the one who says they have faith in God, yet does not trust His promises so as to practice self-control, is confessing in the moment, the weakness of their faith. Thus, the Bible teaches that the faith that is pleasing to God both believes that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those that seek Him (cf. Hebrews 11:6).
So, looking at your own willingness to resist the temptation of sin, endure the hardships of the moment, all in anticipation of the fulfillment of the promises of God, how well are you doing in the great test of life? If we will but be patient, and wait on the return of the Lord, He promises that the wait will have been well worth it.
The church of Christ invites you to study and worship with us as we wait upon the promises of the Lord. We meet at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. If you have any questions or comments, please share them with us.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.