February 21, 2021
I've been thinking quite a bit lately about delayed gratification.
Perhaps it's the five-day fast I'm currently embarked upon, and my anticipation of a giant ribeye steak at the end of the whole thing.
Perhaps it's the fact I'm reading through a section of the Bible—namely the Gospel of Luke—that is jam-packed with parables of delayed gratification.
It's probably a bit of both.
Either way, it's a topic worth treating in today's article, since delayed gratification has implications for everything from your health to your wealth to your happiness to the prospect of your eternal life. So, it's important for you to be aware of the importance of “the marshmallow test” and how it applies to crucial elements of your existence.
The Marshmallow Test
In human psychology, “deferred” or “delayed gratification” is defined as “the ability to wait patiently for something one wants or needs.” It is generally acknowledged within the field of psychology that success in many areas of life demands the mental capacity and fortitude to delay something you may want in the moment, such as a bag of potato chips beckoning you from the pantry, driving straight home from work to collapse on the couch instead of stopping to visit the gym on the way, or resisting the urge to hit the snooze button on the alarm clock.
You are no doubt are familiar with the physical rewards of delayed gratification if you've ever, say, resisted the circadian drive to eat breakfast while sitting to read email and news and instead undertaken a morning fasted exercise protocol for the purposes of weight management, or taken a cold shower while resisting the constant temptation to turn the water to warm so that you can train your cellular and nervous system resilience. Compared to someone who wakes up, smells bacon, and eats it; or gets in the shower, grits their teeth at the cold, and immediately turns the handle to warm, you are likely going to have better body composition and better stress management fortitude.
You are no doubt also familiar with the marshmallow test experiment, also known as the Stanford marshmallow experiment.
The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a 1972 study on delayed gratification. In this study, about 650 four-year-old children were offered a choice between one small but immediate reward, or double the amount of that reward if they opted to wait for a period of time to receive their reward. During this time, the researcher left the room for about 15 minutes and then returned. The reward was either a marshmallow or pretzel stick (though nobody ever describes it as the Stanford pretzel experiment, for some reason), depending on the child's preference. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for their reward for the sake of a greater long-term reward tended to have better life outcomes, specifically as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures, such as preparation or dealing with anxiety.
The majority of the kids lasted less than 3 minutes on average. However, about 30% waited for 15 minutes for the adult to return, who would then reward them with a second marshmallow. Based on the video camera the experimenters left in the room, all the kids appeared to wrestle with temptation but a few found a way to resist— even by covering their eyes so they couldn't see the treat, or by endlessly fidgeting in their chair.
I'd be remiss not to note that a replication attempt with a sample from a more diverse population, over 10 times larger than the original study, showed only half the effect of the original study. This replication suggested that economic background, rather than willpower, explained the other half. So yes, there may have been a few experimental errors in the study, but ultimately, it illustrates something that seems to be a built-in part of our existence…
…namely that delaying short-term pleasure can create a long-term reward that exceeds the reward of engaging in immediate gratification.
Delayed Gratification In The Bible
As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, I've been weaving through the Gospels with my family. Specifically, we are following a 260-day Bible reading and memorization plan called “Foundations: New Testament” from the YouBible app. (Incidentally, I'm personally using the Word On Fire version of the Gospels, which I now—based on the epic illustrations, essays, and quotes spread throughout—consider to be my favorite Bible of all time and highly recommend you get if you want to enhance your Scripture experience.)
Lately, I've been struck by the magnitude of delayed gratification examples in Jesus's parables. It appears to be an essential part of an enlightened Christian existence and eternal happiness to set aside short-term pleasures for long-term gains.
For example, in Luke 16:19-31, there is a story of a rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus was in a state of almost no gratification at all. At that very gate, dogs came and licked his sores. So, it was that around the same time the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom, the rich man also died and was buried. Being in torment in Hades, the rich man lifted up his eyes and saw the saint Abraham afar off, and Lazarus resting happily in his bosom.
Then the rich man cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’
Then the rich man said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him (meaning Lazarus) to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’
Just imagine how that rich man felt. If only he had set aside some of his temporary pleasures in life, passed up a few marshmallows, and perhaps spread the wealth just a bit more to beggars like Lazarus. Now, he was stuck with eternal torment, traded for the relative short-term pleasure of a richly celebrated life on earth.
Next, in the very same book of Gospel, comes Luke 17:22-30, in which Jesus says to his disciples:
“The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ Do not go after them or follow them. For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day. But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”
Once again, you can see that eating, drinking, and immersing oneself in all the temporary pleasures this earth has to offer—compared to following God's law and loving one's neighbor as oneself—results in eventual destruction and a state of eternal displeasure.
In Luke 18:18-23, you can find the well-known story of the rich young ruler. It goes like this:
“Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?'
So Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ‘
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.”
The rich man also had a difficult time wrapping his head around the concept of a treasure laid up in heaven waiting for him, should he opt to forego the temporary pleasure and instant gratification life here on earth has to offer.
Perhaps one of the most compelling tales of delayed gratification can be found not in the Gospel of Luke, but way back in Genesis 25:29-34, which tells the story of how Esau lost his birthright.
“Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.' Therefore his name was called Edom.
But Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright as of this day.'
And Esau said, ‘Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?'
Then Jacob said, ‘Swear to me as of this day.'
So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
Esau chose instant gratification and he paid for it dearly by trading all the allowances, heritage, and inheritances that were traditionally passed on to the firstborn son, along with the inheritance of God’s eternal promise to Abraham to make him a great nation, bless all those who blessed him and curse all those who cursed him.
All for a marshmallow. A pretzel stick. A simple bowl of stew. Money. Purple linen clothes. Food. Drink. Planting. Building. Playing.
Now don't get me wrong: God doesn't mind us enjoying nice things. Heck, as my friend Ray Edwards writes in his new book Permission to Prosper: How to be Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, God promises to bless us and does indeed bless us with money, clothing, houses, cars, honey, milk, fat, wine, meat (as I write about here), and all manner of fluffy, sweet marshmallows. But, if you've ever in your life heard a sermon about wealth before, then you know how the saying goes…
…God doesn't mind people owning nice things, he enjoys nice things owning people.
So, allow me to ask you this…
…When was the last time you fasted not as an exercise of righteous self-denial or some kind of selfish anti-aging tactic, but as an exercise to delay gratification, bless others with a bit of extra food, money, or time, and pass up a marshmallow now for a reward in heaven later?
When was the last time you skipped dinner to free up an extra hour to go serve the homeless, and perhaps drop dinner off at the soup kitchen on your way?
When was the last time you pulled a big ol' ribeye steak from your freezer and a nice bottle of wine from the pantry, walked past your dinner table, put it into a padded cooler, and sauntered it down to your neighbor's mailbox instead?
When was the last time you took the same mental resilience, fortitude, and ability to engage in delayed gratification that you've used for so many years to “eat the frog,” do the hardest task of the day first, squeeze in a morning workout or meditation session prior to jumping into e-mails, etc., and applied that same ability to simply forego a few pleasures to free up money, time, or resources to help others?
Ultimately, most people could do a better job striking a balance between enjoying and savoring the beauty of God's creation and self-denial or delayed gratification specifically for the purpose of helping and blessing others, and not necessarily for the purpose of self-improvement or self-growth.
Think about it this way: If a giant, booming trumpet sound were to emanate from somewhere up in the sky today, and the resounding voice of Jesus were to reverberate throughout the universe saying…
…”I'm back! What have you been up to during my time away?”
…would you be caught with your proverbial pants down? Would you be hunched over a steak stuffing your face, perhaps gathered with others sipping cocktails at a dinner party, or driving home from yet another movie outing, or out shopping for more shoes at the mall?
…would you glance with guilt at your calendar and to-do list where you keep writing down your plans to help the homeless, or go serve in a soup kitchen, or donate time to a local pregnancy counseling center, realizing that you had a noble intention to get around to doing these things for months or even years on end, but by the time you got to the end of a busy day, there just wasn't enough time left (especially after you catch-up on making dinner and settling down in front of your must-see Netflix series?).
…would you be able to raise your hand as one who had actually passed God's great marshmallow test?
Consider the words of Keith Green in his moving song The Sheep & The Goats, written and performed the very year I was born (1981). I still listen to it regularly to this day, and am deeply convicted every time I do:
“And when the son man comes, and all the holy angels with him,
Then shall he sit on his glorious throne,
And he will divide the nations before him, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
And she shall put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left,
And he shall say to the sheep come ye, blessed of my father,
Inherit the kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world,
For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink,
I was naked, and you clothed me,
I was a stranger, and you invited me in,
I was sick, and I was in prison, and you came to me.
Thank you! enter into your rest.
And they shall answer him, yes, they shall answer him,
And they'll say, lord, when?
When were you hungry lord, and we gave you something to eat?
Lord, when were you thirsty? I can't remember.
And we gave you drink?
Huh, when were you naked lord, and we clothed you?
And lord, when were you a stranger and we invited you in?
I mean, we invited lots of people in lord. I could never forget that face.
And lord, when were you sick and we visited you?
Or in prison, and we came to you? lord, tell us?
In as much as you did it to the least of my brethren, you've done it unto me.
Oh yes, as much as you've done it to the very least of my brethren, you've done it,
You've done it unto me. enter into your rest.
Then he shall turn to those on his left, the goats.
Depart from me, you cursed ones, into everlasting fire,
Prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat,
I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was naked, out in the cold, in exposure, and you sent me away,
I was a stranger, and I knocked at your door,
But you didn't open, you told me to go away,
I was sick, racked in pain upon my bed,
And I begged, and prayed, and pleaded that you'd come, but you didn't,
I was in prison, and I rotted there,
I'd prayed that you'd come.
I heard your programs on the radio, I read your magazines, but you never came.
Depart from me!
Lord, there must be some mistake, when?
Lord, I mean, when were you hungry lord and we didn't give you something to eat?
And lord, when were you thirsty, and we didn't give you drink?
I mean, that's not fair, well, would you like something now?
Would one of the angels like to go out and get the lord a hamburger and a coke?
Oh, you're not hungry, yeah, I lost my appetite too.
Uh lord uh, lord, when were you naked,
I mean lord, that's not fair either lord,
We didn't know what size you wear.
Oh lord, when were you a stranger lord,
You weren't one of those creepy people who used to come to the door, were you?
Oh lord, that wasn't our ministry lord. we just didn't feel led, you know?
Lord, when were you sick? what did you have, anyway?
Well, at least it wasn't fatal, oh, it was?
I'm sorry lord, I would have sent you a card.
Lord, just on last thing we want to know,
When were you in prison lord? what were you in for anyway?
I had a friend in levenworth
In as much as you've not done it unto the least of my brethren,
You've not done it unto me.
In as much as you've not done it unto the least of my brethren,
You've not done it unto me. depart from me.
And these shall go away into everlasting fire.
But the righteous into eternal life!
And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats,
According to this scripture,
Is what they did, and didn't do!”
How about you?
What did you do?
What didn't you do?
What pleasures are you foregoing, or at least moderating now, for eternal glory later, and perhaps more importantly, to spread more widely the blessings you've been blessed with?
Just remember: When you die or when you lay on your deathbed, your cellar of wine, steak locker full of meat, garage full of cars, three extra fancy bicycles, and oodles of fancy extra shoes won't be impressive to God in the least—and are certainly unlikely to be redistributed to the poor, needy, and homeless. So, take care of that now instead.
And if you need a bit of extra help developing your own marshmallow test and delayed gratification skills, I can recommend nothing more powerful than a daily practice of service and self-examination (see the Spiritual Disciplines Journal if you want a way to easily systematize that into your life) and also regularly fasting— fasting from food, fasting from booze, fasting from entertainment, fasting from fancy outings, or fasting from anything else that has become an imbalance staple in your life—to remind you of the needs of others, and to take some of those extra things you're fasting from and spread them around to others. For that, my favorite recent book of late that highlights this specific importance of fasting is A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer, by John Piper.
How about you? How do you help others? What keys can you share with other readers here that have enabled you to engage in delayed gratification and service to others? Leave your thoughts, comments, and questions below. I read them all.