The Marshmallow Test

Delayed Gratification and the Christian Life

Three marshmallows stacked and isolated on black.In the 1960’s Stanford University began testing the ability of children to delay gratification when faced with an immediate, yummy reward. For obvious reasons, this has become known as “the marshmallow test.” In follow-up studies researchers found that those children who were able to wait for something better than the treat in front of them (approximately 33%) had better life outcomes overall. Adam and Eve would have eaten the marshmallow.

I’ve just been reading Psalm 63" href="" target="_blank">Psalm 63 which concerns satisfaction. The temptation to slake our thirst (for love, money, power, peace, affirmation… fill in the blank) with worldly pleasures is near-constant. David’s desert life became a metaphor for his desire as he lay awake through the night, consumed with longing. But he struggled to follow God even when that path led away from fulfillment of his immediate craving. He did not spell out his particular desire on that occasion, but we can infer that justification or even vengeance would be among the choices. While retribution might have been temporarily satisfying (the marshmallow on the table), he sought his satisfaction in the Lord, waiting for vindication from God in God’s time (the better but unseen reward ahead). In the meantime, he pursued the Lord, claiming God’s love as a better prize than even life itself.

Being Christians necessarily means delaying our gratification as David did. We do not get to do all the selfish things the world prescribes for our happiness rather than our good. Many times I’ve heard those in the throes of passion cry, “But God will forgive me later!” I don’t think that’s true. If our faith is real, we cannot utterly lose our standing in Christ, but Scripture teaches there will be a reckoning of deep regret for those who gobble down the world’s delights (see 1 Cor. 3:12-15 and 2 John 8" href="" target="_blank">2 John 8).

For those marshmallow test participants who waited, there was a better outcome – not only in the test itself but also in life – and so it is with us. But waiting is hard. God’s love, while sweet and real, can be disconcertingly distant. At its present best, it is a small foretaste of a reward we must largely imagine. The marshmallow on the table is unnervingly accessible. Like those young test participants, we may sometimes need to put our faith in the promises of an authority figure who seems to have left the room.

We believe that obeying Christ and trusting Him when life is particularly hard carries a multiplicity of rewards a hundred years from now, the greatest of which will be to experience the love of God, our Satisfaction, in person. Amy Carmichael, missionary to India in the early twentieth century, creatively expressed this truth from Psalm 63:

If the shadow of Thy wings
Be so full of song,
What must be the lighted place
Where Thy bird can see Thy face?
Lord, my Might and Melody,
I will sing to Thee.


Application Questions:

  1. What is the marshmallow in front of you right now?
  1. What keeps you following Christ when that forbidden fruit looks particularly delicious?

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