The value of leaving the marshmallows alone

MarshmallowsThe ability to wait well is a test of maturity.  Do you have the ability to endure delayed gratification?  

Daniel Goleman has written a highly influential book in which he argues that effectiveness in life is based not nearly so much on cognitive intelligence as on what might be called “emotional intelligence.”  This is what can cause people with high IQs to end up in failed marriages or frustrating vocations.  At the heart of emotional intelligence is the ability to delay gratification and not live at the mercy of impulse.

The most celebrated example of this phenomenon is what has come to be called the “marshmallow test.”  A four-year-old is in a room with some marshmallows and told that the experimenter has to run an errand.  If the four-year-old can wait till the experimenter returns, he can have two marshmallows.  If he wants to eat right now, he can-but he only gets one.  This will try the soul of any four-year-old-“a microcosm of the eternal battle between impulse and restraint, id and ego, desire and control, gratification and delay.”

Kids would develop all kinds of strategies to enable them to wait-sing songs, tell themselves stories, play with their fingers.  One kid actually bent down and began to lick the table, as if the flavor had perhaps transmogrified into the wood.  What is most amazing is the impact this one character trait displayed at the age of four had on the lives of those who were part of the experiment. 

A Stanford University research team tracked these children for many years.  Those who were able to wait as four-year-olds grew up to be:

  • more socially competent, better able to cope with stress, and less likely to give up under pressure than those who could not wait.  

The marshmallow grabbers grew up to be:

  • more stubborn and indecisive, more easily upset by frustration, and more resentful about not getting enough.  

Most amazingly, the group of marshmallow-waiters had SAT scores that averaged 210 points higher than the group of marshmallow grabbers!

Moreover, all those years later, the marshmallow grabbers still were unable to put off gratification.  And studies have shown that poor impulse control is much more likely to be associated with delinquency, substance abuse, and divorce.  No wonder Goleman, in summarizing all of this, calls the ability to wait well “the master aptitude.”

The inability to control impulses, the refusal to live in patient waiting and trust, lies close to the heart of human fallenness.  Life has been that way since Adam and Eve took a bite from the forbidden marshmallow.

While we wait for God to set everything right, we suffer.  But suffering produces endurance; endurance character; and character, hope.  God is producing those qualities in us as we wait.  Waiting is not just something we have to do while we get what we want.  It is part of the process of becoming what God wants us to be.     

Waiting is not a passive waiting around for something to happen that will allow you to escape your trouble.  People sometimes say, “I’m just waiting on the Lord,” as an excuse not to face up to reality, own up to their responsibility, or take appropriate action. For example, if you have horrible financial spending habits then say, “We’re waiting for the Lord to provide.” you’d fit into the theological category of “Don’t be stupid!” Learn biblical principles for a life of good stewardship. Biblical waiting is not passive; it is not a way to evade unpleasant reality.

Waiting on the Lord is a confident, disciplined, expectant, active and sometimes painful clinging to God.

Waiting on the Lord is the continual, daily decision to say, “I will trust you, and I will obey you.  Even though the circumstances of my life are not turning out the way I want them to, and may never turn out the way I would choose, I am betting everything on you.  I have no Plan B.

From “Learning to Wait”  by John Ortberg

“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion.  For the Lord is a God of justice.  Blessed are all who wait for him.”  ( Isaiah 30: 18 )

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