When Christians Face the “Marshmallow Test”

This is a picture of 3 marshmallows on a plate to represent the marshmallow test.

In the 1970’s, Stanford University conducted a research project involving four-year-old children, marshmallows, and the idea of delayed gratification. The results of the experiment were later shown to be indicators of how successful those same individuals would be when they grew up. Recently it occurred to me that God has His own version of the “marshmallow test.” It’s a special test of faith that can lead us closer to Him or take us further away. How should we react when God seems to remove Himself, but the comforts of the world are still right there in front of us? We must settle it within ourselves not to eat the marshmallow.

The Original “Marshmallow Test”

Camera on, an adult would offer a deal. The child could have one marshmallow in that moment, but if the child could wait without eating it until the adult returned from a supposed errand, the child could have two. One marshmallow now or two in the future. The adult would then leave for 15 minutes while the camera kept rolling. Keep in mind that 15 minutes to a four year old is the equivalent of about two hours to the average adult.

The results were both funny and heart-wrenching at the same time. (Here’s just one two minute video of the hundreds available on YouTube.) Some kids would eat the marshmallow before the adult even left the room. Some would pick it up, smell it, squeeze it, lick it, and even pinch tiny pieces from the edges before slamming it back down onto the plate in frustration. A few wouldn’t even look at the marshmallow at all. Many were strong for a while but caved when the minutes passed with no evidence that the adult would return with the promised reward. Some simply burst into tears.

The study revealed that two out of every three kids couldn’t delay gratification while one in three could. Those who waited, according to further research, did better with their education and had a lower BMI (Body Mass Index). Since the first study, the “marshmallow test” has been replicated around the world with similar results. Those kids who had willpower with the marshmallow grew up to extend that same self-discipline in life, thereby becoming more successful.

One Additional Element: Reliability of the Rewarder

But in 2012, a scientist had another idea. What if the adult who made the promise of an additional reward was, through a series of events, proven “trustworthy” or not? In an experiment of 14 children with “reliable” rewarders, almost two out of three waited for the second marshmallow instead of one out of three. On the other hand, for the kids who had been shown that the adult could not be trusted, only one out of the 14 kids waited for the adult to return. In fact, kids who felt they could trust the adult to reward them as promised waited four times longer than those who didn’t have that same faith. (Read more about the study here.)

God’s “Marshmallow Test”

“Knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”

James 1:3-4

Let’s face it. For Christians, delayed gratification is the name of the game. We forgo the pleasures of sin and self-seeking in this world to reap the bountiful rewards of an eternity with our Lord. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 says, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

Usually, though, God is right there with us comforting us and helping us along the way. John 14:26 says, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” He manifests Himself to us (John 14:21) by speaking to us through His still small voice, illuminating scripture to our understanding, and leading us and guiding us.

But what happens when God “leaves the room,” so to speak? We can’t hear Him, our prayers seem to bump the ceiling, and for days upon end, we grope for Him (Acts 17:26) but cannot find Him. That’s when the enemy shows up with his megaphone. He reminds us that we have a need for comfort that isn’t being met now, and he has just the solution. Maybe it’s a sin or a temptation we have come out of. Maybe it’s anger or self-pity he offers. Whatever the case, we can start to feel like those kids with the marshmallows. One now or two later. It’s up to us.

My Own “Marshmallow Test”

For three years now, God has given me a blog topic every week or so with only a few exceptions. Each week I pray and pray and then listen until I hear from Him. I even have my two best friend sisters in Christ praying too. As soon as I get the blog topic, I keep praying until I have an outline. As soon as I have a rough, I pray until I have peace about publication. It’s a process that has become both familiar and important in my life and relationship with God.

But for the past two weeks, I haven’t heard a thing from God for my blog or anything else — unless you count the nudge to add more to the offering plate than I had planned. Days slipped by one after another after another with nothing. All I had was pressure inside with no release. I needed interaction with God, that praying and hearing, but it hadn’t been met. Why wasn’t He answering? Did I do something wrong? Was Jesus mad at me? Finally, after almost two full weeks of not hearing from God even in my prayer time or Bible reading, I finally felt another nudge: fast tomorrow. (Insert facepalm here.)

I usually fast until five o’clock, and close to the end of that day the devil was getting LOUD with lies in my ear. “God doesn’t care about you. The only time He talks to you is when He wants to take something away from you. Poor you. How about you go get a nice dessert after dinner? That will make you feel better, right?” See, sugar is my drug of choice, especially after dinner. God has dealt with me in the past about using it as an idol of comfort. It’s an old battle that God has helped me to win, but the devil was waving it in my face again. If I have ever wondered what I would do in the “marshmallow test,” I got my answer this week. I simply cried. But I didn’t eat the marshmallow.

Don’t Eat the Marshmallow

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”

Hebrews 10:23

Sometimes God might remove Himself from us for a season to test our faith. Then we are left by ourselves with all the pleasures and temptations of the world right in front of us. We only have God’s promises from the Bible and His past record of faithfulness to keep us in check. But even when we can’t feel Him and He doesn’t seem to be listening, we can’t turn to the world for comfort or to get our needs met. God is the ultimate in reliability and the most trustworthy of all. He has promised to reward us if we can wait for Him in His timing, and He has shown us time and again that He will never let us down. Though “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7), our faith gets stronger each time we make the choice to trust Him. We just can’t eat the marshmallow.

Do you like analogies? Try reading Staying Connected to God: Oxygen Mask Analogy, an article about focus during a crisis. Or, try Born Again: All About That Butterfly Life. It uses the analogy of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly to explain our born-again experience. Or, Check out my YouTube Channel where I will read all my posts to you while you do something else.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.