Yesterday I was rolling down the road and listening to NPR, because apparently I’m 62 and have an affection for endangered spotted owls. They were doing a feature story on the infamous “Marshmallow Test” conducted by Stanford researcher Walter Mischel in the late 1960s.
You may not be familiar with the Marshmallow Test if you’ve never heard J.D. Greear preach. That’s his third favorite illustration to use in a sermon (just behind Dee the Waffle House waitress and anything having to do with Narnia, and just ahead of David the psychotic but obedient 12 year old soccer player). Basically, the Marshmallow test took a bunch of preschoolers, put them in a room one at a time, and plunked a single marshmallow on the table in front of them. Those who were patient (“The Marshmallow Waiters”) were able to eat two marshmallows. But those who were impatient (“The Marshmallow Grabbers”) got just a single marshmallow, plus a lifetime of being labeled as a negative example in an illustration.
But here’s the kicker: the study ended up expanding over the next 40 years, tracking these subjects through high school, college, and adulthood. The Marshmallow Waiters typically had higher grades, better SAT scores, and lasting relationships. The Marshmallow Grabbers were typically more dysfunctional, had higher behavioral problems, and followed Kim Kardashian on Twitter.
The NPR commentator then made this statement: “It would appear that self-control is hardwired, and that even by the age of four in a test as simple and insignificant as marshmallows, we can already tell the lifestyle that child will lead.”
So it seems. Or does it? Yes, I believe that there are behavior patterns in childhood that can serve as a predictor for later life. I believe that there are lots of times I see four-year-old-Danny resurfacing in 39-year-old-Danny. But Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that self-control is a fruit that grows. It’s not a fruit that we plant, cultivate or grow, but it’s a fruit that’s borne by the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.
I don’t have innate self-control. But the Spirit within me makes it available.
I’m not a naturally patient person. But yielding to the Spirit can produce that patience.
There are days when I’m just not joyful. But there is a Helper that brings joy from a deeper source.
My name is Danny, and I’m a Marshmallow Grabber. You probably are, too. But that’s our old nature. That’s who we were. For the Christ follower, we’ve been given the gift of the Spirit, and the Spirit gives us the gift of self-control.
And kindness, and goodness, and faithfulness.
It’s not up to us.
It’s already been accomplished by Him.
You are not who you were.
[Bonus video: check out the updated version of the Marshmallow Test.]