In the 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel conducted a series of psychological studies on children around the ages of four and five. In one experiment (published in 1972 as “The Marshmellow Experiment”) children were taken to a room and sat down on a chair. One marshmallow was placed on the table in front of each child. The researcher then made a deal with the child. The researcher would leave the room and if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child ate the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second one.
The choice was simple—one treat now or two treats later. The footage of the children waiting alone in the room was entertaining. Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation a few minutes later. And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time.
Follow-up studies have found that a child’s ability to exercise self-control is directly connected with several positive outcomes later in life, such as academic success, a thriving marriage, physical health, etc. The children who were willing to delay gratification ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.
Deferred pleasure means resisting the temptation of an immediate reward, in anticipation that there will be a greater one later. When it comes to achieving goals, deferred pleasure is a skill that will get you there faster. According to Sigmund Freud’s “pleasure principle,” humans are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In some respects, the Bible agrees with Freud. Fallen humans, unaided by God, are enslaved to their natural inclincations (Rom 7:14-20; 8:6-8).
There is a character in the Bible named Esau who illustrates this principle very well. The author of Hebrews says, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God…that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb 12:15-17). Esau was willing to give up so much (birthright) in exchange for so little (a bowl of lentil soup). This Sabbath, I’ll be preaching about Esau. We will learn together the benefits of longterm thinking and the power that is available to us in Jesus to resist temptation.