Marshmallows and Temptations

At Stanford University in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, a psychology professor named Walter Mischel designed a test to explore the nature of temptation in the human mind. Many of you may have heard of or seen this before, but Mischel’s series of experiments have become known simply as “The Marshmallow experiment.” It’s a very simple concept: a plate with a marshmallow on it is placed in front of a child, and an adult tells them, “you can eat this now, or you can wait until I come back, and I’ll give you a second marshmallow.”

Of course, children don’t realize that they’re being filmed, so their actions are quite telling. You can find plenty of videos of this test being done, but the following is particularly funny:

It’s definitely adorable to see how kids react in this situation (especially the little brother and sister’s conversation), but I think there’s also some things we can take from this to understand our own interaction with temptations. In particular, there are two distinct thoughts about temptation I want to share.

  1. Temptation begins with the smallest step. We lie to ourselves and think, “Maybe if I just got a taste, then I’d be satisfied.” Notice how many of the children in the video stare at their marshmallow intently, pick it up, and either take just the smallest nibble or even just lick it. They just want the smallest indulgence, thinking that it will satisfy. Of course, as we all know, taking just a taste doesn’t really satisfy, it only increases the craving.

It reminds me of the old Lay’s potato chip commercials taunted us with the phrase “bet you can’t eat just one!” Of course you can’t. That first taste only makes you want another, and another, and before you know it the whole bag is gone. We do the same thing with sins. We think to ourselves, “Only one time can’t hurt, right?” But then that one time opens the floodgates, and things go downhill quickly.

  1. Temptation is tougher when we think no one is watching. I think this might be my favorite part of this video. I love how often these kids are clearly dealing with the temptation to eat their marshmallow, and they crane their necks to look at the door. You can see the thoughts in their minds: “Hmm…I wonder if she’s about to come back, or will I not be found out if I go ahead and eat this thing?”

I know we do the same thing in our own temptations. Something that would not be an issue at all if we were in public suddenly becomes this looming temptation when we’re alone. Sin likes to work in the darkness, and the best way to expose it is to put it to light. When our struggles become public, when we have accountability, when we know someone else will know, it becomes a little bit easier to avoid that temptation.

We all struggle with the temptation to sin. But there’s hope. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor 10:13). You’re not the only one going through it. And there will always be a way out. And when we do fall, when we do mess up, there is forgiveness and grace. Our Savior lived the human life. He was tempted in every way we are. He is sympathetic to our situation, and his mercy and grace are boundless.

Sin is sin because it’s bad for us. It goes against God’s perfect design for our lives. Giving in to sin is like eating the first marshmallow because it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s convenient. But if we stay strong, if we endure through the temptation, something much greater awaits. Jesus said that he came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. Abundant, full life is life without sin. Let us patiently endure and wait for that instead. I can promise you this: it’s better than a couple of marshmallows.

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