The little boy had an interesting choice. He’d been given a marshmallow, a sweet treat he really enjoyed. Then he was told that he could eat it right away or, if he would refrain from eating it, he would be given an extra one to eat. To receive a second marshmallow, all he had to do was wait a few minutes. What choice would he make? What choice would you make?
As preposterous as it may sound, some aspects of life are like marshmallow tests. The longer we wait, the better our reward. While delaying personal gratification can be beneficial in many ways, let me illustrate two areas that have special significance for young people.
One of the first real-life marshmallow tests comes when we start maturing and notice the opposite sex. As we enter puberty, the time when our bodies become capable of reproducing, it seems as though a traffic light that used to be red has suddenly turned green. The opposite sex, whom we used to consider irrelevant, now suddenly becomes immensely attractive.
The hormones activated by the onslaught of puberty hit our brains full force. Some of us are described as suddenly becoming boy-crazy or girl-crazy. It is a time of great excitement as we discover that we are sexual beings with a natural attraction to the opposite sex. Along with the excitement, we encounter raging emotions over our attractiveness or lack thereof. Some of us lose much valuable time worrying whether he or she “loves me or loves me not.”
It is a wondrous time. As Agur said, “There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yes, four which I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a virgin” (Proverbs 30:18-19 Proverbs 30:18-19 18 There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yes, four which I know not:
19 The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent on a rock; the way of a ship in the middle of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
American King James Version×).
Marshmallows and sex
So, “Where is the marshmallow test?” you ask. The test comes in delaying sexual intercourse until marriage. You see, sex is good. God Himself made us sexual beings with a natural attraction to the opposite sex. After creating us male and female, God described His entire creation as being “very good” (Genesis 1:27 Genesis 1:27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
American King James Version×, 31). He says that sex between a husband and wife is “honorable” (Hebrews 13:4 Hebrews 13:4Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.
American King James Version×). But God also says that we shouldn’t commit fornication—that is, have sex prior to marriage (1 Corinthians 6:18 1 Corinthians 6:18Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is without the body; but he that commits fornication sins against his own body.
American King James Version×).
Avoiding fornication is a clear case of delayed gratification. Even though sex is good, God expects us to wait until we are married to experience this joy. It is simply a matter of timing. As King Solomon wrote, “To everything there is a season… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:1 Ecclesiastes 3:1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
American King James Version×, 5).
Unfortunately, many young people today enjoy sexual relations prior to marriage—they eat their marshmallow now instead of waiting. Given the not-so-subtle messages from modern media and entertainment, some young people don’t realize there is a better choice. Those who practice fornication unfortunately choose the pleasure of the moment over the better rewards that could have been theirs later, if they had only waited.
Rewards for avoiding fornication
And what are the rewards of waiting to have sex until you are married? There are at least three. First, you will be obeying God—a course of action that is always the best choice because God rewards such behavior (Proverbs 13:13 Proverbs 13:13Whoever despises the word shall be destroyed: but he that fears the commandment shall be rewarded.
American King James Version×). God knows everything that we do and as Job acknowledged, God “repays man according to his work, and makes man to find a reward according to his way” (Job 34:11 Job 34:11For the work of a man shall he render to him, and cause every man to find according to his ways.
American King James Version×). Of course, if we sin, we can repent (stop sinning) and God respects this, too (Luke 15:7 Luke 15:7I say to you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
American King James Version×; James 4:8-10 James 4:8-10 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded. 9 Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.
American King James Version×).
The next two rewards for avoiding fornication are physical rewards documented by research. Sociologists report that those who wait to have sex until they are married are more likely to have marriages that last. God intended sexual relations to be a special bond between a husband and wife, and when two people save themselves as virgins for each other, they have demonstrated character and respect for their future mate and for the institution of marriage that will add to the stability of their marriage.
In addition to the likelihood of a long-lasting marriage, those who maintain their virginity until married avoid the more than 25 sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) plaguing our modern societies. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “In the United States, more than 65 million people are currently living with an incurable sexually transmitted disease (STD). An additional 15 million people become infected with one or more STDs each year, roughly half of whom contract life-long infections.”
It is also sad that “the latest estimates indicate that there are 15 million new STD cases in the United States each year” and “approximately one-fourth of these new infections are in teenagers.” To get an idea of the scope of this problem, we must understand that one of four women and one of five men in the United States have herpes—the most common of the more than 25 STDs (http://www.cdc.gov/nchstp/dstd/Stats_Trends/Trends2000.pdf ).
Waiting to have sex until we are married is definitely a marshmallow test. Those who wait reap a reward. If you would like to read more about God’s views on dating and sex, read the article, “Sex, Dating and You!” by Tom Clark which previously appeared in Youth United .
Marshmallows and money
Delayed gratification is also an important factor in money management. Understanding how the marshmallow test applies in the financial world is pretty easy once we learn how interest works. Let’s assume that you are in your first year in college and you’ve received your first credit card (since many lenders target credit cards to young people once they are enrolled in college). You decide that you want to buy a Sony Walkman which costs about $100 to listen to your favorite CDs. As for money, you don’t have any right now, but you plan on getting a part-time job next month to earn some spending money.
Now you must make a decision. Will you buy the CD player with your credit card with an interest rate of 18 percent per year or will you wait until you have saved up your money? If you are willing to wait until you have the cash in hand, you’ll be further ahead financially. Here’s the difference: if you put the CD player on your credit card and only make minimal payments (something that will likely happen, especially if you don’t get the job you are hoping to land), you’ll pay for the CD player plus interest that could amount to an additional $20 or more, depending on how long you take to pay. In other words, if you waited until you had the same amount of cash in hand, you could buy the CD player plus a couple of new CDs.
The same principle of receiving greater reward for delayed gratification holds true for cars, appliances, food, etc.—anything we buy on credit. Waiting until we can afford to pay cash means we are further ahead financially. While the example of purchasing a Walkman only amounts to the difference of a couple of CDs, over the course of a lifetime, all these small amounts paid as interest can make a sizable impact on your financial standing.
Again, those who wait are rewarded for doing so. For more information on money management, read the article, “Don’t Leave Home Without It” by Gary Smith, that previously appeared in Youth United and our free booklet, Managing Your Finances .
Now about that marshmallow test
The marshmallow test described at the beginning of this article was an actual research study conducted on 4-year-olds by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the 1960s. The results of those tests on 4-year-olds showed that those who were able to wait for the second marshmallow, were in later life “more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life… And, more than a decade later, they were still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals” ( Emotional Intelligence , by Daniel Goleman, pp. 81-82).
Those who didn’t wait for the second marshmallow were by adolescence more likely “to be stubborn and indecisive; to be easily upset by frustrations…immobilized by stress…prone to jealousy and envy; to overreact to irritations with a sharp temper, so provoking arguments and fights. And, after all those years, they still were unable to put off gratification” (ibid., p. 82).
Having the character to resist a desire on the basis of principle or for greater reward is something we can develop at any age, and it always pays. It is true with God and it is true with life. Will you pass the marshmallow test? If you’d like to learn more about how to live in order to receive God’s greatest blessings, read our free booklet, Making Life Work . YU