Marshmallows, Advent, and Waiting for the Best
I don’t really like marshmallows. Never have.
Maybe it’s a texture thing. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been the type to want more of the main course than the dessert. Maybe it’s because I had to play the game Chubby Bunny too many times growing up in a church youth group setting.
It’s for that reason that I don’t really get the “Marshmallow Test.”
This was a test performed by scientists at Stanford in the 60s and 70s. The idea was simple. Gather some children, put them in a room with one marshmallow, tell them that if they can wait 15 minutes they can have two marshmallows instead of only one, and then leave the room and see what happens.
The point, apparently, was to test the child’s ability to “delay gratification.” What they found was that only a few of the children ate the marshmallow immediately, but that most caved eventually. In fact, only about one-third of the children could hold out long enough to receive a second marshmallow. Interestingly enough, scientists found through longitudinal studies that these children actually performed better in life in almost all measurable areas. This has led some to determine that the greatest predictor of success is the ability to delay gratification.
That’s interesting I guess.
But maybe more interesting are the strategies the children used to avoid eating the marshmallow. Some kicked the table, some touched it, some even gave it a name and treated it like a pet. Which is … weird. But effective I guess. Hard to eat a beloved pet.
Far and away, however, the most significant avoidance strategy was simply to not look at the marshmallow. To pretend it wasn’t there.
So when faced with the “temptation” of something “good,” one could argue our go-to strategy is to pretend that the thing “tempting” us doesn’t exist. To not look at it. To distract ourselves.
To just look the other way.
Here’s my problem: what if you don’t like marshmallows? If I don’t like this thing that is on my plate, why would I want two things that I don’t like on my plate? It’s easy to delay gratification when there is no gratification available in the first place.
In truth, the experiment actually allowed the children to choose between an Oreo cookie, a pretzel stick, OR a marshmallow. But that’s not what the experiment came to be known as. It’s not “The Marshmallow, Oreo, Pretzel Stick Test;” it’s “The Marshmallow Test.” I would’ve been an Oreo guy myself. Put that and glass of milk out and we might have some problems. Gratification? Yes. Delayed? Not likely.
Maybe I’m just devious, but I also wonder how the kids would have reacted if they had waited the allotted time and been given something different than what had been promised. How would they have reacted? Would the experiment have crumbled in their tiny hands as they crushed whatever treat it was they got but didn’t want and promised revenge upon the scientists and all their sons and daughters until the end of their days and the sun’s light shone down upon the green earth nevermore? Or maybe they would have just eaten the marshmallow even though they wanted an Oreo.
Maybe you’ve been there.
I did the time. I said the prayers. I attended the services. I waited.
But I didn’t get want I wanted.
Now I’m not talking about waiting for something good and receiving something bad. Jesus talked about that. God doesn’t give us live snakes when we ask for grilled fish.
But sometimes it does feel like God gives us marshmallows when we ask for Oreos.
Which can sometimes feel worse. Some of you know what I mean. Half-answered prayers are sometimes worse than no answers at all.
Advent is the season of waiting, so they say. Waiting for the Messiah king to come. Waiting for God to show up. Many of those who were waiting on Jesus ended up getting something different than what they thought they were going to get. They asked for an Oreo and got a marshmallow. They asked for a warrior king and got a wandering prophet who wanted to love his enemies.
I mean, he’s great and all—he can make food out of thin air and heal sickness and disease—but he’s not what I wanted.
The truth is that many of us are probably missing something very similar to the blessing we want that’s right in front of us. Look up the ingredients for marshmallows and the filling in Oreos. They are virtually the same.
What the Jews who wanted to destroy the Roman Empire couldn’t see about Jesus was that he was going to destroy the Roman Empire, just not the way they were going to do it. Not the way they wanted to do it.
I don’t know much about the spiritual life these days, but I do know this one unequivocal fact: God doesn’t do things the way I want them to be done.
In some ways, that’s the whole message of Advent. God shows up. Yes. Huzzah! But is this it? A baby? That’s what we’ve been waiting for? I mean, I’m glad he came and all, but … really?
But look more closely. That’s the real message of Advent. That the story has just begun. That, heaven help us, the waiting has just begun.
In the end, that’s the true marshmallow test. Will you look away from your life, hoping that it will improve, or will you look intently at this one precious life you’ve been given, and … wait? Wait for the answers you seek to be revealed in what you already have? Wait for the half-answered prayer to unfold and show what it really came to do and why it came the way it did?
Here’s the thing. You could just eat the marshmallow. Move on. Waiting is hard. But if you do, odds are you’ll miss something of God. Something deeper, something mysterious. Something that’s been there all along but you didn’t have the eyes to see it.
Unless you’re playing Chubby Bunny. There’s nothing there. Look away.