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The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The experiments, which were run on pre-school children in the late 60s and early 70s, worked like this:
Children were escorted individually into an experimental room… The child was then seated at a table on which there was a bell, and was shown reward objects… (e.g., one small marshmallow vs. two, one small stick pretzel vs. two, one colored plastic poker chip vs. two)… After asking which of the objects in the choice (e.g., one or two marshmallows) the subject preferred, the… experimenter indicated that she or he had to go out of the room then but that “if you wait until I come back by myself then you can have this one [pointing to the preferred object]. If you don’t want to wait you can ring the bell and bring me back any time you want to. But if you ring the bell then you can’t have this one [pointing to the preferred object], but you can have that one [pointing to the less preferred object].”W. Mischel, Y. Shoda, P. K. Peake. ‘Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies From Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions.’ Developmental Psychology 26/6 (1990): 978–86 at 980.
Some children waited, others didn’t. In the following years, the children were tracked to see how they did later in life. The researchers found that children who could delay gratification when they were younger had better outcomes in later life in areas such as test scores, social development, health, etc. The motivational lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny.
A more recent study, which replicated the marshmallow test but used a much broader sample size and controlled for more variables, has pretty much debunked the idea that learning to delay gratification leads to a better life. It seems that there are other more fundamental factors behind the ability to delay gratification, like your home environment. That is, if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. Plus, a secure and affluent home means you’re more likely to do better later in life. So learning techniques for delayed gratification doesn’t help you much by itself. The main thing you need to do is to be born into a financially secure and relationally stable home!
This more up-to-date study isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers, is it? But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
The apostle Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians with a list of amazing blessings that God has given to those who believe in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3–14). These blessings include being adopted as God’s children, and having our offenses forgiven through Jesus’ death on the cross. The final blessing that Paul mentions involves God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit ‘seals’ us—that is, he marks us out as belonging to God (verse 13). Here in verse 14, Paul goes into more detail about why having the Holy Spirit is such a blessing. It has to do with our security—our security in both the present, and in the future:
The Holy Spirit is the first instalment of our inheritance, guaranteeing that God will redeem his possession, to the praise of his glory.Ephesians 1:14
Paul describes the Holy Spirit as “the first instalment of our inheritance”. What is our inheritance? It is the everlasting life that God gives to his children. In the Old Testament, we read about God’s people being given an inheritance—the land of Israel (see e.g. Deuteronomy 1:8). But as the Bible goes on, we see that this inheritance of land is only a shadow of a much greater gift—a new heavens and a new earth for God’s people, full of joy and fulfilment and peace and life, secure in God’s loving care (see e.g. Isaiah 65:17–25). This is Israel’s ultimate inheritance. And, Paul says, all those who believe in Jesus Christ have come to share in this inheritance of eternal life. It’s what Christians look forward to and long for.
The Spirit now: Our security
But God has not left us just to hang around longing for some distant future. He has, even now, given us his Holy Spirit as a “first instalment”. The Spirit is our security from God: our down payment, something we have now. And what a valuable down payment! In the rest of Ephesians, Paul goes into more detail about the work of the Spirit. Through the Spirit, God gives us wisdom and insight: the Spirit helps us to understand God’s great purposes for the universe and for us as believers. Through the Spirit, we have “access” to the Father: we can come to God as a loving Father, with our prayers and concerns. Through the Spirit, God builds his church, ensuring his gospel is preached and believed and spoken and lived out. Through the Spirit, we are strengthened to know and hold on to the incredible love of Christ. Through the Spirit, we are united as God’s people, filled to praise and live for God, and equipped to stand in spiritual battle. So the Spirit is not just some impersonal force or power. He is not just a feeling or a sense of peace. The Holy Spirit is, in fact, God himself working in our lives, to enable us truly to call God our Father through his Son Jesus Christ.
So the Holy Spirit is our security. We need this security, don’t we? We need the Holy Spirit when we feel alone in the world. We need him when we find it hard to believe and live and speak the truth of the gospel. We need him when we feel that God is distant and when we suspect that God doesn’t really care for us. We need him when other people let us down. We need him when we feel the pressure of the spiritual battle. We need him when we face temptations to turn to the easy gratifications of this world to ease our pain. We need him when we feel insecure in our relationship with God, because he is our security from God the Father. All those who believe in Jesus Christ have the Holy Spirit as our security.
The Spirit and the future: God’s possession
The Holy Spirit is our security in the present—and that means he is our security for the future. That’s because the Holy Spirit makes us God’s own “possession”. It’s not that we need to grasp the Holy Spirit as our own property. The Holy Spirit is, in fact, the guarantee that we are God’s property! And if we are God’s property, we can be sure that God will redeem us at the end. Those who believe in Christ can be sure that we will live with God forever, because the Holy Spirit has sealed us, branded us, and marked us out as God’s own. And because God is God, he won’t let his possession go in the end.
This security also helps us to live for God when things are hard, doesn’t it? When you face temptations to do things you know God doesn’t want you to do—to give in to the easy gratifications of the world—what do you need? You need more than just an ability to grit your teeth and rely on your own strength. You need more than motivational techniques or skills to delay gratification. You need the Holy Spirit to remind you, strengthen you, and help you to see that you are God’s possession, that you are deeply loved, that you can call on God your Father for help, and that you can look forward to that time when God will indeed redeem you and bring you into everlasting life and joy. This is why—as Paul says—we praise God for his glory, now and forever.
What things in particular make it hard for you to live in this world?
What can you ask God to help you with, by his Spirit?
 T. W. Watts, G. J. Duncan, H. Quan, ‘Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes’, Psychological Science 29/7 (2018): 1159–77.
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.