Friday 12th August 2022

Don't eat the bacon and egg muffin...yet! (Why restraint empowers us to live well.)

Many years ago researchers tormented young children with the marshmallow test.  Left alone with temptation kids were told they could have an additional marshmallow if they resisted eating the first one for ten minutes.  Of course this is a study in delayed gratification.  In our chapel hungry students ably resisted the delights of a fresh bacon and egg muffin.

Image by: Andrew Nicol

Sometimes talk of self-control in this age of instant gratification can feel as appealing as a dentist appointment.  We know it's important but we don't look forward to it (apologies to dentists).  However, many of you will know already that just about anything worth doing requires a great deal of effort.

In our scripture reading from Genesis 25:19-34 two siblings, Jacob and Esau, jostle for their parents approval.  One day Esau rashly passes on his birth right for the immediate satisfaction a great stew.  Frankly, this seems crazy, but perhaps there is a little Esau in all of us?  Often times we have a hard time holding out for future rewards, even when it’s clearly in our best interest to do so.  The short-term payoff seems more compelling than a future benefit.  

The point of all this is not really a moralistic talk about studying harder or some such desirable aspiration.  The point is life - the foundations for life that these young men (and we) are continuing to build in a world which often promises to give everything right now.  Restraint isn’t just a nice addition to our life skills.  Can we accomplish what we need to at school, at university, or our chosen career without it? Can we be faithful to a partner without self-control? Can we be generous, calm, peace promoting, honest or just? 

We are what we love. Our habits shape our desires.  Some of the original marshmallow researchers thought the ability to delay gratification marked those who would be 'successful' in life.  The good news is that recent research tells us we aren't just born with this capacity or not – we can be shaped and we can grow.  Most importantly, we can learn to take pleasure and enjoyment in what should rightly give us pleasure and enjoyment.  Our habits orient us toward wanting the right things rightly.  Too often much of what we think we want - what we are told we need - is just an expression of greed.

From a faith perspective the desire to be happy is perhaps best understood as the desire to be loved. Humans are made for relationship with the loving God which overflows in good relationship with one another.  The capacity to resist immediate gratification is crucial for our ability to make intelligent decisions and judgments in a well lived life.  

Perhaps we might try a little ancient practical exercise – going without for a short period. It might be interesting to see what going without teaches us.