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The Marshmallow Experiment

Matthew 8:28-34

28 When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. 31 The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32 And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. 33 The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. 34 Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

Back in the 1970s, Stanford University researchers Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen began what would come to be known as The Marshmallow Experiment. It is a quite famous experiment that is still discussed today and has been the subject of numerous theories and additional experiments.

In the original experiment, children were asked to decide whether they wanted a small reward immediately or a greater reward later. In other words, eat one marshmallow now, or wait until the researcher came back, and get a second marshmallow as well. Years later, researchers discovered that test subjects who had been able to delay gratification as children were higher achievers in multiple areas of life skills. Now the results of the study are not as simple as they initially seem, but they have led to lots of important additional research.

An interesting one I came across happened in 2012. Social scientists at The University of Rochester published results of their variation on the Stanford study, which added the element of “environmental reliability” to the possible influences upon children. Researchers gave children crayons and stickers, promising to bring better crayons and stickers later. Some children received the items promised; others did not.

When those children were then given the Marshmallow Experiment, the results were not surprising. Those who had already experienced the researchers as reliable promise–keepers tended to trust them enough to wait for the second marshmallow, but those who found the researchers’ promises unreliable were less willing to trust that they would come through with the promised reward. In large part, the children made their decisions based on whether they felt they could trust the researchers to keep their promises.

Now you may wonder what this experiment and this scripture passage have in common. Well what struck me between the two was verse 34. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

Why would these folks want Jesus to leave? There are a lot of explanations that have been espoused over time. And like so much in the Biblical texts we are left to speculate, struggle, and imagine. There is no right answer.

However, one explanation that is speaking to me is the idea that this group of people had been “burned” by religion in the past. Maybe they had been swindled by a prophet who was really more into profits that prophesizing. Maybe a religious zealot caused trouble with the government that then led to the people being punished by the Roman authority. Maybe the religious leader that came before had been outed as a hypocrite. Whatever had happened, this community may have had a fear of organized religion.

And that is where these two stories converged for me. The children who had been deceived by a false promise learned not to trust and gave up on those adults when they made a second promise. And perhaps the community in the story from Matthew’s gospel had stopped trusting religion based on similar failed promises, even though they had seen a miracle.

Today the church struggles with a lack of trust among many in our world. The church unfortunately has hurt people by failing to keep its promises. And like the children in the story and the people in Gadarene, these folks reject anything that is connected to the church. In fact, statistics say that most folks who don’t go to church still profess to believe in God and even Jesus Christ—what they don’t like is what the church has done to them.

I share this with you not to be a “negative Nancy,” but to be honest about the task we have in inviting people to church. For most folks it is not that they have never been to church, but they have attended and left in pain. That said—children can be taught to trust again, and I think communities can be healed as well.

Thus I firmly believe that we can bring folks back to church and provide healing. But it won’t be done by asking only once or twice or even three times. It will require encouraging others again and again and showing them the joy of living a life in a Christ-centered community.

It won’t be easy, but it is our calling—to go and make disciples. And as you are aware, disciple making isn’t easy. It takes a lot of persistence and hard work—or what might be called discipline. Of course, that is indeed one of the most important but often overlooked marks of a disciple.

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