There was a now-famous study conducted at Stanford University years ago called the “Marshmallow Study”. In essence, the study was developed to see the ability of children to comprehend delayed gratification. Children (4 years old) were brought into a room one by one. The facilitator running the experiment set in front of them a delicious looking marshmallow. He would then tell the child that he had to run an errand for a couple of minutes. He explained to the children that they could either eat the marshmallow now OR wait until he came back from his errand, at which point he would give them another marshmallow. The dilemma: enjoy it now, or wait, and experience even more enjoyment later.
Stanford continued to keep an eye on these children, both the resisters (those who held out for another marshmallow) and the partakers (those who gobbled the first marshmallow up right away).
Reevaluated years after high school, what the researchers discovered was that the resisters were, in general, more positive, self-motivated, and able to thrive in the face of adversity as a result of their capacity for delayed gratification. In general, they had more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and more fulfillment in life. Conversely, the partakers tended to be more stubborn, troubled, indecisive, and less confident. This impulse followed them through life and resulted in less satisfaction in work and lower incomes, worse health, and fewer successful marriages.
The bottom line issue here is DISCIPLINE. While it’s potentially true that some may be born with a greater inherent capacity for this self-control than others, God has called us each to this kind of self-control, discipline, and delayed gratification that shows we understand that the pleasures of heaven are worth avoiding spiritually destructive behaviors that our sinful nature might see as pleasurable in this life. Depending on the person and the level to which they’ve gotten involved in such behaviors, some may even have to get additional help, set up more boundaries for prevention, and work a lot harder. In the end though, this extra acquired discipline always pays off.
When I was young, I had a dog named Cody. One afternoon when she was a puppy, while sitting out in the backyard with Cody, she started eating the grass. This was something we tried to discourage her from since it always made her sick. After grazing for a good 10 minutes, sure enough, Cody started to cough. And then, with a forcefulness and smell that I hadn’t thought possible from a 5 pound creature, she vomited up a pile of grass and puppy chow that was inexplicably half her size. The story hasn’t gotten gross yet though. You see, dogs have a fascinating but small brain. While they can learn to speak, and dance, and roll over, they can’t always differentiate what’s healthy from what’s disgustingly unhealthy. So, disturbed as I was by Cody’s vomiting, what came next was worse……she went back and ate what she had just thrown up. At that point I had to cover my own mouth.
From a non-scientific standpoint, this is how I understand the dog’s brain to work in such an instance: Dog eats something that smells good without understanding its negative affects. Dog thinks, “Oh, that wasn’t such a good idea. I feel awful.” Dog vomits. Dog thinks, “I feel much better. The only problem is, I’m a little hungry. Hmmmm. Look! There’s some food.” Dog proceeds to eat vomit. Dog immediately feels horrible and regrets the cuisine. Dog vomits. Dog feels a little better, but wonders what’s to eat. ETC. As a puppy, Cody lacked the self-discipline necessary to resist this destructive behavior. She went through this whole routine a solid 3 times before I collected myself enough to take her inside and explain to my mother the horrors I’d seen.
Dogs are pretty intelligent creatures. Dogs, however, aren’t as intelligent as they sometimes seem.
Humans are similar. In fact, in the book of Proverbs, the author writes, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly” (Proverbs 26:11). The Apostle Peter cites this aphorism in his 2nd letter, where he writes, “Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud'” (2 Peter 2:22). In context, the “them” to whom Peter is referring is false teachers. But the proverb really works for any kind of sin. And we all have personal sins that are particularly appealing for us to return to. At times, this returning compulsion is so strong that it can properly be labeled as an addiction. Adding that label doesn’t immediately make us merely victims though. It means we’ve allowed ourselves to become mastered by the world.
However, there is hope and there is help. God always promises a way out. That was why Christ Jesus was sent to earth – to burst through a prison of sin, open up an exit for mankind, and lead us on a pathway out. Beyond the exit is the eternal freedom from sin, disgust, and addiction. Remaining on the pathway, we may be free from our own sin in this life too though. The Apostle Paul promises, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Paul doesn’t say it’s going to be easy. In fact, resisting temptation never is. However, we know we have a Savior, who like us, was tempted in every way. He’s sympathetic as can be and he wants to help. So we start by asking him for help with discipline in prayer.
Every one of us has our own “vomit” or “mud” that our sinful nature likes to return to. If you think you don’t, then pride is probably it. Consider for a moment what yours may be – any abuse in your life that is clearly opposed to God’s will. You probably find yourself, from time to time, running there to satisfy those sinfully hungry moments. This disgusting attraction can literally take the form of anything. Common addictions like pornography, alcoholism, or drugs certainly fit the description. However, things like gossip, overeating, self-righteous comparison to others, obsession with physical appearance, materialism, apathy toward God’s Word & Sacraments (which is ultimately the pride of thinking you can know God apart from where he tells us we’ll know him), etc., this all stinks like vomit in God’s nostrils too. And, truthfully, none of it is making you any happier.
God has freed you and I from the eternal consequences of these sins through his Son’s sacrifice. But he empowers us to experience freedom in this life as well. He will give us the ability to resist temptation. We will feel accomplishment, satisfaction, and closeness with God when we resolve to set these sins down for the last time.
There’s NO shame in asking for help, either from God or from his agents on earth – fellow Christians. When it comes to sin, we all need help. There could be long-lasting shame if you don’t get the help that you need though. So, if you find yourself desperate for support in overcoming temptation, don’t hesitate to seek it out in your local church.
This morning I spoke with a woman who mentioned that she was now sober for 18 years. She remarked that had she continued on her path, she never would have met her grandchildren that she now cherishes as much as anything in this world. She said that God had healed her heart and given her the strength to change. She did. And the blessings keep coming.
God will bless the changes that you make to grow in becoming more disciplined children of his too.
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