There are two outcomes to the decisions you make in life: gratification or regret. Of course, the only way you know the results of your decisions is by viewing them in hindsight or retrospect. So how can you know for sure if delaying gratification will lead to a good outcome? Can you sacrifice gratification and fulfillment in the present to instead experience it in more abundance in the future? You might have thought before that if you can only go back in the past and know then what you know now, you might have done things differently. That’s called regret. Or are you absolutely happy with who you are now; despite the mistakes and hardships you’ve gone through? That is known as gratification.
One way to know what results your current decisions will have is by viewing other people’s experiences. Let’s take a look at two famous brothers in the Bible:
Genesis 25:29-34, “29 Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.’ Therefore his name was called Edom [meaning ‘red’].
“31 But Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright as of this day.’
“32 And Esau said, ‘Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?’
“33 Then Jacob said, ‘Swear to me as of this day.’
“So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
If you’re new to Hebrew lineage in the bible, Jacob and Esau are the sons of Isaac, the son of Abraham. Abraham is known as the “Father of Israel” (and the Arabs if you want to be precise). So Esau, being the oldest (and not Jacob), fit right into the promise God handed to Abraham.
Esau was born first and grew to be a “skilled hunter and a man of the field” (Genesis 25:27). Jacob, the second-born, was a “mild man, dwelling in tents” (vs. 27). Of the two boys, Isaac their father, favored Esau and ate his game and their mother, Rebekah, loved Jacob (vs. 28).
The story of this ancient family holds a picture of similarity in today’s society: the irrationality of favoritism. It is easy for a parent to favor one child and not the other. However, because of each child’s uniqueness, they can be loved in different ways; not loved more or favored more than the other one. Anyways, back to the story.
If only Esau – Mr. Instant Gratification – had considered God’s guidance, he probably
wouldn’t have “despised his birthright”!
It’s interesting to imagine that Jacob had probably been looking for an opportunity to prove himself to Isaac. As the youngest brother, he was probably overlooked, viewed as the weakling or the momma’s boy. Esau even taunted Jacob because of what his name meant. One of the meanings of Jacob is “he who grasps at the heel (of another)”, indicating that Jacob was always following, never leading.
When Esau came in from the field and asked his brother for some food, Jacob probably saw this as the opportunity to gain his father’s favor and rise to the position Esau held. He wanted Esau’s birthright in exchange for the stew.
Esau most likely never needed anything from Jacob. He was the oldest. The hunter. A man’s man. Jacob had always walked in his shadow and was never strong or capable enough to go hunting.
Then we find Esau coming in after a long day “in the field”. In those days, most people walked everywhere they went. He was weary, sweating, his feet were in pain and he was exhausted from a long day out in the sun. He was probably out hunting or looking after his father’s property. All he wanted was some food in his stomach, a bath and rest. Then he stumbled upon his twin brother, Jacob, who was cooking some delicious stew. The smell was just too much to pass up. He would rather get a bowl of food and get on with his rest. But there were strings attached. Jacob wouldn’t give away his stew without payment.
Esau was so weary, he felt like he was going to “die” (vs. 32). In his exhausted state, he felt that getting food in his stomach was more important than his birthright. That’s like saying, “I’d rather have a glass of ice cold water and give up my mortgage,”
Esau chose instant gratification and he paid for it dearly. He was born with the notorious “silver spoon” in his mouth. As the firstborn of Isaac and Rebekah’s twin sons, it was his right to secure all the allowances, heritage and inheritances that were traditionally passed on to the firstborn son. Furthermore, Isaac passed down to his first-born son, Esau, the inheritance of God’s eternal promise to Abraham (Bell, 2008). Here is the promise God originally gave to Esau’s grandfather Abraham:
Genesis 12:1-3, “Now the Lord had said to Abram [later re-named Abraham]: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.
2 ‘I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.
3 ‘I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
At a point of physical vulnerability and weakness as a result of hunger, Esau gave up his birthright inheritance for a simple bowl of stew (Bell, 2008).
It is fare to say that in hindsight, Esau regretted his decision to trade his birthright for a bowl of stew. In verse 34, it says that he “despised” his birthright. The Hebrew word for despised refers to outright disdain. Esau disregarded God’s promises that were instead given to the heirs of his younger brother Jacob. Had he rejected Jacob’s offer, his heirs would have been part of the promise God gave to Abraham.
Jacob chose to “steal” Esau’s birthright for himself in a very deceiving manner and later, with the help of his mother, he lied to his blind father that he was Esau in order to receive his blessing. Later in his life, he suffered consequences as a result and worked for many years under his uncle Laban. However, despite Jacob’s deception, Esau still willingly gave away his inheritance.
Jacob secured his position of prominence in the chronicles of Israel and in the family tree of Jesus Christ. He was later re-named Israel and became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. Esau’s descendents became the Edomites – tenacious and hateful enemies of Jacob’s descendents. In Genesis 33, Jacob and his very large family travel back to Canaan, where he grew up. On the outskirts of Shechem, he came face to face with Esau and his family, that had also grown into the hundreds. It had been decades since the birthright incident and both brothers had learned and grown in their many life experiences. Esau had the ability to wipe out Jacob and his family. However, he made peace with Jacob. The story ends well as far as Jacob and Esau go but not so much with their future descendants (Bell, 2008).
In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites (Jacob’s descendents) were headed to the Promised Land and had to pass through the land of Edom. The Edomites (Esau’s descendents) had already set up a kingdom and had many successful trade routes. Edom refused to allow the children of Israel to pass through their lands despite Moses’ promise that they would not disturb anything. As a result, the Israelites had to go around Edom.
After Israel had set up a kingdom of their own, they were forbidden to hate their relatives, the Edomites (Deuteronomy 23:7). However, the Edomites attacked Israel on a regular basis and many battles were fought. Israel’s first king, Saul, made war against the Edomites. His successor, King David, conquered and overpowered them and built military outposts in Edom. This continued during the reign of David’s son, King Solomon. Afterwards, the Edomites resisted and gained some independence until they were overthrown by the Assyrians. The Edomites eventually came under God’s curse (Malachi 1:3).
God’s promises last for generations. It was passed down to Esau, who sold it to his brother for a bowl of stew. Jacob’s descendents, as a result, were the new recipients of God’s promise to Abraham. Although the Israelites struggled with God and were overthrown by many nations, their lineage and legacy is evident even today. The nation of Israel is a testament and proof of God’s continuing promise. However, is there still a kingdom of Edom? Where are Esau’s descendents? They have been erased from history. Esau’s split decision to get instant gratification had lasting effects.
Experts in human psychology have described “deferred” or “delayed gratification” as “the ability to wait patiently for something one wants or needs.” They acknowledge that benefits in most areas of life demands the capacity and endurance of delaying what you want. It is fascinating how modern-day secular psychology experts often happen upon biblical truth (Bell, 2008)!
Here’s another practical example of delayed gratification. You have probably heard of “The Marshmallow Study”. From 1968 through 1974, almost 650 four year olds at a nursery school in Stanford were offered an assortment of marshmallows. After choosing one, they were told they could either eat it right away or wait and receive two (Bazelon, 2012).
Then the adult left the child alone in the room to think it over. This is where the innate human instinct of instant gratification conflicted with the leaned behavior of delayed gratification. As the video showed, the results were interesting (to a psychologist) and hilarious to everyone else (Bazelon, 2012)!
Jonah Lehrer described in an article in the New Yorker in 2009, “Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.” (Bazelon, 2012)
The majority of the kids lasted less than 3 minutes on average. However, about 30% waited for 15 minutes for the adult to return and reward them with a second marshmallow. Lehrer again wrote, “These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist,” (Bazelon, 2012)
It is interesting to note that the children who waited for the second marshmallow at age 4 were followed up on. They scored higher on their SATs later on during high school. As a whole, they excelled at preparation and dealing with anxiety. They were also less likely to be overweight (Bazelon, 2012).
Tanya Schlam of the University of Wisconsin school of Medicine and Public Health stated,
“Kids can be taught to delay gratification. Some educational approaches (like Montessori) focus on teaching kids self-control and have high expectations of self-regulation from an early age so kids get lots of practice and improve over time (Bazelon, 2012).
“Delayed gratification is related to the elusive quality of will-power, but it’s framed to be attainable. It involves being more strategic. So a child can use will power to delay gratification, but they have a lot of other techniques at their disposal that they can combine with using will-power. For example, from studies with this sample, we know that when the marshmallows are hidden by a tray or when the experimenter tells the kids to think about the marshmallows as ‘fluffy white clouds’, the kids are able to delay much longer.” (Bazelon, 2012)
Schlam agrees that the greatest way to practice self-control is to stay away from temptation all-together. If the marshmallow tray is not there, the temptation to eat one will not exist (Bazelon, 2012).
Here’s a video link to the marshmallow study.
Zachary Slayback, a Business Development Director at Praxis (a company that helps
businesses in their start-up stage), writes an intriguing article entitled “The Myth of Delayed Gratification”.
He approaches delayed gratification from a business standpoint and describes that delayed gratification is only effective when its outcomes are an equal compromise between time and gratification. We hear too many accounts of regretful retirees and dissatisfied “burn-outs” who say they should have just taken the risk or should have invested all their earnings into a different IRA. Remember, all this is known in hindsight (Slayback, 2016).
If gratification is defined by job security, then it may be more profitable for it to be delayed. Starting a business from scratch or beginning a career as a Chiropractor without going to school is risky (Slayback, 2016).
However, if gratification is simply defined as accomplishment (as in sensing that you are in command of your life and that you are self-sufficient), then delaying gratification may not be the best route for you. Say you want to be a medical doctor, an attorney or a college professor. You’ll have to go to school, earn a degree and begin practicing in your field. However, if you wish to become an entrepreneur, an artist or a young professional, you can most likely live by your own rules as long as you are successful at it (Slayback, 2016).
If gratification means “living without regrets”, then the comparison is simplified even further. Many parents, professionals and intellectuals wish they could go back in time and do things in a different way — usually while taking more chances. If you can feel this way in hindsight and your compromise is between “gratification” in having peace of mind and living without disappointment in the end, then you have to pick either gratification or risk (Slayback, 2016).
Early in life, many people are absolutely clueless as to what “gratification” means to them. Very few young people have a good idea of what the rest of their lives look like and fixing them into a model or necessity of “gratification or risk” offers an improper definition for them. The best way is for a young person to attempt a few things first, even if they experience some “gratifications” before others. Allow them to make mistakes and experience the regret of instant gratification while the cost is low. Some people prefer to be safe instead of take risks; others prefer chance over security; still others favor physical or spiritual gratifications instead of professional or scholarly gratification. Only though experience can a young person get an idea of what they want (Slayback, 2016).
Remember, Slayback is approaching gratification from a secular, humanist point of view. Most of his points are well taken concerning business perspective. However, in the bible and as Christians, we are called to exercise delayed gratification; that is to “wait on God”.
Psalm 33:20, “Our souls wait for the Lord; He is our hope and our shield,”
Instant gratification is going your own direction. Delayed gratification is waiting for God. Waiting on God is one of the things that He most longs for as we pursue after His heart. We need to prolong time and wait for the Lord. God is our certainty and we need to absolutely trust in Him for every single part of our life. We need to have faith in Him for direction and order, for aid and protection; for triumph over our enemies and liberation from hardship and ruin. God is our only hiding place from unfaithfulness and abuse. He will always be our starting point as we exercise delayed gratification and wait on Him for His sacred unyielding love and promises (Creswell, 2012).
Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, But when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.”
Most of the time, waiting on God can be the most discouraging thing in life. It tests our faith and forces us to rely on God. It reveals the strengths of our acceptance to His divine sovereignty or our weakness in going our own direction. In delaying gratification, we shouldn’t just stop everything and wait; we should instead give ourselves over to God’s better plan for us. When we delay our own gratification and wait for God’s more intricate plan, we yield to His will and sync our lives with what He has for us. It is easy to want to go our own way, instantly obtaining what we want. However, this just leads to regret, stress and in the end, failure. We are to never take matters into our own hands, but in all things put our trust in Him (Creswell, 2012).
II Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.”
Whether it’s the inclination and desire for a better life, money, position or power, the ever-present pull of instant gratification moves men away from their important aims and steels away God’s plan for their lives. The Bible frequently and persistently encourages men to wait patiently, work hard and trust God for the good things He wants to give them (Bell, 2008).
How does the temptation of instant gratification test you? Had you ever been in Esau’s place? What would you have done if Jacob offered you instant gratification? What things in your life right now provide instant gratification that can deprive you of far more amazing things that God’s plan has in store for you? Make a list of them. Which ones are more important and need immediate attention? Determine how you are going to deal with them when opportunity arises (Bell, 2008).
Bell, J. S. (2008). The one year men of the Bible: 365 meditations on the character of men and their connection to the living God. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House.
Bazelon, E. (2012, August 17). Delayed Gratifications has Benefits in Life. The Wichita Eagle. Retrieved July 7, 2016, from http://www.wichitamontessori.com/pdf/Delayed-gratification.pdf
Slayback, Z. (2016, February 16). The Myth of Delayed Gratification. Plaxis. Retrieved July 5, 2016, from http://discoverpraxis.com/the-myth-of-delayed-gratification-virtue/
Creswell, D. (2012, August 13). No Microwave God -Waiting on the Lord – Inspirational Scriptures. A Study of Christian Grace. Retrieved July 5, 2016, from https://darrellcreswell.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/no-microwave-god-waiting-on-the-lord-inspirational-scriptures/.