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The Master's Principle

By Matt Bell
for Sound Mind Investing


In the late 1960s, Stanford University researchers conducted an experiment among hundreds of four-year-olds. One at a time, the children were brought into a room and told they could eat one treat such as a marshmallow right away. Or, if they could wait until a researcher returned from a brief errand, they could have two.

A few kids couldn't wait at all. Before the researcher had even finished giving the instructions, the treat was gone. The majority of kids held out for an average of three minutes. About 30 percent were able to resist temptation, waiting the 15 minutes the researcher was gone in order to get the better reward.

Some 12 years later, when the kids were in high school, lead researcher Walter Mischel tracked them down again. He asked their parents, teachers, and academic advisors about the kids' ability to plan and think ahead, cope with problems, and get along with peers. He also requested their S.A.T. scores.

What he found was amazing. The kids who were not able to wait had more behavioral problems at school and at home. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.

As for their S.A.T. scores, the kids who could wait 15 minutes scored an average 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only 30 seconds. Clearly, good things really do come to those who wait.

The Essential Life Skill

So helpful is the ability to delay gratification that psychologists call it the master principle. They say it is the single most essential psychological skill for effective living.

Of course, it's pretty important for wise money management as well. Those who routinely save for what they want instead of impatiently buying today on credit save thousands of dollars in interest. Those who patiently invest over long periods of time stand a much better chance of being able to help their kids pay for college and having enough money for their own retirement.

The successful marshmallow experiment kids were the ones who clearly saw that the future reward would be much better than the immediate reward. The desire for that better reward motivated them to wait.

Taking a Truly Long-Term Perspective

The Apostle Paul said something very similar about heaven. He said everyone who has placed their faith in Christ has "the firstfruits of the Spirit," meaning that the presence of the Holy Spirit gives us a glimpse of heaven. And he said this taste of our future inheritance naturally leads to two responses: A yearning for heaven and the patience to wait for that reward (Romans 8:22-25).

Do you yearn for heaven? When I first thought about that, I had to admit that I don't. When I'm away from home, I yearn to see my family. Right now I'm yearning for our summer vacation. As for heaven? I'm thankful that it's real, but I can't say I'm in any hurry to get there.

If it seems that you don't yearn for heaven either, maybe you actually do. Think about something you love to do—your favorite hobby, perhaps, or a place where you love to vacation. C.S. Lewis said our longing to spend more time doing what we most enjoy is an expression of our ultimate longing for heaven.

"…it (is) not in them," he wrote, "it only comes through them and what (comes) through them (is) longing…For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited."

That's why even the best things of this world only leave us wanting more. As Lewis wrote, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience of this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

A Recipe for Greater Joy, Even Now

The realization that the things of this world will never completely satisfy our deepest longings is not bad news; it's good news. It has the power to help us stop looking to them for what they are incapable of delivering, and to free us to enjoy them for what they are: good gifts from God, but not the basis of our identity, security, or ultimate happiness.

The patience to wait for our ultimate reward in heaven is what turns the master principle into the Master's principle.

As John Eldredge wrote, we express our longing for God best when we "enjoy what there is now to enjoy, while waiting with eager anticipation for the feast to come."

How might your use of money change if you were clearer about what the things of this world can deliver and what only heaven can deliver?

    Matt Bell is the associate editor of Sound Mind Investing, the best-selling investment newsletter written from a biblical perspective. SMI wants people to have more so they can provide well for their families and generously support God’s work.

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