The Master(’s) Principle

There are countless tips and “tricks” you can use to speed up the process of getting out of debt, save money at the grocery store, and invest more for the future. But if you really want to get the money thing right, you have to cultivate certain inner disciplines. And there is one that rises above all the rest.

At first glance, it will sound completely unappealing. And you’ll find virtually no support for it in our culture. But because it’s so incredibly helpful, I strongly encourage you to find the patience to read on.

One now, or two later

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 the 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… wait for it… 3 minutes. 3 minutes!

But the remaining 30 percent were able to hang in there, resist temptation, and wait for what turned out to be 15 minutes in order to get the better reward.

Some 12 years later, when the kids were in high school, lead researcher Walter Mischel tracked the kids down to see if there were any discernible differences between the kids who could wait and those who couldn’t.

He asked 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.

And what he found was remarkable. The kids who could wait had noticeably fewer behavioral problems at school and at home. They were better able to handle stressful situations, did better at paying attention, and found it easier to maintain friendships.

As for their S.A.T. scores, the kids who could wait scored an average 210 points higher than the kids who couldn’t.

Clearly, good things really do come to those who wait.

A character trait unlike any other

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

Think about the financial benefits of patience. Those who routinely save for what they want instead of impatiently buying today on credit can save thousands of dollars on 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 or having enough money for their own retirement.

The marshmallow experiment kids who could wait were the ones who clearly saw that their future reward would be much better than the immediate reward. Having no doubt that the waiting would be worthwhile motivated them to be patient.

The ultimate form of delayed gratification

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. Every spring, I start 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, consider this: 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. 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.

The realization that the things of this world will never completely satisfy our deepest longings is not bad news; it’s good news. It can help us stop looking to them for what they’re incapable of delivering, and it can 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.” I love that.

Are you looking to something of this world to deliver what only heaven can deliver?

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?

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8 Responses to The Master(’s) Principle

  1. Aaron November 15, 2018 at 3:50 PM #

    This is thought-provoking. While I understand your wider point is that we ought to put our hopes in the eternal (our only hope / what we wait for) – the marshmallow test got me to wondering if some of us are just born better “waiters” than others. Perhaps it is even our chemical make-up. I could be entering a slippery-slope there, but its something I’ve often wondered as I’ve written about personal finance and often ponder why savings / waiting seems so effortless for some and more difficult for others (I’d put myself in the latter).

    • Matt Bell November 20, 2018 at 10:06 AM #

      Those are great questions, Aaron. I’m really interested in the role that temperament plays in our money management, and so many areas of life. I think some people do have an easier time waiting than others. But I also believe the ability to wait can be cultivated. For the parents of young children, doing simple things like baking together or planting a vegetable garden can help since you have to wait for the reward. Family rituals, like no one starts eating until everyone is seating at the table and we’ve given thanks, or Christmas gifts are opened on Christmas morning and no sooner, can help.

  2. Jerry November 13, 2018 at 5:37 PM #

    Thanks again, Matt, for opening our eyes to another simple, yet profound, lesson in life.

    I wonder whether the Master(‘s) Principle – or a failure to appreciate the Master(‘s) Principle – may help to understand the intense political divide that we see today. Whether one sides on the right or left, there is an impatience and sense of false urgency that has impaired our ability to listen to and consider other viewpoints – and to “delay gratification” of our own agenda. In an Internet-dominated world where we can literally get anything we want right now, we are losing the ability to pause and consider options. It is harder than ever to “delay gratification,” when we can immediately buy something or watch something – without even rising from the sofa!

    Likewise, in politics, we want things to be the way we believe they should be – right now. It feels unbearable to pause and consider the complexities of the problem, or to engage in the hard and necessary work of listening, compromising, and problem-solving to achieve change. It is even more unbearable to pause and listen to the (seemingly) irrational and deluded views of the other party. Our urgency and impatience drives us to rudeness and intolerance. In the Internet world, we can instantly shout an opinion or attack another with self-righteous certainty and gain the immediate gratification of being right. (I’m doing it right now!) But what if I thought about Matt’s message a little longer and more deeply, and took an hour or a day to consider before making this post? How different might my response be – with the greater wisdom and sensitivity of the Master(‘s) Principle?

    • Matt Bell November 13, 2018 at 7:49 PM #

      Such great points, Jerry. Delayed gratification—and the lack thereof—has applications in so many areas of life. Truly feeling heard is rare. It impacts our marriages, our parenting. The person who pauses to think in a meeting is considered slow and possibly too old.

      I’m not sure what can be done about it on a large scale, but I think there’s a lot we can do on a small scale. Like making sure we really listen to people. And spending unhurried, quality time with our loved ones.

  3. Al November 13, 2018 at 3:46 PM #

    I expect that, on average, the older a Christian is, the more one yearns for heaven. That’s true in my life (I’m 73),

    • Matt Bell November 13, 2018 at 7:27 PM #

      I’m sure you’re right, Al. But wouldn’t it be great if more people came to this understanding at a younger age — that the joys they experience through the best things of this world are really little tastes of a far greater joy yet to come?

  4. Wayne riendeau November 13, 2018 at 1:41 PM #

    Great post, Matt. Speaking of Heaven, I finished reading Randy Alcorn‘s incredible book, “Heaven“, which will surely give you an even deeper yearning for our True Home.

    • Matt Bell November 13, 2018 at 7:23 PM #

      Thanks, Wayne. And thanks for the reminder about Randy Alcorn’s book. I’ve read some of it and learned so many things about heaven I never knew. I need to finish it. Another book on the topic that I have read recently is John Eldredge’s latest — All Things New. That was a great, encouraging read on the same topic.

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