Marshmallow Study, Tool Academy, Dostoevsky….What?

This is Drew’s sermon from February 17th, 2013. It’s about trust and temptation, and how much Jesus trusted us even as he was being tempted. The text for the sermon is Luke 4:1-13. May it be a blessing to you.


There’s a famous study called the Marshmallow Study. It came out in the 70’s, and unleashed a series of theories around temptation and who succeeds in life. Here’s how it works. A researcher would offer a toddler a choice. The child can either have one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows in fifteen minutes when the researcher comes back. The one marshmallow is left on the table, and the researchers leave the room and wait to see how long the child waits before eating the marshmallow. They found that the longer a child waits to eat the marshmallow, the more likely they were to succeed in life, getting better SAT scores, less drug abuse, higher earnings later in life, etc. The conclusion was that impulse control, more than IQ or wealth or some other factor, was the key to success in life, and those who did not succeed in life were likely failures because of their poor impulse control.

Recently, however, a study has come out of the University of Rochester that challenged that notion. They tried the Marshmallow Study again, only this time there were two different groups. One group of children got a researcher who broke a promise earlier. The other group, got a researcher who kept an earlier promise. So some of them had a reliable person, and some didn’t. What happened was striking. The children, on average, waited four times longer for a reliable researcher than an unreliable one. The repercussions of the study are significant. What we once thought was a purely innate characteristic, is one that can be affected by the environment. An unstable home might cause a child to choose immediate gratification over a reward that may or may not come. What it tells us is that the ability to resist temptation is fundamentally linked to trust.

We see this in the garden of Eden as well. Though the devil is often referred to as the “great deceiver,” he uses no deception. The serpent tells no lies, he merely sows mistrust. He plays on Adam and Eve’s insecurities, telling them, if God did not tell you the whole truth about the fruit, what else is God hiding? How do you know that what God says is good?[1]

The same is true for the temptation of Jesus. What the devil says is true, Jesus could turn those stones into bread, could cast himself down from the high place, but they seek to challenges Jesus’ ability to trust. How much can you really trust your God? How much can you really trust God’s people? How much can you trust your mission?

At the root of most temptation, is this crucial challenge of trust. I like to watch this show called Tool Academy. It’s a reality TV show, and the idea is that it’s a reform school for bad boyfriends. So they have all these guys and they sort of force them to own up to their sordid pasts, the cheating, the disrespect, the lack of responsibility. I remember on one episode, a guy is forced to confess his own infidelity, and is absolutely stunned to hear that his girlfriend hasn’t cheated. He says, “The only reason I did all that stuff is because I just knew that she was doing the same thing to me.” It wasn’t depravity or impulsivity that caused him to misbehave, it was his own inability to trust.

As long as we put our trust in God. As long as we can say, “I am a child of God, and I have no fear,” temptation has little to offer us. It is only when we get impatient or unsure or afraid, that we decide that God might not provide, and we have to take it on ourselves. The question arises, perhaps from within, perhaps from without, can we really trust God to provide? In an unstable world, with little but the ambiguous promises of Scripture to sustain us, it is a more difficult question than we would like to admit.

There’s a book, The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, that has a story in it that speaks to this very issue. It’s a parable, of sorts, that one of the brothers is telling to the another.

The story is set in Spain during the Inquisition. Christ comes down to earth. He walks through the town of Seville, and people immediately recognize him. They follow him and bring him their sick, even their dead. A seven-year-old girl is brought to him in a coffin, and he calls her to life again. The Grand Inquisitor of the town witnesses this, and has him arrested and thrown in jail for heresy, to be burned the next day. This shouldn’t surprise us, for who is Christ but the greatest of heretics?

That night the Grand Inquisitor goes to see his prisoner “Is it really you?” he says, “Wait, don’t answer that. What can you say anyway, and you have no right to add to what you already said long ago. Why have you come to hinder us?”

According to the Grand Inquisitor, what Christ brought into the world was freedom. The truth will set you free, Jesus had said. But, he says, after wrestling with that freedom for 1500 years, the church has finally vanquished it, in order that people would be happy. The Grand Inquisitor challenges Christ on the temptations of the devil, and at the heart of his questioning is this accusation: “Your freedom is too difficult to bear.” He says, “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature was born.”

If Jesus turned the stones into bread, everyone would follow, for no one questions what puts bread on their table. But Jesus chose to trust us instead. If Jesus had thrown himself down from the high place, none could deny who he was, but he chose to trust us instead. And if he had accepted the devil’s promise of all the power and kingdoms of the world, he could have made it in his own image, created universal peace, but he chose to trust us to do it instead. But who can live up to this trust, the inquisitor asks? Who has the will to continually choose the difficult freedom over the happy obedience?

And so, the church has spent the last fifteen centuries taking away that freedom, so that people could find happiness, even if it is happiness in a lie. In other words he has gone over to the devil’s way of thinking. This is why the Grand Inquisitor asks, “Why have you come to hinder us?” They have replaced Christ’s gift of freedom with Authority, therein people can find a happy obedience. They might even call themselves free.

You’re judging this guy, I know you are. But look around you. Show me a charismatic preacher with the promise of easy answers and I’ll show you a church whose pews over flow with people dying to get rid of that freedom. But show me a church that says “Great is the mystery of faith, whose people say “I don’t know” as often as “The Bible is clear” and I’ll show you a place where everyone gets their own pew.

He chooses, on behalf of the people, a demonic happiness over an unbearable freedom. This is why the Inquisitor arrested him, this is why he must burn, for once again Christ challenges the Authority that gives the people a happy lie with his uncomfortable freedom.

Finally the Grand Inquisitor finishes his speech and his questions and falls silent.  Christ has quietly listened the entire time, saying nothing.  And Christ stands up, walks over to the old man, and kisses him on the lips.  The old man is stunned. His lips move.  Finally he opens the door to the cell and motions for him to go.

It is heartbreaking, the trust that we have been given. The Grand Inquisitor is right. It is too great for us to bear. The temptations before us, to take matters into our own hands, are too much. To choose an easy dogma over a difficult freedom. To value our own security over another’s peace. To do nothing, in a world that so desperately needs us.

But Jesus walked this valley before us. He could have compelled obedience, he could have taken the power. He could even have avoided the cross. But he trusted us instead. And he trusts us again and again, even as we try to give our freedom over to every new philosophy that comes along, even as we condemn him as a heretic and send him away, even as he takes up his cross again and again? What will we do with trust like that? What can we do, but follow?

[1] Lose, David. “Trust and Temptation” Dear Working Preacher. 10 Feb. 2013. Accessed 16 February 2013.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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