Have you ever noticed how some things we give little thought to shape our lives so dramatically? For instance, the concept of time. Scientists believe the moon was used to calculate time as early as the Paleolithic Era, perhaps 30,000 years ago. We know the Sumerians, about 4,000 years ago, introduced the sexagesimal system based on the number 60. That’s why we have 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. Several years ago, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder demonstrated a new clock based on the vibrations of strontium atoms trapped in a laser grid. This clock loses less than one second of time every 200 million years. That’s a lot more accurate than the handmade clock in my office with wooden gears that loses three minutes a day, whose time I adjust by adding paper clips to the pendulum.
In addition to the hard science of time, which is extremely precise, there is the perception of time, which is relative. Time is experienced differently in different situations. When the dentist tells me he only needs to drill my tooth for a minute, that minute seems a lot longer than the minute I spend napping in my hammock.
We’ve been talking about growing up. You’ll remember Jesus’s words, “Be ye perfect, even as God is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) We noted that the original meaning wasn’t perfect, but mature. “Be mature, as God is mature. Be grown up, as God is grown up.” We said a grown-up is someone who is consciously aware of their feelings, and takes responsibility for their decisions and actions. We’ve also thought about the qualities of being grown-up: one being self-regulation—the ability to live within appropriate boundaries, another being perspective—the ability to give situations and circumstances their appropriate weight. Today, I’d like to talk about delayed gratification—the ability to delay our immediate pleasure for some future good.
Perhaps the most well-known story of delayed gratification in the Bible are the Israelites having to wander forty years in the wilderness before stepping foot in their Promised Land. The distance from Cairo, Egypt to Jerusalem is 264 miles. At 40 years, that’s 6.6 miles a year. 40 years of Israelite children asking, “Are we there yet?” It wasn’t a bad idea on God’s part to help the Israelites learn patience. We Americans could learn that lesson. I was yelling at my cell phone the other day for not honing in on the cell phone tower in the three seconds I thought it should take.
Oddly enough, we Americans are very patient about some things. We’ve been telling black people they need to be patient for hundreds of years. “It’s getting better,” we tell them. “Just be patient.”
A real problem in our country is that we’re not good at delaying gratification. The U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that the average American spends more money than they earn. Part of that is because of increased costs and decreased wages, but a much bigger part is our use of credit cards and our unwillingness to wait until tomorrow to buy something we want today. But one measure of growing-up is the self-discipline to say to ourselves, “I am willing to sacrifice now so I can experience something better down the road.”
But delayed gratification isn’t just about how we spend our money. Sometimes we have difficult periods in our relationships and the only thing that gets us through them is our hope that things will be better in time. There have been moments in our marriage, for instance, when I’ve been hard to live with, when Joan has had to say, “I am willing to endure the difficulty of being married to Philip today, in order to experience the joy of being with him in the future.” She’s probably wondering when that rosy future will arrive.
There is also an aspect of delayed gratification in our emotional lives. When we’re suffering from depression or anxiety, it’s easy to despair, lose faith, or give up. But then, predictably, sunrise follows night.
Grown-up people realize we don’t always get what we want when we want it. Instead of despairing over that, instead of being depressed and discouraged by that, grown-up people say, “If I endure this difficulty today, it might make my life better tomorrow.” So they persist, they ride the hard days out, knowing light follows darkness.
When we have to sacrifice for some future good, the payoff seems far away. I think of Moses in the wilderness forty years. Forty years away from Canaan, from promise. Moses is just aching to get there. Then God tells Moses he won’t ever set foot there, that Joshua will lead the Israelites across the Jordan. You know, sometimes we work hard and sacrifice for things we’ll never see. But we know others will, so we persist.
Americans were promised three and a half years ago that America would be great again. We were promised that by someone who’d always gotten what he wanted when he wanted it, someone unaccustomed to delayed gratification. But cruelty, exclusion, and division never lead to greatness. The ancient Greeks had a different understanding of national greatness. They said, “Societies grow great when old people plant trees under whose shade they shall never sit.” We Quakers mistakenly attribute that saying to the Quaker Elton Trueblood, but the Greeks beat him to it.
Grown-up people realize they will journey toward a land they themselves will never inhabit, but live in hope that they, like Moses, will on their last day stand on Mount Nebo and witness on the horizon a promised land. What do you hope to see? What are you doing today to make our tomorrow better?