In the marshmallow test, you sit a preschooler in front of a marshmallow. You tell the preschooler that if she can wait 15 minutes, she will get two marshmallows instead of just the one in front of her. Some preschoolers can wait, some can’t. Children who wait for two marshmallows get better grades as teenagers. The popular conclusion is that the ability to delay gratification is a sign of good character that makes your life better later on.

Elder Cook referred to the Marshmallow Test in his October 2015 General Conference addressShipshape and Bristol Fashion: Be Temple Worthy In Good Times and Bad [fn1].

The adversary has been successful in planting a great myth in the minds of many people. He and his emissaries declare that the real choice we have is between happiness and pleasure now in this life and happiness in a life to come (which the adversary asserts may not exist). This myth is a false choice, but it is very seductive.

I recognize that, despite the overwhelming happiness embodied in God’s divine plan, sometimes it can feel far away and disconnected from our current circumstances. It may feel beyond our reach as struggling disciples. From our limited perspective, current temptations and distractions can seem attractive. The rewards for resisting those temptations, on the other hand, can feel distant and unattainable. But a true understanding of the Father’s plan reveals that the rewards of righteousness are available right now.

Last year the professor who conducted the original [Marshmallow Test], Dr. Walter Mischel, wrote a book in which he said the study grew in part out of his concerns about self-control and his own addiction to smoking. … After years of study, one of [Dr. Mischel’s] professional colleagues reported that “self-control is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Avoiding something tempting once will help you develop the ability to resist other temptations in the future.”

A principle of eternal progression is that exercising self-control and living righteously strengthen our ability to resist temptation. This is true both in the spiritual realm and in temporal matters.

Essentially, happy Church members get a marshmallow now, and a marshmallow in the next life. But even if you’re not getting a marshmallow now, if you can remain faithful, you’ll get two marshmallows in the next life. The no-marshmallow-in-mortality people are being tested on their ability to delay gratification until the next life.

The Marshmallow Test that Elder Cook talked about has been updated. (Even the people who conducted the test back in 1960 knew that they were using a small sample size and hadn’t controlled for all variables.) 

In 2013, researchers added a wrinkle to the Marshmallow Test. They had the kids do an art project first, giving them old and broken crayons. The children were divided into two groups. The researchers told both groups that they would bring them new crayons in a minute. The researcher brought new crayons to one group. In the other group, the researcher returned empty-handed. The researchers did this again with promises to bring stickers. One group of kids got the stickers; the other group didn’t. Then they gave the kids the Marshmallow Test. Guess which group of kids ate the marshmallow?

The conclusion was that the child’s ability to wait for a second marshmallow was influenced by whether or not the child trusted the researcher to give them the promised reward. The test didn’t just measure the child’s impulse control; it also measured the researcher’s trustworthiness. [Note that this would have been an unidentified variable in the original test – the researchers did not find out whether any of the children already distrusted adults who made promises about later rewards.]

When Church leaders emphasize mortal obedience and eternal rewards, is the test measuring the members’ obedience? Or the Church leaders’ trustworthiness? 

Let’s talk about faith and trust separately. Faith is an abstract belief that’s centered in the believer. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. That definition is confusing enough to sound profound and yet make it clear that it’s the believer’s choice of whether or not to believe something. You hope for something that you don’t see any evidence of.

Trust is different from faith. Trust is based on actual experiences. You have evidence of why you trust someone, or don’t trust someone. Something happened; you can tell a story about why you do or don’t trust someone.

Some people evaluate the Brethren’s promises of eternal happiness from a place of faith; others evaluate the Brethren from the perspective of broken trust. The difference is in our identity and experiences. 

Let’s look at a couple of hypothetical people to help illustrate this. 

When Henry was a teenager, he prayed about whether the prophets and apostles are Heavenly Father’s chosen leaders for his Church and felt the assurance of the Spirit that they are. 

  • Henry is a cis, white, heterosexual male who got married in the temple. 
  • Both of his parents are happily married as well. 
  • He’s always been blessed for paying tithing and believes the Church’s huge financial reserves are wise stewardship. 
  • He and his wife have several children and enjoy their Church callings. 
  • Henry has had so many experiences in which his faith has blessed him that he really doesn’t understand why other people seem so cynical. After all, he doesn’t believe he’s anything special, so his blessings must come from Heavenly Father. Therefore, anyone else could be just as blessed as he is if they would exercise faith like he does.
  • Henry frequently testifies of this to Edward, because Edward is losing his testimony.

As a teen, Edward said the same prayer and had the same peaceful assurance that Heavenly Father chose the prophet and apostles to lead the Church, just like Henry. 

  • Edward is Black and has always been uncomfortable about the Church’s refusal to apologize for the priesthood and temple ban. 
  • Edward’s parents divorced when he was three years old. His father has had no contact with Edward since the divorce. His mother married again; his stepfather is a good father to Edward. His mother can’t get the sealing canceled because she can’t marry her nonmember husband in the temple. His younger sisters from his mother’s second marriage are also sealed to Edward’s birth father, according to Church doctrine. His birth father got married in the temple again, which upset his mother because now she’s trapped in eternal polygamy. This hurts Edward because he loves his mother, stepfather and sisters so much. 
  • Edward is bisexual. He’s dating a woman, and since he passes for straight, he hears what members say about LGBTQ individuals. His best friend is gay and has long since left the Church. He’s got a boyfriend now, and seems happy with his decision to quit Church. Another friend just confided in him that she’s a lesbian and she’s suicidal because she believes the Church is true and hopes God can make her straight after she dies. 
  • Edward has to work two jobs to make ends meet, despite paying tithing. He dislikes his calling as building cleaning coordinator and wishes the Church would just hire a janitor. 
  • Edward is thoroughly sick of listening to Henry testify about how he’s been blessed for his faithfulness.

Henry and Edward are taking the Church’s version of the Marshmallow Test. Who is really being tested here? Are Henry and Edward being tested on their faith? Or is The Test-Giver being tested on his trustworthiness? And is Heavenly Father the Test-Giver, or is it the Church leaders?

Henry seems humble and faithful. “I know I’m nothing special,” Henry testifies. “I didn’t earn these blessings. Heavenly Father, in his mercy, gave me these blessings. I know that anyone can be blessed as I have been blessed.”

At first glance, Henry is humble and faithful. At second glance, Henry is ignoring his privilege. Sure, Henry is never going to be a General Authority – but Henry’s life experiences and priorities are never going to clash with the General Authorities because they’re all cis, white, heterosexual married men with good educations, rewarding careers, and influential callings too. In contrast, a lot of Edward’s experiences and questions are foreign to the General Authorities. [fn2] 

Perhaps Henry is too self-conscious about his privilege to acknowledge that his faith is in a different context than Edward’s, solely because of advantages that neither of them control. It’s simply easier for Henry to believe that everything will work out in the next life according to your faith in this life. Henry will never feel disrespected because of his skin color; never feel like a lesser person because of his sexual feelings; never feel pain and confusion about who he’s going to spend eternity with; never feel like the Church is exploiting him through a calling. And he lacks the empathy to see that Edward is in a different situation – not because of his faith, but because of his life circumstances.

When we encounter trust-breaking experiences, Church leaders encourage us to doubt our doubts; don’t focus on the problems but have faith that all questions will be answered in the next life. Most people do this. You start piling questions and experiences on the shelf, trying to hang on to faith even as your trust takes another hit [fn3]. 

The shelf breaks when we realize we can’t continue to have faith in people that we can’t trust. It’s a trust crisis, not a faith crisis. It’s caused by things people have said and done. Having Henry bear his testimony doesn’t help because the broken trust is about our experiences, not about things we believe without evidence. We have evidence that we can’t trust the men who are making the promises. Many of us separate the Brethren from God and conclude that the Brethren don’t speak for God. In this way, we can continue to trust God.

Is it possible to have faith in the divine calling of someone you don’t trust? From the Brethren’s point of view, lazy learners just need to have more faith that the Brethren are called of God. You don’t need evidence of that; you just hope for things that you can’t see. But experiences happen. If you go to Church and try to be obedient, you’re going to have experiences with Church leaders, experiences with prayer; experiences with obedience. Being part of the Church is a relationship with a community, and relationships either strengthen or damage trust. 

The Brethren do not take actions that would restore trust. Restoring broken trust requires acknowledging your actions, listening to the person you hurt, taking full responsibility, apologizing sincerely, and then agreeing to be accountable for your actions in the future [fn4]. 

Exhorting Edward to greater faith doesn’t heal broken trust. And that’s why Henry and Edward are always talking past each other.

  • If someone you don’t trust promises you two marshmallows later, but in return you have to avoid all marshmallows in mortality, is this a question of faith? Or is it one of those fool-me-once-shame-on-you-but-fool-me-twice-then-shame-on-me situations?
  • Does saying “trust crisis” instead of “faith crisis” change anything for you?
  • Can you have faith in the General Authorities and NOT trust them?
  • Do you even like marshmallows?

[fn1] Elder Cook cited Elder Uchtdorf, who also used the Marshmallow Test in his April 2020 General Conference address Continue in Patience when he encouraged listeners to be patient and accept that good things take time to achieve. 

[fn2] Yes, the Brethren eventually listen to someone who has a different life experience than they do, but it takes years of emotionally exhausting work to get it through to the Brethren that the status quo is hurting people who are NOT cis, white, heterosexual married men.

[fn3] It’s not really about giving a second chance after one violation of trust. Most of us don’t feel our trust crater until many, many things have happened. We’re not struggling to give someone a second chance; we’re struggling to give someone a 490th chance when they haven’t repented. Compare Matthew 18:21-22 when Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy times seven with Luke 17:4 when Christ says that you should forgive seven times a day if the offender says “I repent.” See also Matthew 18:15-17 in which Christ teaches that if your brother trespasses against you, try to talk it out. If your brother “shall hear thee” then the relationship heals but “if he neglect to hear” then throw him out of your life. You can quote Christ to say you have to forgive no matter what, and you can also quote Christ to say that the wrongdoer has to repent or you don’t have to have a relationship with them at all.

[fn4] The best book I’ve ever read about how to rebuild broken trust is How Can I Forgive you?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not to by Dr. Janis Spring. She talks about how to find peace and forgive someone even if there is no chance for reconciliation, and gives good examples of just what it takes to reconcile. She makes it clear the burden is on the wrongdoer to rebuild trust, rather than suggesting that the victim’s forgiveness needs to come first.