In the 1960s, a study at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School tested the patience and willpower of young children. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf elaborated on this study in his talk, “Continue in Patience.” The children were placed in a room alone with a marshmallow and told they could either eat the marshmallow right away or, if they waited about 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Only a third were able to wait long enough to receive the second treat.
Comparing this scenario to our high-tech society, Ed Batista, a Harvard Business Review writer, recently stated:
As adults we face a version of the marshmallow test nearly every waking minute or every day as we are tempted by our browser tabs, phones, and tablets, devices that connect us to the global delivery system for those blips of information that do to us what marshmallows do to preschoolers…. Not only are we constantly interrupted by alerts, alarms, beeps, and buzzes that tell us some new information has arrived, we constantly interrupt ourselves to seek out new information. We pull out our phones while we’re in the middle of a conversation with someone. We check our email while we’re engaged in a complex task that requires our full concentration. We scan our feeds even though we just checked them a minute ago.
Waiting is hard in our time-obsessed culture. We are no longer satisfied with fast; we want instant. Waiting is hard for children, and it is hard for adults. Yet, as followers of Jesus Christ, sometimes we are asked to wait to do or have things that we might want now. We are also asked to complete tasks and develop in ways that cannot be done instantly. Indeed, we are asked to be perfected, a process that will take longer than a lifetime. Not only that, but we are asked to do it while working with other imperfect people.
So how can we overcome these obstacles and develop the virtue of patience? Below are several lessons about patience I’ve learned through my own experience and that of others. While I admit that I am still far from perfect in this regard, I hope these lessons can help others, as well.
1. Wait on the Lord
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf states, “Patience is a purifying process that refines understanding, deepens happiness, focuses action, and offers hope for peace.” He continues, “As parents, we know how unwise it would be to indulge our children’s every desire. But children are not the only ones who spoil when showered with immediate gratification. Our Heavenly Father knows what good parents come to understand over time: if children are ever going to mature and reach their potential, they must learn to wait.”
Patience goes beyond merely waiting, though. Preach My Gospel describes patience as “the capacity to endure delay, trouble, opposition, or suffering without becoming angry, frustrated, or anxious. . . . When you are patient, you hold up under pressure and are able to face adversity calmly and hopefully.”
My husband and I were blessed to adopt our beautiful daughter last July. In the years leading up to that wonderful blessing, we were compelled to wait. I wish I could say that I never became angry, frustrated, or anxious, but that would be untrue. Those feelings often seemed to creep into my heart. My pleadings to the Lord to have children in my timing seemed to go unheard. After what now seems like far too long, my husband and I decided that our prayers needed to change. On a fast Sunday, we decided to fast only for peace. An outpouring of personal revelation occurred that day, and we knew exactly what we needed to do to bring our daughter home. It seems the Lord had been practicing patience with me, waiting for me to ask the right question and align my will with His. In the end, the lesson I learned can easily be summed up by President Uchtdorf: “God’s promises are not always fulfilled as quickly as or in the way we might hope; they come according to His timing and in His ways. Looking back, I know for sure that the promises of the Lord, if perhaps not always swift, are always certain.”
2. Remember that God is reliable
The marshmallow test was revisited in 2012 in a Rochester University study. In this experiment, prior to being faced with the test of patience with a marshmallow, the children each had an encounter with an adult in which they were promised art supplies. Some of the children had a reliable encounter, where the adult delivered the art supplies as promised. Others had an unreliable encounter, where the adult never delivered the art supplies. That first encounter had a huge influence on the children’s willingness to wait for a second marshmallow. Of the 14 children that had an unreliable encounter, only one was able to wait long enough to receive the second treat; they may have assumed that the second marshmallow, just like the art supplies, would not be delivered. Conversely, more than half of the children who had experienced a reliable encounter made it through the 15-minute wait.
Knowing that Heavenly Father’s promises are sure can increase our patience. In Liberty Jail, the Prophet Joseph Smith and several companions were enduring a difficult bondage. Even the prophet was led to ask “how long?” The Lord’s comforting reply was one of patience and hope: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.”
In other words, like the marshmallow test, Joseph was essentially told, “If you can continue to follow me for this short time, you will receive a better prize later.” Because Joseph Smith knew the character of God, that He is reliable and that His promises are sure, he continued in faith and patience.
In order to increase our ability to trust in the Lord’s timing, it seems important for us to know that the Lord is reliable. We can know this as we reflect on our own experiences throughout our lives. By knowing the completely reliable character of God, we can find comfort in the words of the Lord: “I will not fail thee, or forsake thee.”
3. Be patient with yourself
It is also important that we learn to be patient with ourselves. As anyone who has ever attempted sustainable weight loss can attest, lasting change takes time. And not simply a change in behavior, but a complete change to one’s approach to health. In fact, attempts to diet to lose weight actually have been shown to increase risk for weight gain beyond baseline levels. In like fashion, an overnight overhaul of all of our weaknesses at once tends to result in discouragement and giving up. We should expect that our quest for perfection will take time and that we will develop little by little, line upon line.
Our Heavenly Father allows us opportunities to grow as we are involved in His work. The Lord shows forbearance with us, and we should be patient with ourselves as we make mistakes and try again. As President Thomas S. Monson said:
[This persistence in development] should be our purpose—to persevere and endure, yes, but also to become more spiritually refined as we make our way through sunshine and sorrow. Were it not for challenges to overcome and problems to solve, we would remain much as we are, with little or no progress toward our goal of eternal life. The poet expressed much the same thought in these words:
"Good timber does not grow with ease,
The stronger wind, the stronger trees.
The further sky, the greater length.
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow."
4. Be patient with others
We must also be patient with others. In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches this principle with the parable of the creditor. A creditor, representing the Savior, calls forth his servant, who represents each of us. This servant is in debt to the Lord far beyond what could be repaid in a thousand lifetimes. The servant pleads, “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.” Then the Lord was moved with compassion and forgave the debt in entirety. Later, the forgiven servant is similarly petitioned by another man who owes him a mere pittance in comparison. The man pleads, “Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.” Yet the servant demands that the debtor be imprisoned until the debt is repaid.
How often do we, ignoring the patience of the Lord with our weakness or sin, demand perfection of others? Much as we each are in a long slow journey to perfection, we should remember that those sitting on our right and left are on a journey as well. President Uchtdorf said, “As the Lord is patient with us, let us be patient with [others]. Understand that they, like us, are imperfect. They, like us, make mistakes. They, like us, want others to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
So let us seek to know the Lord better so that we can truly believe that all of His promises will be fulfilled if we continue faithful each day. Let us trust in His timing and in His way. Let us be patient with ourselves and patient with each other.