The Instant Gratification Trap in Counseling, Part 1

June 19, 2017

Shannon Kay McCoy

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Shannon Kay McCoy

We are born with a desire to gratify ourselves. We are driven by innate desires for food, water, sleep, shelter, fellowship, and communication. This is how civilization develops and progresses. Incredible inventions were created that have made life easier, such as the washing machine and the telephone. Instant gratification is not a new phenomenon. However, our expectation of “instant” is now faster than ever.

How long will you wait for that cute cat video to load? I love cute cat videos, but if the video has not loaded after 10 seconds, I’m out! I move on to another site that has piqued my interest. When I order something on the internet, if the shipping time is too long, I check to see if it is on Amazon Prime and order it there to get it in 2 days, even though I do not necessarily need it in 2 days. It is the gratification I get when the package arrives even though I may not open it for days. When calling customer service, how long do you wait on hold before hanging up and calling back (as if that will make them talk to you sooner)? Do you remember dial-up internet? I won’t even go there.

Instant Gratification

Instant gratification is satisfying a desire immediately, without delay or deferment. It is the opposite of waiting. It is satisfying short-term pleasure instead of enduring the pain of long-term gain. Instant gratification often manifests as the ultimate in impatience. It is the difference between those who have the mindset of “strike while the iron is hot” versus “good things come to those who wait.” Unfortunately, our culture today feeds our innate desire for satisfaction now. There was a time when we had to wait for the public library to open before we could research a topic of interest. Now we have instant information at our fingertips. With the wonderful inventions of computers, smartphones, and tablets, we can connect to anything we could possibly want: a selection of all types of entertainment on Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, a library of eBooks and audiobooks, and real-time local and world news at the touch of a button.  We can communicate and share photos instantly with long distance loved ones and friends. These powerful tools fuel our insatiable desire for instant gratification.

Instant Gratification in Counseling

How does the need for instant gratification affect the counseling ministry? We may now have the dreaded feeling that instant gratification and counseling do not coexist. To be a Christian is to be set apart from a self-centered existence to a Christ-centered existence. We no longer live for ourselves. Galatians 2:20 states the theme of the Christian life: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” The believer’s life is characterized as living by faith in Jesus Christ and not living in the flesh, which craves instant gratification.

Christians often get caught up in the instant gratification mindset in ministry. In the counseling room, the counselee wants a quick fix to a problem and the counselor wants the counselee to change instantly. An instant gratification approach to counseling is detrimental. Just as we demand instant feedback on social media and 2-day shipping, we demand that God fixes the negative circumstances and change people immediately. If God does not come through fast enough, then we will find another way to resolve the problem—often leading to an even worse situation. The result of such impatience is stress, frustration, anger, fear, discouragement, and despair.

The instant gratification trap causes the counselor and the counselee to abandon the core spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, and fellowshipping with other believers. Prayer is abandoned because it takes too long to see results, studying the Bible seems pointless when we can Google any question we may have, fasting seems bad for your health, and fellowshipping is a waste of time when we have other things that need our attention immediately.

There is no quick fix to counseling a couple whose marriage was damaged by adultery. One cannot instantly work through the grieving process of losing a loved one. You cannot say “Stop it!” to someone who is addicted to painkillers. When we try to fix the problem quickly or push for change instantly, then the essence of the Christian life is missed. The apostle Paul states the purpose of the Christian life in Philippians 3:10-11: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” The goal of counseling is change based on a relationship with Jesus Christ. The pain and suffering of life are meant to develop a greater intimacy with Christ and to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ. The counselor and the counselee must be reminded of this truth. We come to know Him better when we wrestle through the trials of life in this fallen world. The way to overcome the instant gratification trap is practicing delayed gratification.

In Part 2, I will walk us through the process of delayed gratification.

Questions for Reflection

How is your daily life affected by this instant gratification culture? Is your spiritual life affected by an instant gratification mindset? In what way is your ministry/counseling affected by a desire for instant gratification?