“The Noria in the garden has taught a prayer-lesson today. At the very first turn of the wheel that works it, a cupful of the clear cold water deep down is dipped up – but it does not reach the surface at once. Many and many a ‘godet’ comes up first – dry, empty, iron. It is all on the way to the full one that is coming. More than that, each disappointing godet that looks as if it might be the expected one and fails to be, and goes back as it came, means another full cup coming up, if only we go on turning. For once the first has risen brimming over, every fresh turn means another and another outpour. The prayer-disappointments are all part of the prayer-answers that are coming – linked as securely as the godet links of the Noria, and working out the one objective.” Diary: 26 July 1906
Our community of faith suffered, with the parents, the loss of their son. We had prayed and rejoiced along with the family for successful treatment of his addiction only to see his young life taken unexpectedly – and accidentally – by a small but lethal combination of alcohol and a single non-prescription pill. My friend, the bereaved mother, related her struggle to make sense of things even as she attempted to cope with staggering loss. “People ask me has this made you lose your faith in God? And I answer, ‘No, I’m not angry with God – but I am disappointed.'”
Disappointed in prayer. Who of us has not, at some time, felt the same way? We have prayed and prayed and it seems our prayers were not heard or, at least, not answered. What do we do with our “prayer-disappointments” or, more to the point, what seems to be God’s failure to answer our prayers? The common answer to that perplexity is “He does answer. But it may also be ‘no’ or ‘later’.”
But what if “later” is “too late?” As in the case of this heartbroken family? We can think of countless other instances of fervent prayers where there was no later. I think of my mother with tears in her eyes, recalling a half-century later, the death of her little brother to tetanus – just months before the miracle drug was discovered that could have cured him. Too late.
And that doesn’t even address the millions of lives lost in senseless wars, persecutions or natural disasters. If God does not “answer” the earnest pleas that have been prayed on behalf of the suffering masses how can we expect Him to attend to our singular concerns? What is the point of praying for health, children, safety, finances, ministries for ourselves or for others?
Lilias addresses “prayer-disappointments” through a “prayer-lesson” taught by the noria in the garden – a noria being a water wheel with buckets attached to its rim that are used to raise water from a stream or well. She observed how each time the wheel was turned the “godet” – iron bucket – came up empty. Yet, at the bottom of the well the godets were being filled with clear-cold water. Every bucket that came up empty brought them closer to the desired water “if only we go on turning.” Comparing it to the spiritual world she writes: “The prayer-disappointments are all part of the prayer-answers that are coming – linked as securely as the godet links of the Noria, and working out the one objective.”
The lesson, once again, is to persist in prayer. Even when there seems to be no answer – or at least the one(s) we crave. To keep on praying until our prayers are answered or until our prayers seem to make sense of things – from God’s point of view. That the very persistence of praying seems to have its own benefit even if I can’t see it now, or that matter, never.
Question: Is this spiritual gobbledy-gook? Man-made God-speak? Why do we, why should we continue to pray even when each godet comes up empty? Is it wishful thinking to believe that all the prayers that seem to no avail actually are working toward the inevitable and endless pull of water-filled buckets of answered prayer?
I could skirt the question with an answer that is straight from Scripture and, I believe, true in its essential understanding. Why pray? Because we are commanded to pray – to bring every need or thought to God in prayer. If that is not enough reason, we have the example of Jesus – God-incarnate – living out a life of prayer: mostly for others but for Himself as well (especially as He faced His last hours on earth). He could have brought immediate healing or help to any need that presented itself. He could have called upon all the powers of Heaven to deliver Him from the hell into which He would descend.
One of my ways of coming to terms with the death of my mother was to read her journals – at least the ones that survived “the purge.” With the turning of each page I read the “inside story” of her faith experience – which elicited questions of my own. She claimed, in faith, promises of Scripture as she held before God the deepest concerns of her heart. Even as I “heard” her heartfelt prayers I knew the outcome. And I knew that regardless of the nobility of her prayers and/or the purity of her motive – to bring glory to God – that certain prayers would not be answered in the way she believed would do so. And I ached for her even as I anticipated what she did not: “prayer- disappointments.”
What I don’t know is how, in her inner being, she came to terms with the same. Her journals “go dark” for almost a decade. But this I know: she came out of the darkness of disappointment with a faith in God that was vibrant and rock solid. The faithfulness of God would be her both her unyielding testimony and legacy. Yes, through her prayers and life she did demonstrate that for which she prayed: to bring glory to God.
I look at my own inner history of prayer: the prayer-answers along with the pray-disappointments. And I wonder, if the godet came up full each time, what would I have gained? Trust in a Santa-on-steroids, there to do my beck and call. If each godet came up full, would I have tipped my hat to God saying, “thank you very much,” and moved on. What would I have lost? Is it possible that turning to God with my needs, my questions, my doubts, I was actually coming closer to His intention for me? To depend on Him? To trust Him? Certainly there were situations which I would have liked a different answer. I could justify how it would work for the good of all. But there are many more prayers – “prayer-disappointments” – which frankly God worked out in ways vastly superior to my imaginings. Prayer-answers.
Can I trust that what He has done so lovingly in the past – for me, for others – He will continue to do in the future? Even a future of which I may not be present? Can it be that every “empty” godet has brought me closer to Him? Has forced me to come to a greater understanding of His Will and His Ways? Has made me desire the Giver even more than His gifts? Could it be that ultimately this is what prayer is all about? Grappling with the difficulties of living in this broken world, yes, but in collaboration with God and His Purposes.
Karl Barth, living in the crisis days of Nazi rule declared prayer “to be the true and proper work of the Christian.” Philip Yancey expands this thought: “The act of prayer brings together Creator and creature, eternity and time, in all the fathomless mystery implied by the convergence. I can view prayer as a way of asking a timeless God to intervene more directly in our time-bound life on earth. . . In a process I am only learning, I can also view prayer from the other side, as a way of entering into the rhythms of eternity and aligning myself with God’s view from above,’ a way to harmonize my own desires with God’s and then to help effect, while on earth, what God has willed for all eternity.”
“Prayer is the soul’s pilgrimage from self to God,” wrote E. Hermann. What we perceive as “prayer-disappointments” and/or “prayer-answers” are a part of that pilgrimage. So we keep turning the wheel, so to speak, trusting that whatever is – or is not – in the godet is an essential aspect in that pilgrimage: the pathway to God.
Painting: Diary July 1906