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A Cup of Sweet Water

April 18, 2024

Carolyn Broughton

It’s building again, that internal tightness. Deadlines loom, email sentences tangle, no word seems quite right, thoughts crumble around my ears. I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Why is everything so complicated? I think. Why can’t life just be simple, straightforward? Raising teenagers, running a business, growing relationships, pursuing creative endeavors—each area seems fraught with perceived expectations and, for me, the pervasive fear of not measuring up, of disappointing myself and others. Because I’m usually running empty on grace for myself, I’m often unable to spill grace onto those around me. 

Cradling my cup of tea, I sit quietly on my bed, practicing stillness. There are wonderful things ahead this spring: a conference for creatives, a workshop for local songwriters, opportunities with music in my context which I’ve prayed to see for two decades. The thrill of watching this cluster of long-awaited hopes emerge over the horizon is unparalleled in my adult life, and the tension between the potential for tremendous good and the self-imposed stress of fulfilling my role in each event is driving me to new depths of faith. I’m vacillating between that sense of mounting pressure and a tantalizing tug toward overwhelming joy, until I feel like something might explode. 

I take a few slow, deep breaths, becoming aware of God with me here, right now. Thoughts flit through my mind: an upcoming appointment, what to give the kids for lunch . . . Forcing myself to breathe more slowly, I sink down another layer to where my heart swirls with hopes and plans, idea fragments tumbling. Anticipation flutters in my stomach.  

Another slow inhale, exhale. I drop down even deeper, and find . . . fear. I pause, realizing. Naming.

I feel vulnerable in this joy. 

I have journeyed through heaviness and persevered in certain areas for so long without results, now that joy is imminent I find myself hesitant to open up and welcome it. I’m afraid it will prove ephemeral, unreliable, that it will pop like a bubble, leaving me disappointed, and I’ll have to readjust myself again to the mundane slog. Better to manage my expectations so I’m not let down.

As I sip my tea, I realize that, besides joy evaporating, I’m afraid of not measuring up to my own expectations of myself. My whole life I have struggled to locate my identity in anything other than my view of my own achievements. How I feel about myself is wrapped up in whether I measure up in my own eyes, whether my production matches my goals, whether others are affirming my efforts and approving or applauding. I obsess about accomplishing the task up to (my) standard, rather than focusing on the One who created me to do the thing and promised to give me all I need to accomplish “the good works He prepared in advance for me to do” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV). Any time my focus slips off God, my awareness of grace dries up and the cup of my heart fills with a toxic, performance-based sludge that can easily splatter onto those around me (who, accordingly, walk on eggshells). Much as I hate to admit it, when I’m jostled unexpectedly—a kid squabble, a critical comment, something I forgot to do—my heart often sloshes bitter drops. I snap harshly or express frustration in an overblown, unfair way.

Grace is the balm, the remedy, the magic ingredient that alchemizes my critical spirit into a grateful one. But before I can receive grace, I have to crack the shiny shell of pride over the cup of my heart that prevents me from acknowledging my need. Admitting something I did needs redoing, or, more painful still, admitting that I need remaking from my flawed state into a better one, requires a posture of gentle openness that usually eludes me. In order to receive grace, I have to admit I’m not enough, that what I have to offer doesn’t, in fact, measure up. Like everyone else, I’ve fallen short of the glory of God, and apart from Christ, I actually have no hope. This is an unbearable feeling. (Pride, again.) But here’s the thing: even though accepting the grace that enables me to acknowledge my need feels wretchedly humiliating, ultimately, it’s a profound relief to admit that what I know deep down is true and to receive the power and help I’m hungry for. 

I realize that while I’ve been thinking about how to access grace, I’ve been holding my breath and tightening my stomach muscles. I breathe slowly and deeply again, and starting with my legs I tightly clench each muscle group in my body, hold for a few breaths, and then release. As I move from my legs up my torso to my shoulders, my body becomes heavy and sinks a little more into the surface of my bed. My breathing slows. My jaw loosens, tongue dropping down from the roof of my mouth. I set my mug of tea on the bedside table and rest my hands in my lap, palms up.

In my mind, an image surfaces: a cup, a smooth goblet filled with fragrant liquid. As I sit with the image, first I think, I am the cup. I’m trying to contain the surging emotions coming my way, and I will either explode or be crushed. It’s too much.

But as I sit longer with the image, I become aware of strong hands, holding the cup. The liquid inside is being offered for my taste. You have tasted the cup of sorrow, says a quiet resonance inside my heart. Can you taste the cup of joy? 

I begin to sense the Holy Spirit in the cup in liquid form, offering Himself to me. What would love taste like? Patience? Peace? All my life, those verses in Galatians 5 about “the fruit of the Spirit” have meant that if I’m truly full of the Holy Spirit, I should be able to just be more gentle, more patient, more self-controlled—all the things I’m not. 1+1 should equal 2, should should should. Try harder. Make the connection. Live it out. 

Suddenly, here is this cup at my lips, filled brimful with goodness. Patience. Joy. Endless grace. 

Taste, says the voice. See that I am good.

Could it really be this easy? Could accessing grace be just . . . tasting the indwelling presence that already fills me up?

Hesitant, I try it. In my relaxed body, eyelids closed, I imagine bringing the cup to my lips and taking a sip. I taste Joy on my tongue: Lemon. My mouth actually waters. I taste love. Cranberry. Tart-sweetness fills my taste buds. Wow. I am utterly still, cupping the image of the goblet in my hands. I imagine showing up for my conversation this afternoon from this place of stillness, aware of this cup in my heart, all these—gentleness, patience, discernment, self-control—right there, just below my lips, ready for the tasting. Every flavor of Spirit-fruit accessible to me, in any situation, each moment of the day. 

Like a thunderclap, I see that grace for remaking, for being remade—grace for all the things I don’t like about myself, all the ways I don’t measure up—this grace flows steadily from the presence of God inside me. He is the one who holds the cup, who Himself is the cup, and who pours into my cup until it overflows. “. . . whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14, NIV)

As Amy Carmichael said, “A cup brimful of sweet water cannot spill one bitter drip, however suddenly jolted.” [1] If my cup is full of Him, when I am bumped or jostled, the drops that splash onto those around me will be sweet grace. 

Taste, and see. 

[1] Amy Carmichael, Candles in the Dark (Fort Washington: CLC Publications, 1982).

Listen to Sweet Water by Carolyn Broughton.

The featured image is courtesy of Amanda Yum via Unsplash. We are grateful for Amanda’s vision, skill, and generosity.


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