The title of the above painting is Separation Anxiety. I painted it during one of the darkest times of my life. My wife, pregnant with our second child, and I no longer wanted to be married. After a year and a half of one-sidedly trying to work things out, I had given up and we decided to divorce. There is much, much to be said about how poorly I “tried to work things out,” but that’s a discussion for another time. The term “separation anxiety” is most often applied to a phase in a child’s life when he or she becomes distressed any time they are separated from their parents. This painting, however, attacks the term from the opposite angle. It is a painting of fear. My fear. Fear that, upon our separation, I would no longer be able to be the father I wanted and felt called to be. In some ways, that fear has been realized, but in more ways than I could have ever imagined, God has allowed me to continue to fill that role in my kids’ lives.
That role, of course, has proved to be the most difficult and awesome burden I have ever borne. I say burden, because as their dad, I stand in the gap between the ravenous dog and the gentle dove. It’s easy to interpret and deduce what the dove represents: innocence; goodness; godliness; joy. The dove is singular in its source and quality. It’s the dog that is the complex character here. Is it the world? Satan? My children’s individual carnality and sinful nature? Me and my sinful nature? I have strong views about my role and responsibilities as a father and husband. I truly believe that I will be called to account for how I lead my family. It is terrifying. Too often, this terror supersedes my faith.
My son has been having a rough year. In fact, he’s always been a little . . . out of sync. I have struggled as a father to guide him. He can recite verbatim admonition and instruction that he does not put into practice. As a young boy, for instance, I would press upon him the need to respond verbally to my call. More often than not, me calling his name would be met with silence time and again to the point of my exasperation and (I’m ashamed to admit) anger. But now he is in a middle school that is less than nurturing, and struggling to fit in and control his own anger. Anger that I fear has been passed down from me like some sort of odious heirloom. I worry so much about him. Every time I hear he’s had an outburst at school, I am simultaneously heartbroken and frustrated. “If only he would do what we’ve talked about . . . !” Then, against all efforts, I enter lecture-mode. I tell him more things he should do or should have done. Just like a Pharisee, I lay more burden on him.
Then God slaps me with a Calvin and Hobbes strip. If I ever get to meet Bill Watterson, I’m going to thank him for this neat little gut-punch:
Ouch. I’ve seen that look in my kids’ eyes.
If I could point to a single thing fatherhood has taught me, it is how amazing the love of God is. I know how much love I feel for my kids—it is crushing at times—and I know how often I fail to truly show my kids that love. The thing is, God loves me, His child, vastly more than I love my kids, and He shows it perfectly. Part of standing in the gap is knowing how much to say and when to say it. How do I nurture the dove while restraining the dog? Too often my grip on one crushes the other. Yet the Father never crushes me. So often, I have learned, He allows me to either listen to His guidance (which is never forced on me with some heavy-handed lecture) or follow my own will and learn the hard way. And when I do choose willfulness and inevitably fall, He never condemns me.
This is the point at which faith steps in. I know that what is true for me is true for my kids. Yes, God uses me as an instrument of His guidance and love for my kids, but ultimately their righteousness is not up to me. It’s up to Him. He loves my children more abundantly and more perfectly than I could ever imagine, and He has made the way for their salvation. I have to trust in that, but how? How in the world do I say only what needs to be said? How do I even know what needs to be said or done? How do I guide my kids without rescuing them or making them feel condemned by their mistakes? So often, it seems as though I’m stuck in some sort of parental paradox. It’s as if there are two poles: the overbearing, impossible-to-please dad; and the laissez-faire dad who doesn’t care enough to not let his kids fail. And I’m in the void between.
But God. He is standing in the gap. He is in the void with me—filling it. Making it full and rich with His grace and mercy and love and wisdom. Only when I rely on my own capacity as a father do I lose sight of this. The past several weeks have culminated in this moment in which I am reminded that my kids are really God’s kids. I get to nurture and shepherd and love them, but they love Jesus and they are His. This point in my journey as a father is a familiar one. I came to it after I painted Separation Anxiety, and several times since. Hopefully, I’ll learn to live here.
To see more of my art, please visit jikarner.com.