It probably wasn’t most brilliant idea I ever came up with to get a tattoo in college (junior year, March 12, 1993 to be exact), but at least it was a Trinity symbol. I had been thinking of getting a tattoo for a while, I just didn’t know what to get done. When I saw the triangle of three fish embroidered on a kneeler pad in Cleveland, OH, I knew that was it. Before it registered in my mind that I was a paying customer and could make the artist change the design (even if he was big and scary-looking), “Ace” was already working on the outline, which is well…permanent*.
I can’t say I regret getting a tattoo in principle. I just don’t like the tattoo on my ankle, and haven’t liked it since the day I got it. I still think the image itself is really cool and meaningful, but it’s too big. Way too big. It’s higher on my ankle than I wanted – practically on my calf. And it’s upside-down, which makes it look like a messed-up Superman emblem from a distance.
Yet there it is, for the rest of my life.
We all know that tattoos, once generally considered artifacts from the adventures with less-noble savages and unsavory types you wouldn’t want your precious daughter to date, have now become commonplace. So, what is a Christian to think about things like tattoos?
Most obviously, there’s that whole Bible verse thing. God instructed the ancient Israelites, “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:28). However, the verses immediately before and that one also condemn eating rare steak, trimming the hair at your temples or on your beard, cutting oneself for the dead, and selling your daughter into prostitution. So should we be observing more laws than we do? Probably. But Christians have been set free from bondage to the Law. As Paul teaches, all things are now permissible for us…but not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23).
For example, it might not be smart for you to get a tattoo somewhere that is not easily covered by everyday clothing later in life. And it’s probably not wise to get something permanently inked on your body that isn’t necessarily permanent – like your boyfriend’s name. And it would be a bad idea to get a tattoo of some pagan religious symbol. And you really shouldn’t disobey your parents and get a tattoo against their will or without their consent.
Tattoos are no longer the exclusive territory of bikers, sailors, “unwashed heathens” or even of Olympic athletes. These days, ordinary people – like me – are getting inked more and more. My tattoo is not a naked woman emblazoned on my chest, or a swastika on my hand, or a teardrop on my cheek. It’s a symbol of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s a reminder of my Baptism.
Do I wish it was in a different place so I could cover it up more easily? Sometimes. I also wish I could cover up my faith sometimes too. It’s there whether I like it or not. Is it too big? Absolutely. So’s God, if you ask me on a bad day. Do I ever think about having it removed? Yep. But that would be like trying to undo my Baptism, so I haven’t.
So while you are free in Christ to adorn the body you’ve been given in this life with things like tattoos, piercings, hair dye, and jewelry…you are also free to keep things simple. These outward things are not what make you a Christian, nor are they what make you truly beautiful. God doesn’t see us that way. He sees us as the washed, holy, pure, unblemished, unwrinkled, unmarred people He has made us in Christ.
In Baptism, we are marked with the sign of the Cross on our forehead and on our heart to identify us as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified, who bears the marks of our sin in His own body. We remember that Baptismal mark every time we make the sign of the Cross. That cross from our Baptism is invisible – but it’s just as permanent as a tattoo, if not moreso. It marks us in this life…and marks us for eternal life in Jesus Christ.
* Yes. It hurts to have a tiny needle jab ink deep into the layers of your skin. It doesn’t feel like getting a bunch of shots at the doctor’s office, it’s more like getting snapped by a tiny rubber band. Really hard. In the same place over and over, like, a zillion times.
Sandra Ostapowich is the Conference and Deputy Executive for Higher Things and a member at Faith Lutheran Church in Plano, TX.