Many years ago, we had a friend whose 18-year-old daughter was going to get a tattoo. She was horrified and was sharing with a few of us at church how embarrassed she felt. An 85-year-old woman heard the mom talking. The next week, this spirited saint came back and showed the mother something. She was sporting a new butterfly tattoo on her left shoulder, demonstrating to the mom that it wouldn’t be the end of the world when her daughter got one.
Years later, this mother unburied some deep trauma from her childhood — trauma that had ransacked her life for years. After years of counseling, deep healing prayer and a difficult journey of recovery, she decided she needed some kind of permanent and visible indication of the change God had brought in her. That’s right; she decided to get a tattoo!
It wasn’t for show or flash or to be a rebel, but rather a tattoo over her heart that was a permanent and visible reminder to her that she was a beautiful child of God and that her heart and life were made and marked by God Himself. Like Communion, it was a visible sign that there was no situation in life that could undo what God had done in her.
In the same way that many cultures use clothing styles or patterns to indicate social position or rank, for thousands of years, Pacific Island culture has used body art as a means to do the same. One is marked as part of a certain tribe or family by a particular pattern, and the patterns are thought to have both spiritual strength and connection to family and tribal stories.
Regardless of what we think and how we feel about tattoos, we all carry markings on our spirits that identify us. These marks may have been left by growing up around an abusive adult in our life, or being surrounded by addictions and dependencies in our families of origin. Sometimes our markings are so obvious that people we meet can see them coming before they can see us. Some of us “wear” those markings like a badge of pride and as a warning that says “don’t mess with me or you’ll get the full blast of what I’m carrying.”
On the other extreme, some of us try very hard to hide the markings we carry. Whether the chip on our shoulder makes us walk with a limp, or our baggage is invisible, they are indicators of our story, our pain or our progress. Sometimes we like to pretend that we have no markings, but it is impossible to grow up in this world and not have our lives marked by our experiences and our environment. These marks are part of what makes us who we are.
As followers of Jesus, we are all marked. The Holy Spirit is a sign and a seal on us, a deposit guaranteeing God’s presence now and in the future, and our identity in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5, God promises to mark us by putting His law in our minds and writing it on our hearts because we are His people (Jeremiah 31:33). In Deuteronomy 6 and 11, God instructs God-followers to fix His words on their hearts, minds and bodies, literally tying them as symbols on hands and foreheads, steering wheels and screensavers (OK, gates and doors — you get the idea though). We are to impress His Word on our children at home and on the road. Jewish tradition even included wearing these passages on tiny scrolls in bracelets and headbands — a constant reminder of who they worshipped and how they lived.
In addition to job training, Homeboy Industries (homeboyindustries.org) in Los Angeles has a clinic for tattoo removal for ex-gang members. Sometimes, if the tattoos are unable to be completely removed, volunteers are able to change them into something different than a gang-related sign, such as a Christian symbol or word. They are putting into practice on the body what God does on our spirit. God is in the business of changing tattoos. God is in the business of re-creating the identity of anyone who asks to be made whole, to be marked as His beloved daughter and beloved son.
A pastor I know has a tattoo on his forearm, which reads “Leviticus 19:28.” He gets asked regularly what verse that is. In the verse, God says, “Do not … put tattoo marks on yourself.” As you might imagine, he has very interesting conversations with Christians and pre-Christians alike about God’s plan to mark us, our freedom in Jesus and biblical interpretation.
“If my parents find out, I’m dead!” A student we coach recently refused to remove his shirt at athletic practice because he didn’t want his parents to know he had a tattoo. May he and each of us be openly marked by God’s Spirit, bringing joy to the Father.
Julie Gray is the senior pastor of Aldersgate Free Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Marvin Gray is Aldersgate’s associate pastor for outreach and youth while also serving as Light + Life Communications’ business sales associate.
- What tattoo(s) do I wear today? What parts of my story mark me? Is it really what I want to be known by?
- In what ways has God marked my life? Do I get asked about my tattoos — about the ways God has marked me? If I did, what would I say?