I recently celebrated my 31st birthday by getting another tattoo. Notice I said “another”. That means there has been at least one prior. And I clearly don’t look at it/them as a mistake. I’ll explain why in a minute.
But first, I’d like to point out two negative views on tattoos which are at opposite ends of the spectrum, both of which I’ve had to address before on a couple of occasions.
1) “Real Christians Shouldn’t Do That”
A very kind, supportive, and faithful southern Christian gentleman asked me about tattoos a number of years ago, before I had any. His daughter had mentioned that she was interested in getting a tattoo and he wanted me to talk to her about how this would be against God’s will. I started by suggesting that since she was still a legal dependent of her father, this was an issue of respecting your God-given authorities as much as anything (4th Comm; Eph. 6:1-3). I proceeded by asking him why he felt tattoos were against God’s will. He said something about how “Doesn’t God forbid it, in the Old Testament?” So we opened our Bibles to Leviticus 19:28, a section regarding tattoos that is often pointed to by people who recognize the authority of the Bible’s words but who don’t recognize the reality of the Bible’s setting, context, and writing style. Lev. 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.” Right there it was. Was he right? I asked the man, however, to read the preceding verse, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lev. 19:27) I gently, kindly, and firmly told him that if he wants me to be a consistent and faithful Bible teacher and tell his daughter that tattoos are evil, according to his logic, I’m going to have to call him to repentance for his recent haircut.
We went on to have a good conversation about how God gave some laws to his people in the Old Testament for the purpose of guiding them away from the idolatry and wickedness of the neighboring people. We further discussed that if certain morally neutral practices of our culture were associated with the worship of false gods, that they’d generally be a good thing to stay away from as well. So, for instance, while I could put a menorah on my dinner table and suggest that I just “like the pretty candles”, it’s been so closely associated with Judaism for so long that it’s likely not wise.
Close association to the worship of false gods may, at one point, have been associated with tattoos. Fifty years ago, tattoos were most commonly associated in culture with gangs who, arguably, worshiped false gods of violence, drug use, and sexual immorality. But times have changed. In September 2006, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey which found that 36% of Americans ages 18–25, 40% of those 26-40 and 10% of those 41-64 had a tattoo. They’re not all in gangs :). Furthermore, a little informal research at my local workout facility would tell you that tattoos are now seemingly the norm for most Americans under 40.
There’s no biblical mandate and little cultural taboo concerning tattoos. Therefore, self-righteous legalism against tattoos ain’t doing anything good for the church.
2) “You’re Doing That To Try To Be Cool”
The other negative view I’ve gotten against tattoos is that a pastor who gets tattoos is attempting to acquiesce to modern culture and be “cool”.
Right…..cause we’re in the 6th grade? Look, my Ford Escape has a decal of a cat and a rabbit that my wife put on the back window. I think the “attempts at cool” ship sank a while back.
I get it. Attempts by churches (or pastors) to be cool, or look cool, or talk cool, are a little stomach-turning to me too. I once saw a billboard where a church advertised “Here’s what OUR pastor wears on Sunday”, followed by a picture of a proud, heavy-set, middle-aged man dressed from head to toe in denim. I think the church was trying to suggest that they don’t have a stuffy, enforced dress code. Okay. But, if in an attempt to be edgy and counter-traditional, they honestly think that a picture of a man draped in denim would coerce me to come to their church, or go anywhere for that matter, they’re mistaken. I couldn’t care less what your pastor is wearing, as long as he’s wearing something.
Most attempts by churches (or pastors) to come off as “cool” are fairly embarrassing. Since what is defined as “cool” is so often dictated by a culture tainted by sin, a church, in many ways, may look very different from that. In other ways, it maybe can/should look similar to the culture. What’s embarrassing is when you try too hard to be overly cultural (hip & trendy) OR counter-cultural (self-righteously rigid & stodgy). In either case, you’re trying too hard at the wrong things.
If you really care about sharing the gospel, you’ll be serious about understanding your culture and intentional about meeting the people of your culture where they’re at, but you won’t treat your culture like a false god that you too must bow down to.
Gluttony for cultural relevance ain’t doing anything good for the church either.
The REAL Reason for the Tattoos
It’s simple. COMMITMENT. I think it’s necessary to regularly remind myself of the importance of commitment in a world that’s terrified by it. Tattoos, for the most part, are a visual, physical lifelong commitment.
Our culture (particularly Gen X’ers & Gen Y’ers), as mentioned earlier, is getting an unprecedented amount of tattoos. Inked, Miami Ink, and LA Ink have all been very popular shows on cable TV in recent years. Why do you think this is? While there might be a number of reasons, let me propose one:
In an era that I have no doubt will be characterized, historically, by hyper-relativity which leads to an extremely noncommittal attitude toward anything and everything, I think it’s clear that young people are demonstrating their longing for commitment, through tattoos.
It’s really not much different from how, despite attempts by recent generations to make our lives increasingly private, this generation of young Americans have launched head first into social networking. You simply can’t hinder relationship when, biblically speaking, you were built for relationship. Likewise, the increasing societal presence of tattoos on young people is demonstrating that you simply can’t hinder commitment when, biblically speaking, you were built for commitment.
The Bible has a great deal to say about commitment (or “covenants”). For instance, the Bible promotes a commitment in marriage that our culture simply doesn’t know. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say something to the effect of “Why do we need a piece of paper (i.e. marriage certificate) to prove that we love each other?” What they won’t say, but really mean, is, “We love each other but we don’t want to completely close off all of our other options yet.” So, I’ll say, “Well if you have true marital love, that means that you want to be together for the rest of your lives. What damage then is there in getting a piece of paper?” If you refuse to get that piece of paper, you’re simply and clearly declaring that you’re just not THAT committed to the other person. This would logically mean that you don’t truly love them to the degree that you could, because the essence of true love, according to the Bible, is sacrificial commitment to the good of another. By and large, our culture doesn’t see much of that and doesn’t really get that, but still craves that, because we were designed for that.
Finally, only in Jesus can we understand true commitment. Jesus was utterly committed to us, sacrificing his entire life. And he seeks, in us, that same sort of commitment. He said to another man, “Follow me…..No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59, 62) God didn’t give you a spirit of timidity or relativity or non-commitment. He gave you his Spirit. So in the name of Jesus, according to the will of Jesus, guided by the Word of Jesus….“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.” (Psalm 37:5-6).
My Recent Tattoo
By the way, if you’re wondering, the tattoo featured in the picture above are the words, in Greek, from the end of 1 Peter 1:12, “Even the angels long to look into these things.” In short, these words suggest that the gospel of Jesus is so magnificent and beautiful that the angels can’t even take their eyes off of it. And if that’s the case (and those angels are that much smarter than me), how could I possibly ever think of tiring of the gospel’s beauty.