You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms His covenant, which He swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
– Deuteronomy 8:17-18
I have a tattoo – only one – and it’s a source of shame to me.
A tattoo doesn’t seem to be such a big deal, especially among my generation. Although I got mine in the early 1990s, they are all the more common in today’s twenty-teens.
Even most Christ-followers seem ok with them, despite Old Testament prohibitions lumping tattoos with prostitution and black magic (Leviticus 19:26-31). A post-modern seal of approval perhaps stems from Jesus’ teaching – normally attributed to food – that, “nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mark 7:15). Our tattoos can even be a part of our testimony.
While earnest followers argue for or against tattoos, my shame isn’t for sake of having skin art. It’s not because a friend of a friend of my sister’s did the work – clearly, it must have been his second or third tat ever. It’s not because 25 years later, on my middle-aged shoulder, this “art” is sagging and fading and blurring, just like wiser people back in the day told me it would. And it’s not even because the design bears an unanticipated resemblance to the Body Glove logo, and the suggested commercialization of my body – without the proceeds of an endorsement deal – embarrasses me.
Rather, this is the source of my shame: I got the tattoo at the height of my self-reliance, my pride and my rebellion, in my late teens. To be clear: I wasn’t rebelling against my parents or society. Indeed, my immediate circles of loved ones, friends, and acquaintances were what you’d call freethinkers, and if they weren’t outright supportive of something like a tattoo on a young man, they were at least “to each his own” about it. Instead, my rebellion was against a God that I didn’t yet believe existed.
In that respect, the art that I selected – that I designed, I should admit – suited such a worldview perfectly: It is of my hand print, set inside a machine gear. To my adolescent understanding, my intellect, creativity, craftsmanship, and hard work is what made me who I am; they were my means to success and to meaning. Me. My. Mine. Instead of a Holy God, I was the sole agent of my life – god of me, if you will – over something like Johnny Cash’s empire of dirt, as I’d figure out later in life.
Today, a born-again follower of a sacrificed, risen Christ, I hate my body art. As described, the depravity of my thinking “B.C.” – Before Christ – is pretty self-evident. It clearly represents my sin, even in its muddy image.
By my research, getting rid of an unwanted tattoo is futile and vain. It’s a time-honored trick to put a new tattoo over the old one; to cover up the old stain with a new stain. But even if no one else knows what’s underneath, I always will. There are some pretty fancy lasers that can blast away the pigment of a regretted tat. But the raised welts of the skin give away the mark.
Metaphorically, if not also metaphysically, the indelible mark of a tattoo represents the stain of sin on every one of us. There’s nothing on Earth or in man’s power that can forever remove the permanence of a tattoo. And likewise, there’s nothing that a fallen man like me can do to rid himself of the stain of his sin.
And yet, there’s hope.
Our hope is in the Lord, who promises to wash away all sins, with the blood of His sacrifice. New. Clean. Pure. Saved. These words, throughout the Bible, and especially in context of the saving grace of Jesus, tell us that the worst juice-sin stain on the white carpet of our souls will be Oxi-Clean with Jesus.
Arguably the most hope-filled line of the Bible is where we’re told that, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). God also promises us a new body – a body made perfect and without the blemish of sin (1 Corinthians 15:42-49).
On these promises, I’m content to shoulder my stain for the rest of my time here, as a bitter reminder that in the place of that once-proud, rebellious young man is a new creation, filled with hope in redemption for eternal perfection. All because of Jesus.
All scripture from The Holy Bible, New International Version
This essay is torn from the pages of “The Flame,” a quarterly devotional magazine published by Christ Church.
The Faith Deconstructed category offers an occasionally thoughtful, sometimes glib, always faithful look at today’s Christianity, from the perspective of a reformed skeptic.