Celebrating God's Permanence Through Ink

A missionary reflects on the story behind her tattoos

I sat in the tattoo shop as the only female, wide-eyed at all the books filled with both colorful (and shocking) images. Every tattoo design and style imaginable scattered each wall of the shop, leaving an overwhelming, yet somehow inviting feeling inside of me. I’m an artist—I enjoy mixing mediums of nature, paper and other 3D objects to make plain interior design come to life—so I saw creativity in those walls.

My understanding of the issue became: "If Christians were really following Jesus, they shouldn’t have tattoos."
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Before he started working, the tattoo artist looked at me and said, “Are you sure this is how you spell your tattoos? I’m bad at spelling.”

My homeschooled self—who I’m convinced could’ve won any Spelling Bee, you know, if I tried—suddenly forgot the spelling of two simple words. As I nervously pulled out my Bible to double-check, my conservative upbringing collided with my desire to creatively display God’s redemptive work in my life.

My story

I grew up in a Christian home, and, although my dad let me pierce my nose at age 14, he frowned upon the thought of tattoos. He had a layered dislike of them. Much of it came from what they represented in his generation (gangs, military, etc.), part of it was personal preference about how they looked, and another part resulted from research of tattoos that had roots in Old Testament idol worship.

We didn’t talk much about it growing up, but with all of these influences and opinions in my head, my understanding of the issue became: If Christians were really following Jesus, they shouldn’t have tattoos.

I felt freedom to pursue this desire to get a tattoo in the context of a personal, authentic relationship with Christ.
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That changed when, at age 18, I met several believers who were passionate about Jesus, had sound framework for moral decisions and (shockingly) had tattoos. Despite the ink on their bodies, there wasn’t a break in their relationship with Christ, and they weren’t walking in rebellion to His will. I began to reassess my own perspectives and how often I believed that my outward appearance affected my status before the Lord. Their walk with Him showed me a different picture.

Even though my ideas were changing, I wanted to be wise in my approach. I started to look into Scripture and could find only one main passage, in Leviticus, related to tattoos:

“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.”(Lev 19:28)

Looking at the surrounding context, it’s evident that God is emphasizing loving our neighbors as ourselves and keeping His statutes. This particular command is placed in the middle of several different statutes, including “do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (Lev 19:27) and “do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute” (19:29).

In understanding the Bible as a whole, we know this command was given to the Hebrew people for the specific purpose of setting them apart from other people groups around them. The purpose of these laws and commands was to display God’s holiness and to reveal to us that, ultimately, we can’t earn righteousness on our own and are in need of a Savior.

Since we live under the New Covenant—made righteous through faith in Jesus Christ—He fulfilled the commands of this law in Leviticus. In light of this deeper study of Scripture, I felt freedom to pursue this desire to get a tattoo in the context of a personal, authentic relationship with Christ.

Ultimately, I wanted each tattoo to point to Christ, His work in my life and His glory.
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Still, I couldn’t get a tattoo if it would cause dissension with my dad. I wanted to be respectful to him as my authority figure. We had three lengthy discussions, I read articles that spoke against them and at the end of the day, we both determined that if I ended up getting tattoos, it wouldn’t cause a break in our relationship. I didn’t want my tattoos to be a cause of grief or something I did out of rebellion. This would’ve been sin in my life, regardless of whether or not the tattoos were Scripture-based and appeared “holy.”

Not only was I concerned about the impact of this decision on my dad, but I also needed to think through the implications on my future career and how my tattoos might be perceived by others, depending on cultural views and the professional realm. For some time, I had known God had called me to the mission field, and I didn’t want to be a stumbling block to someone I was speaking with cross-culturally if I had tattoos that could not be covered up. After checking with several pastors from the area of the world where I felt led to serve, I got the first of my (now four) tattoos.

My tattoos

For a year, I deliberated about what tattoos I might get. Early on, I decided each one had to be rooted in Scripture—the only unchanging thing in my life.

Even when I was young, I was keenly aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life, that He was with me—not only spiritually, but also emotionally, mentally and physically. As relationships, trends, likes and dislikes come and go, I had an early understanding that God would be the only unchanging influence in my life. I love the new and exciting, so setting this guideline helped protect me from impulsively getting something permanent to represent something that may fade away.

The tattoos on my wrists are a daily reminder that God is my strength when I feel covered with weakness.
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Ultimately, I wanted each tattoo to point to Christ, His work in my life and His glory.

Strength and Dignity

My first two tattoos, ”Strength” and “Dignity” on my wrists, were inspired by Proverbs 31 as a reminder of God setting me free from deep-rooted insecurities in my life. Not only would these tattoos help me remember that truth, but I also wanted them to be a conversation starter with other women.

I chose the word, “Radiant,” to remind me that I no longer need to live in fear and shame of my past.
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Over the years, they have done exactly that. In multiple countries, in multiple languages, I’ve shared stories of how God has freed me from shame and clothed me with dignity. The tattoos on my wrists are a daily reminder that God is my strength when I feel covered with weakness and that it’s not up to me to produce enough bravery to battle through life. He is the one who has clothed and will continue to clothe me with strength and dignity. The tattoos are always an encouragement and subtle reminder to women who ask, and they give me an opportunity to share how God can do the same for them.

Radiant

One morning several years later, as I approached marriage with my soon-to-be-husband, Austin, I remember clearly God pointing me to Psalm 34:4-5:

“I sought the Lord, and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to Him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”

I’d made poor relationship decisions in the past, and I realized I carried fear and shame into a godly marriage. I was afraid of failing as a wife and ashamed I had baggage with which to be dealt. Yet God, in His absolute goodness and grace, walked me through these fears and shame and reminded me the old was gone and His redemption had covered all. He had set me free, and I could walk forward with radiance.

As a reminder of this encounter and season with God, I chose the word, “Radiant,” as my next tattoo to remind me that I no longer need to live in fear and shame of my past. Today, it also serves as a reminder that my aim is to behold the radiant face of Jesus and who He is. When I look at Him, I am not looking at myself and my failures—I’m beholding the only righteous one who is slowly transforming me into His image.

Faith

My fourth and latest tattoo is a fully bloomed mustard plant. At the time, I got this tattoo to represent the faith Jesus talks about in Matthew 17:20:

“He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’”

I purposefully got this one before moving overseas—as a reminder of faith as a part of the journey of Christian living, and also as a tribute to my mother and two sisters and the impact their faith has had on my life.

This mustard plant has only grown in its significance since we moved overseas. In Mark 4, Jesus tells a parable about a mustard seed that starts out small yet grows to become shade for the birds of the air. Through studying the context of this parable and recognizing how the seed represents the Word of God in a person’s life, I now see how the Word of God has completely transformed who I am.

God is the one who grows that seed in me, and as I abide in Him, I continue to grow—not only for myself, but also for serving others. Faith is a vital part of my journey, and it goes hand-in-hand with the fruit the Word of God has produced in my life through the work of the Holy Spirit.

My convictions

The act of putting permanent ink on one’s body isn’t explicitly listed as a sin in the Bible—but that doesn’t mean tattoos should be taken lightly. Like every decision we make as believers in Jesus, this decision should be approached with prayer and consideration with God.

We can celebrate creativity that God has given our minds...and we can still love our brothers and sisters in Christ when they think differently than we do.
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In our dialogue, my dad brought up some valuable questions that I think everyone should consider before getting a tattoo:

  1. Is the tattoo you are getting something you will still appreciate in 20-30 years?
  2. Is the placement of the tattoo something that you will regret later as you age?
  3. Will this affect your career or ministry?
  4. Is this honoring God with your body?

There isn’t a blanket statement we can make for every believer wrestling through this issue, but we can exhort one another to take our thoughts and actions and place them under the lordship of Christ. We can encourage each other to examine our motives and what they reflect about our attitudes and our hearts. We can respect those in leadership over us and hear their concerns before making decisions. We can celebrate creativity that God has given our minds.

We can also celebrate the fact that there are some variations of thoughts on minor issues—like tattoos—in evangelical Christianity, and we can still love our brothers and sisters in Christ when they think differently than we do. Our movement has made space for constructive and beneficial dialogue about issues secondary to the gospel on which we may disagree. In the article, “Why Do We Adhere to the Significance of Silence?”, Greg Strand, EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, summarizes this idea well:

“In sum, we in the EFCA are tethered to the text and grounded in the gospel. We are also committed to unity in the essentials of the gospel and dialogue in differences. We believe the gospel is both foundational to and yet also supersedes our theological views or preferences. This does not make them unimportant but rather of secondary importance to the gospel, which we affirm in our proclamation and manifest in our life together.”

In studying the truth of the Bible, seeking wise counsel from my dad and others, and researching both moral and practical implications of my decisions, this is where I landed. And I know I’m just one story—one of many followers of Christ wrestling through the, at times, complicated nature of moral decision making in an ever-changing culture. As we navigate through this process together, I’d encourage you to ask yourself: To whom or what do I go first when faced with a decision like this? Whom or what do I seek out for a second opinion? In whom or what is my foundation for moral decisions?

In our shared context of personal relationship with Christ, let’s engage in honest conversations, seek wise counsel and commit to a mutual and thorough study of Scripture as we wrestle through these sometimes-polarizing practices and positions.

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