Why I would consider getting a tattoo
I am anticipating that my title is going to result in a split readership.There will be those of you eager to follow my thinking and logic and there will be those of you with raised eyebrows and spiritual scowls who are armed; ready to critique and find fault with my ‘obviously’ flawed thinking.
I know, because up until a few years ago, I was in the latter group.
At the outset, I want to say two things:
Firstly, in many of my previous articles, I have shared my heart.
This one is going to expose my heart.
Secondly, on one level, this is an article about tattoos, but on another level, it is not about tattoos at all. It is about the pride and sin of self-righteousness and legalism, two sides of the same coin.
Consider these words by Jonathan Edwards: ‘The deceitfulness of the heart of man appears in no one thing so much as this of spiritual pride and self-righteousness. The subtlety of Satan appears in its height, in his managing persons with respect to this sin. And perhaps one reason may be that here he has most experience; he knows the way of its coming in; he is acquainted with the secret springs of it: it was his own sin. Experience gives vast advantage in leading souls, either in good or evil.’
At the end of this article I hope that those of you in the cynical camp might perhaps agree with my title. That doesn’t mean you will all rush out and get tattoos. (God forbid!) And those of you in the first camp, I hope you will realise I am not proposing that you all go out and get tattoos; because as I have said, this is actually not about tattoos.
Tattoos are the object lesson. The pointer.
You see, in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, I was the ‘older brother’ and my view of tattoos represented my self-righteousness. I looked down on all the wild and rebellious ‘younger brothers.’
Tim Keller refers to this as finding our identity and happiness in moral conformity. This, however, results in feelings of superiority.
The superiority of my self-righteousness caused me to be proud and critical of others, especially if they had tattoos. Tattoos were my blind spot.
And as Alistair Begg notes, ‘We are so blinded by our blind spots, we don’t even realise we are blind.’
I judged those who did things differently from my prescriptive world of Christian rules. The subtle but constant persuasive message that outward behaviour and adherence to rules was the true measure of a Christian’s heart and the standard of acceptance was the code by which I lived.
One of the young adult girls in a previous church and Bible study was intent on getting a butterfly tattoo on her foot. ‘Christian duty’ dictated I launch forth with much researched caution and I questioned her motives. I urged her to reconsider, as in my mind she could not maintain her Christian testimony if she got a tattoo. I judged her. I thought less of her. I was that person. When she got the little butterfly on her foot, I refused to acknowledge it, even though it was pretty. Self-righteousness, however, is never pretty.
I could sprout forth many biblical principles why tattoos were ‘sinful.’ And I did. The reasons were well practiced and ingrained in my mind. I had the Scriptures, even though they were taken out of context. I took my man-made Framework (with a capital ‘F’) and judged Scripture and others by that.
I had raised my own straw man and he was full of tattoos.
I was wrong.
I am not saying the principles were wrong or flawed. I am saying I had made these principles prescriptive. This meant that, in practice, a Christian could not get a tattoo. It was as simple as that. It was black and white.
Legalism is never one’s intended operating system. It doesn’t start with the intention to judge. It starts with a desire to please God by keeping His standards, but legalism makes holiness seem easier with a list of rules to keep.
‘Legalism is sneaky. It convinces us that the guidelines we’ve added to achieve holiness were written by God Himself. Legalism drives a wedge between the truth of God and our hearts. It removes the necessity of a daily relationship with the Lord because all we need to do is follow the rules. ’ [Phylicia Delta at www.churchleaders.com]
Falling off my spiritual high horse has been painful. It has been humbling. But the world looks beautifully different from the ground looking up. Grace has changed my perspective.
Understanding Christian freedom has liberated me from my prison of man-made rules. Christian liberty has knocked the wind out of my legalism but it has also cautioned me from swinging to the side of license.
Legalism and its ever present side-kick, self-righteousness, stand in the gap where Grace should be.
Grace never allows me to look at you through my own eyes. Grace never allows me to judge you based on your outward alone. Grace never allows me to show partiality based on the physical only. Grace constrains me to look at you (and your tattoos) through the lens of the Gospel and with the eyes of Christ.
Grace reminds me that your freedom of conscience and accountability before God are not my playground.
Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at and knows the heart; mine and yours.
Jesus, the one person who could truly claim to be self-righteous, was humble and only critical of those who were proudly self-righteous. Jesus' self-righteousness came to destroy our self-righteousness. He did this by His sacrificial death on the cross, thereby clothing us in His righteousness and denying us any right to boast in our own righteousness.
So where do I stand on Christians and tattoos? Certainly not where I stood before.
I realise that whichever side of the fence you are on with regard to Christians getting tattoos, you will find an article supporting your view.
However, I am going to stand with Jefferson Bethke and John Piper on this issue, who I believe are the most balanced on this Christian freedom issue, even though each approaches the subject differently.
Jefferson Bethke breaks down the incorrect framework for interpreting Leviticus 19:28 and taking it out of context: ‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the Lord’
He clearly shows that we are not consistent in interpreting that passage as we do not follow the other prohibitions in that passage of not eating meat with blood in it etc.
He does the same with the other favourite verse in the anti-tattoo camp’s arsenal; that of
1 Corinthians 6:19: ‘Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?’ Read in context of the surrounding verses, that is talking about sexual immorality.
He then takes us to Revelation 19:16: ‘And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.’”
Bethke is then quick to assert that if it is a stretch to assume that Christ will have a tattoo on His thigh at His second coming, then it is as much of a stretch to use Leviticus and 1 Corinthians as prescriptions for not having tattoos.
John Piper takes a more cautious approach. His perspective is to agree that the Leviticus passage is not binding on us as Christians today, but he does ask us to think through what the principles were behind those laws then and the impact of that on us today. Principles of being set apart and honouring God.
Both Bethke and Piper clearly and simply address heart motives for getting tattoos (as with any other amoral Christian freedom issue; be that piercings, drinking, dress code, braces for the perfect smile etc.) Are we preoccupied with an excessive or high preoccupation with our own looks? Paul writes that our adornment is to be minimally external and maximally internal.
Are tattoos, as a means of Christian branding, using symbols or words, a strong motivation for ‘marketing’ the Gospel? Piper reminds us that the best Christian branding, biblically, is Christian love expressed in selfless and sacrificial good deeds.
I am going to stand on the bookend verses of Christian freedom in 1 Corinthians 10:23 and 31: ‘All things are permissible, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things build up….Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.’
Tattoos are powerful messages, automatically conveying what you value.
What is it about yourself that you want to communicate to the world?
What is this tattoo going to mean for the glory of God? Will my tattoo make much of God?
The question is not: ‘Am I, as a Christian, allowed to get a tattoo?’
The question is: ‘Will getting a tattoo, as a Christian, exalt Christ in my life and will it draw others to Christ?’ ‘Will a tattoo be God-centred and Christ-exalting or self- exalting and self-promoting, drawing attention to me?’ ‘Will this tattoo open up conversations for the Gospel?’
Christian liberty in the NT requires us to consider others.
If we are married, Scripture requires us to consider our husband or wife. Our bodies belong to them according to 1 Corinthians 7:4.
If we are parents, what message are we portraying to our children?
If you are in ministry, would it be wise and profitable to get a tattoo?
Would someone in pastoral ministry cause a weaker brother or sister to stumble by getting a tattoo? Questions concerned with looking to the interests of others.
Martin Luther wrote these words: ‘A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to no one; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to everyone.’
I am going to stand on John 3:30: ‘He must increase, I must decrease.’
Are tattoos intrinsically sinful or evil?
No, they are not. Tattoos are really a Christian freedom issue and as Christians, no freedom issue is neutral.
Christian liberty is the narrow bridge which spans the two ditches of legalism and license.
In one ditch, the ditch of legalism, we have the flawless skin of the ‘older brother’ critically looking down unpierced noses at their tattooed brother in the ditch of license, mocking and flaunting their ‘freedom.’
Both need grace to scramble out of their ditches. Neither ditch has the higher ground. The higher ground is found at the foot of the cross on Calvary’s hill where grace speaks the language of Christian love and liberty.
In the ditch of legalism, self-righteousness is our master.
In the ditch of license, self is our master.
That is why tattoos are not the issue – our hearts are.
Would I consider getting a tattoo? Yes, I would consider it.
Will I actually get a tattoo? The jury is still out on that one, as I carefully and prayerfully consider my heart motives before God and the impact on others.
Should I end up with ink on my body, I would have to be sure that it is a reminder, a pointer and a conversation starter that will point to Christ.
Should I end up not getting any ink, my journey there will hopefully now be paved by grace and not self-righteousness.
When I see your tattoo, I will hopefully stand on Romans 14, where each of us is convinced in our own minds that whatever we choose, we are doing it for the Lord. No judgement. That is God’s domain. No contempt, for we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.
For now, before I consider any tattoo on my body, I am going to focus on spiritually tattooing my heart and heed the wisdom of Proverbs 3:3: ‘Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.’
[Listen to John Piper’s podcast at http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-do-you-think-of-tattoos-and-body-piercing and watch Jefferson Bethke’s video clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rN3voADV14Y