My Tattoos: Marked for Life
by Trevor DeVage
Lead Pastor, Christ’s Church
I know I’ll get the question at every info session when I meet first-time guests who check out our church. “So, what about your tattoos?”
I understand. Not many megachurch pastors have the number of visible tattoos I’m sporting. (But I know for sure manypastors have tattoos; they’re just hidden where you don’t see them!) Some people have decided they don’t like tattoos, and many parents know they don’t want to see that ink on their kids. (More about this later.) So I’m prepared with my answers. Here are some of them.
They’re Not Forbidden in the Bible
Some Christians object to tattoos because they believe the Bible prohibits them. Usually they refer to Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord” (NIV). There are a few things to consider when deciding what this verse means.
- The original language didn’t use the word “tattoo.” The word came from Polynesia and entered the English language after the voyages of Captain James Cook to Tahiti in the 18th century. The Hebrew word translated “tattoo” means “a letter or other mark branded on the skin.” Note: The King James Version, translated before “tattoo” was in our language, renders the verse this way: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.”
- The Old Testament prohibition referred to pagan practices and idol worship in antiquity.
Note that phrase “for the dead.” The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary explains it this way:
“The practice of making deep gashes on the face and arms and legs, in time of bereavement, was universal among the heathen, and it was deemed a becoming mark of respect for the dead, as well as a sort of propitiatory offering to the deities who presided over death and the grave. The Jews learned this custom in Egypt, and though weaned from it, relapsed in a later and degenerate age into this old superstition.”
Cutting themselves and rubbing in ash when in a period of mourning after an individual had died was viewed as a sign of respect, reverence, and a sense of profound loss for the recently departed. The ash that was rubbed into the wounds often came from the actual funeral pyres that were used to cremate the bodies. Essentially, people were literally carrying with them a reminder of their loved ones through the ash in their wound.
Another commentary adds this: “It was the custom of the Gentiles in ancient times, to imprint upon themselves the mark of an idol, to show that they were his servants.” In Leviticus 19, God was insisting that his people avoid every kind of pagan practice that elevated anyone or anything above him. If a Christian’s tattoos are symbols of devil worship or loyalty to a cult or some hate group, I believe this prohibition would apply. But, of course, my tattoos all symbolize something good.
They Mean Something Special to Me
Almost all of my tattoos have something to do with grace. I have the words “grace” and “peace” inked on my wrists because I always want my hands to be instruments of grace and peace. I have three roses tattooed on me because they represent three ladies in my life whom I dearly love—my wife and our two daughters. And the two sparrows represent our girls as well. On my right shoulder I have a 16th-century piece of art that depicts the Bible character Jonah. He struggled with obedience to God, but after God had a large fish swallow him, he gave him a second chance. God extended grace to Jonah and had the great fish spit him out on dry ground. When I look at these tattoos I constantly think of God’s grace in my life.
They’re a Tool for Me to Witness
When I strike up a conversation on an airplane or in a coffee shop with people I’m just meeting, eventually they ask me what I do for a living. Almost always they’re surprised when I tell them I’m a pastor. I don’t fit their stereotype of a preacher, and I think the tattoos are at least part of the reason why.
Sometimes they ask about them, and I can tell my new acquaintance some of what I’ve described above. My tattoos are a tool for me to share hope with others. I’ve opened a door for them to reconsider Jesus. I think that’s good.
They’re a Choice You Must Make for Yourself
“But how can I tell my teenager he can’t get a tattoo when my pastor has them?” I’ve heard that question, too, and my answer is simple. Your pastor drives a Jeep, but if you don’t want your son to buy a Jeep, just say no. Your pastor spends time and money on golf, but if you prefer baseball or gardening, just forget about golfing.
In other words, tattoos are a simple preference and nothing more. I’m not crusading for everyone to get them. You make the rules about when your daughter can date and use makeup, when your son needs to be in at night, and whether to drink diet or sugared soda at your house. If you insist your kids can’t get tattoos, I’ll support you on that.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about how all of us can be more devoted to God and sharing the good news of Jesus with others. Our lives can be marked with our commitment to him—with or without tattoos.