I have three tattoos on my ribs. They read “Jonah 4” (on my left side), “Luke 11:4” (on my right side), and “1 Cor. 13” (also on my right side).
Each of these tattoos has a meaning and a story of its own, and each is deeply personal to me. I did not get the tattoos so that I could show them off. Several people, some of whom have known me for years, do not know that I have any tattoos at all because I got them for me and my purposes, not for Facebook or to show off at the pool. I got each one at particular points in my life for particular reasons. I intend to write a separate blog post about each one in kind, but this first post gives an overview of why I decided to place religious text under my skin.
First, consider that a Christian’s understanding of the text grows and changes as we age and as we go through different periods of joy, pain, and growth. I got each tattoo according to my thoughts and feelings about a particular situation at a particular time, but I also understood that each tattoo may hold a different meaning for me in 50 years or so. When people who neither like nor understand tattoos say something like, “You know you’ll have those looking like bar-codes sagging around your ribs when you’re 80,” I say, “I’m sure that they will mean even more to me then, and I didn’t get them to impress anyone anyways, even less so when I’m 80 and care far less about how my body will look than I do now at age 25.” In other words, even if my understandings of each text changes over the years, at no point will the texts cease to mean anything to me, nor will they become causes for embarrassment or regret. I cannot feel ashamed of them.
Secondly, I got the tattoos because they remind me of the cost of faith through pain. Each tattoo hurt as it went on my ribs. They say that tattoos hurt most on the ribs; therefore, I chose the ribs for my tattoos. Each prior experience that led me to these passages also hurt in their own ways. The Jonah tattoo hurt because of my own actions. The other two tattoos hurt because of the actions of others.
Thirdly, I got the tattoos because they remind me to live by penitence (Jonah), forgiveness (Luke), and love (1 Corinthians). My very body reminds me of these calls and their costs. All three of these virtues cost us our human rights to vindication, blaming others, and selfishness, but we forget them easily if they do not stay before us. Some Jewish sects obey the law of Moses so literally that they have small wooden boxes on bands that they circle around their heads, and the boxes contain bits of Scripture. That’s one way they have interpreted the command to keep the Law on your mind and on your heart. I wrote it on my skin instead, and it works well for me. I stay mindful of these things when I get out of bed, hop in the shower, go for a run, or take a look in the mirror.
I also feel mindful of these things when I am in public and social situations like hanging out at the beach, barbecuing at a pool party, running shirtless at the park, or lifting in a cutoff at the gym. Whether I like it or not, my body now functions in part as a billboard for the text, and I try to stay mindful of what my body and my mouth do and say when I am in those types of situations. I don’t always do very well at that! Still, I notice more often now that I represent God in a literal, physical way, and other people notice. They look to see if I rerack my weights and wipe down my equipment, or if I flip someone off as I run shirtless across the street, and my actions reflect upon the Gospel. For me, then, the tattoos help me to limit my own bad behavior and my own proclivity to act however I please under the “protection” of anonymity. As Christians, the world scrutinizes our words and actions, so I try harder now not to portray one thing with the pious tattoos on my ribs and then proceed to say something incongruous with my mouth or with my body.
In sum, I think that my tattoos will grow in importance as I age, not lessen, and as I mature, I may even become a better ambassador, someone who does better at living up to the hard standards I have placed upon myself. That’s my goal, anyway. The verses remind me of who I have been, what I have done, who I want to become, and who I want to be like.