“You know God hates tattoos right?!”
“You know God hates tattoos right?!” Yup, someone actually said that to me once while gazing at my tattoo. A friend recently reached out to me on Facebook when she saw I finished up my sleeve tattoo. She wondered how a Pastor explained having tattoos. Having tattoos herself, she has always seen them as anti-faith or anti-God since many she has known, who have faith, are so convinced it is evil. I told her I would respond to her questions, and this is my response to her; as well as, to all of those who might be in her shoes.
The Bible has far more warnings on Judging Others than Tattoos.
Right after I got my first tattoo I was in a fast food restaurant and I went to pay the clerk, and she grabbed my hand. My tattoo was on my wrist so she pulled it closer to get a better look. Then she said, “Awesome, I love it.” Kind of caught me off guard, then she asked what it meant. I told her it was the trinity symbol which represents the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which are all one. Then I slowly saw a confused look start to come over her face. She asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I said yes. Then she proceeded to tell me that Christians can’t have tattoos, it is against God and against the Bible; even though, a few seconds before she was telling me how cool my tattoo was. I guess if I was a pagan then it was totally rad, but as a follower of Jesus, not so rad.
I didn’t have any time to go into detail with her, so I just walked away and said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” I felt judged. I mean, I felt the full weight of someone pretty much saying you did something that God hates. This new thing on my wrist that I was still becoming comfortable with actually caused me some pain beyond the needle which marked it. Jesus talked about judging others this way in Matthew 7, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
The Bible says very little about tattoos, but there is that one verse.
The Bible is actually pretty silent on the matter of tattoos, except for one verse in Leviticus. It is probably important to stop here and mention that if any particular topic starts with The Bible being fairly silent on the matter except for one verse in Leviticus, I am guessing the verse is not the most helpful to orient our lives around today. Leviticus was a book for a people under a certain covenant. A commitment God made to them and they made to God. This was before Jesus, before the cross, before Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” so many times in that one sermon. None of us orient our lives around the book of Leviticus. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a great and necessary book, but it must be understood for the time and place it went down, not as a book of application for the hear and now. If you just pull any verse out of Leviticus and then continue to use it to defend or support your position, then you might be on shaky ground, unless of course it is something that is found in multiple other Biblical passages.
Leviticus 19 is where our particular passage turns up. Before examining the passage that proves God hates tattoos, lets look at one of the passages found in the same chapter. Leviticus 19:26 says, “Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it.” If you are one of those people who like your steak well done, then you are not in conflict with Leviticus, but if someone at your table likes it rare, then you may have to remind them about how God hates rare steaks.
Leviticus 19:28 says, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” This passage seems clear enough. “Do not.” God said it, it is true, so don’t tattoo. See what I did there, it rhymes. Well, it isn’t quite that simple and easy. Leviticus 19:27, which is the verse immediately before, reads this way, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” Men, have you ever clipped the sides of your beard? Then you are in violation of the same section of Levitical law as tattooing or cutting yourself.
The Bible calls us to something higher.
Why is it mentioned in Leviticus if it isn’t relevant today? One of the key things we are told about the people of God, and the church, is that we are set apart. God is constantly trying to get Israel to live into their identity as set apart. The pagan worshippers of the day cut the sides of their beards, and even cut themselves, and of course marked themselves permanently. God commands Israel to keep away from these things because participating would identify them with pagan gods. It would be the marking of the pagans. Or the facial hair stylings of the pagans. It is less about the facial hair or tattoo and more about being set apart.
We are still called to be set apart today. Yet, we hold this understanding quite differently than Levitical law. In following Jesus we are called to a different life, one set apart, but not by a refusal to eat meat with blood in it, a commitment to not shave the sides of our beards, or a determination to never allow a needle to tattoo our skin. Following Jesus is more about a life we are called to which sets us apart. A life that is first and foremost identified with self-sacrificial love. A love that sacrifices for others sets us apart. The fruits of the Spirit set us apart: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the higher callings of set apartness, these are where we should focus, not petty superficial things like tattoos.
Tattoos are creative.
We were created to create. You are a creative being. We have found so many ways to be creative in the 21st century. This is the image and likeness of God that is imprinted on us. We are made in God’s image and therefore we are creative beings that desire creativity, it calls from within. Using our creativity in a way that places art permanently on our skin is just another way the image of God within us can show creativity. It certainly isn’t a creative medium for everyone, but neither is knitting. For some reason specific creative ventures connect with specific people.
You could even go further in the symbolism by acknowledging that placing a forever marking (tattoo/creation) upon a forever creation (we are eternal beings), is us tapping into another desire. Our desire to be permanent. To be eternal. To strive for things that last forever, that contain everlasting meaning. I recognize this isn’t the attitude of all who have faith and tattoos. But even when you go back and think about why you got that tattoo, in that particular season, it can become obvious that you were feeling the need to be creative and do it in a permanent way. God could’ve scratched creation after The Fall in Genesis 3 and started over again, but instead God continued to work with creation. We were made for eternity, so we can see where the desire for eternal artwork can come from; the image of God within us.
Tattoos can be healing.
I remember watching Miami Ink back in the day. It’s not really that interesting to watch someone get a tattoo. It might be interesting the first time, or if you are a tattoo artist, but what made Miami Ink successful was the stories. You often heard from people who had went through a painful season and were getting a tattoo to memorialize that season. I can certainly relate to this, as one of my tattoos came in a season of healing and contains far more meaning than you might think when you noticed it on my skin. Sometimes these permanent creations can actually remind us of how God was at work in a season of pain, providing healing in that moment and hope as we persevered onward.
Tattoos can be meaningful.
“But what if your marriage doesn’t work out?” This is the question a Junior High student asked me when they saw I had my wedding ring tattooed on my finger. In this students world view, tattoos were permanent, but marriage not so much. I gently told the student, “I kind of plan on it working out.” So far so good! My wedding ring is meaningful to me. All of my tattoos are meaningful. I have friends who have really goofy and weird tattoos, but even those carry stories or reminders that they find meaningful. When looking at someones tattoo we might not like the art, or the execution of the art, but we often don’t know the story behind the art. We don’t see the connection to the artwork when we just walk past someone on the street. Most people I meet with tattoos find their artwork contains meaning, even if it was done at the beach with friends on Spring Break.
At the very most this is a gray area issue, at the least it is an issue we have complete freedom on. Either way, it is not a black and white issue. So placing a stigma on people who have tattoos is not helpful or biblical, and it certainly doesn’t elevate our call to unity. So if you are one of those people who say things like, “You know God hates tattoos right?!” Maybe it is time to reconsider that statement and the understanding behind it. And if you are one of those people who have been hurt by someone who said, “You know God hates tattoos right?!” I apologize. I am sorry that person judged you in that way. But please know that God loves you, tattoos and all!