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Tales Tattoos Tell
Learning About God and Myself Through Four Tattoos
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I have two tattoos. But they aren’t the ones I used to have. I had my first two removed because they didn’t accurately represent my identity. That’s the danger of tattoos, the joining of something permanent with something that’s in a constant state of change.
I got my first tattoo two years after getting sober—a lotus flower that covered the back of my neck. It represented rebirth, my emergence from literal death to literal life through sobriety. The second was the Buddhist om symbol on my right ring finger. I have no idea why I chose it. Maybe I just thought it was cool, and I wanted to be cool. To be cool meant belonging.
Tattoos are revelatory. Both of mine told something of my story. The lotus, often used in the worship of Hindu gods and goddesses, is said to grow out of the dirtiest waters—a pretty accurate description of who I’d been, where I’d come from, and the things I’d done.
I remember peeking out the window at the small-town Southern church across the street one Sunday morning. I’d spent the entire night offering sacrifices on the altar of addiction. Another sunrise shaming me, and the sound of church bells mocking me. There’s nothing quite like the morning sun to expose what you’d done under the shadow of night. It’s a soul-deep pain for which all words fall short. Yet, as painful as addiction was, I couldn’t fathom life without drugs. Perhaps that’s because they killed my ability to believe in the possibility of something different, something better, something beyond.
There’s nothing quite like the morning sun to expose what you’d done under the shadow of night. It’s a soul-deep pain for which all words fall short.
- Chrystie Cole
That morning two worlds collided—the world I’d come from and the world I’d escaped to. One world looked whole and holy but covered over its brokenness and shame; the other was clearly broken and shameful, but they were perhaps better truth-tellers. And there I stood, stuck between these two worlds—one I was not yet ready to escape, and the other I was not yet interested in returning to.
I peered out from behind the curtains that morning, watching the anonymous faces file in for worship with a bitter hatred—hatred for who they were and what they represented. I hated their God, their Bible, and what I thought to be their sanctimonious self-righteousness. But perhaps it was that in seeing them, I saw myself more clearly, and I hated what I saw.
After getting sober, a lotus flower tattoo seemed fitting in light of all that—a kind of rags to riches, beauty from ashes sort of tale. But it fell far short of telling a more truthful story. There’s nothing beautiful about the life I lived; it was the depths of depravity. And its current beauty doesn’t erase or justify its former deeds. In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen said, “brokenness has no other beauty but the beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it.” And the only beauty of my life is that which is encompassed by a compassionate God who willingly descended into the sewers and lifted me out.
My first two tattoos told the tale of a young woman who’d stumbled into a grace she wasn’t looking for from an unknown God she wasn’t sure she wanted. But five years after getting these first two tattoos, I became a believer, and they no longer fit my skin. So I got them removed—my freshly clean skin emblematic of my newborn faith. And for the longest time, I thought I’d never get another tattoo. Until I did.
My third tattoo could have been an impulsive decision. Or a mid-life crisis. Who knows? By this time, I’d been following Jesus for close to sixteen years and in full-time ministry as a Women’s Discipleship Director for over five years. I’d thought about the tattoo for a while—what I would want, where I would put it, and what it meant to me. But I’d always decided against it; until one day, I went on a whim. And now, forever inscribed on my left foot, is the Greek term δοῦλος Χριστοῦ, which means slave of Christ.
The tale of this tattoo is both beautiful and tragic—the overarching narrative woven somewhere in the depths of my soul, formed in secret places long ago, places unknown to even me. It’s a tale that is being revealed through me and, in its telling, is also being revealed to me.
As tattoos evolve over time—stretching, shriveling, and sagging with our skin—the meaning behind this tattoo has evolved with my soul. When I first got it, it was my marching orders from my King. My whole life was to be lived in his service. It was my mission statement, one I was willing and eager to spend my energy toward. It was the single most defining aspect of my identity, and it was also the single most defining aspect of my God.
Jesus is holy and righteous; I am a sinner in desperate need of a Savior. He’s my master; I am his servant. He bought me with his blood; I now belong to him. I was a slave to sin; now I am a slave to righteousness. It’s transactional and performative. And, to be honest, it's comfortable. I can worship that God. He gave his life for me; now I give mine for him. It’s not a bad story or a wrong story. It’s a true story. It’s a good story! But it isn’t the whole story. The tragic part of this tale is that was easier for me to attach to an impersonal, detached God instead of a God who is intimate and loves me.
I’d never realized how uncomfortable the idea of being loved was to me until my friend Ruthie entered my life. She’s on a mission to help women live loved. I always thought that was a cheesy, superspiritual, hyper-romantic “Jesus is my boyfriend” mentality. We sparred over it from time to time—her peddling love and me rejecting it. I relate to what Henri Nouwen says in his book on the prodigal son, “I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think about his love as conditional and about home as a place I am not yet fully sure of…While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of sonship, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant.”
I don’t know how to receive God’s love, and home is a place I am still unsure of Because somewhere in my life, I learned that love is conditional and place is something you earn. It’s transactional and performative. So I’ve worked to prove love and earn it in return. And after twenty years of following Jesus, I am still more comfortable being a hired servant than I am receiving a love I cannot understand.
I don’t know how to receive God’s love, and home is a place I am still unsure of Because somewhere in my life, I learned that love is conditional and place is something you earn.
- Chrystie Cole
My third tattoo tells a tale of a woman who stumbled into ministry—eager to serve Jesus as her Lord and King but who also struggled to believe she was ever declared “good” or that her Father could see her as worthy of love and belonging. But I’m beginning to learn there’s more to the story.
Chuck DeGroat recently wrote, “Sin doesn’t tell your whole story…You were declared good and bestowed with dignity and worth. You are loved deeply. What may be wrong or problematic right now is not what is most true about you. And no matter what you’ve experienced or done, there is a ring, a robe, sandals and a feast, all declaring your deep worth and the stunning reality that your participation in the story wasn’t ultimately up to you anyway…but that you are pursued by a Love that will not let you go.”
So, as my willingness to believe I could be loved grew, I knew I had to get another tattoo—one that would tell the tale more fully. My fourth tattoo, from Jude 1:1, is my favorite. It is simple and delicate, speaking over me in a whisper instead of a roar, “called. loved. kept.” It tells the story of an older woman who is finally learning to be loved by a Father who set his affections on her and has patiently waited for her to receive his invitation and feast on his faithfulness. It’s a tale that will continue to unfold, with many twists, turns, and stumbles. Now I see through a mirror dimly, but one day I will see face to face. Now I know in part, but one day I will fully know, even as I have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). One day, I will see Jesus seeing me, and I will finally understand what it means to be loved.
We all have things that tell something of our journey with God—like pins in a map indicating where we’ve been. Some of mine just happen to be tattoos. What are yours? What can you point to and say, “Here is where God taught me about his faithfulness? Or his mercy? Or his justice? Or his fill-in-the-blank?” Maybe it's the death of a child, a spouse, or a parent. It might be a medical diagnosis or chronic pain. Maybe it’s your perfectionism, workaholism, or addictions. Perhaps it’s been through tragedy, or maybe it’s been through triumph. What are the markers, and what story might they tell?
My journey through the years has revealed ways in which I’ve categorically rejected God as he has offered himself to me—most recently through his fatherly nature. My understanding of God needed to be expanded in order to make room for the full range of his character and for a more wholehearted relationship with him. When you reject God as Lord and King, what is lost? Or if you reject him as an intimate Father as I did, what might you be missing? My journey isn’t over. There are more pins to be added to the map along my journey home, which might even include a new tattoo. Your journey isn’t over either. God is faithfully committed to leading you home, where you will find a warm embrace and a celebration thrown in your honor. And we will feast on his loving faithfulness for all eternity.
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