Parable of the Middle-Age Tattoo
I’m 47 years old, and I just got my first tattoo. It’s intended to be a first-and-only, but one of the things you’ve learned by the time you’re 47 years old is to never say never. I have been going through a long and deeply painful season, a time when little seems to make sense and you end up questioning things like what you know, what you believe, and who you really are. A lot of searching, and not a lot of answers—at least not yet. In my searching I came across a passage in my favorite book of the New Testament, Hebrews. This passage in Chapter 6 falls under the heading, God’s Promises Bring Hope:
Now when people take an oath, they call on someone greater than themselves to hold them to it. And without any question that oath is binding. God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind. So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. Heb. 6:16-19 NLT
I’ve been meditating on this passage for quite a while and praying that I too would gain the confidence and hope we are promised, and be able to become firmly anchored in that. It’s really been a lifelong prayer, but one that seems intensely important right now. I need to write these words on my heart, I thought, permanently, like a tattoo. That’s when I began to contemplate in earnest getting an actual tattoo.
I wanted an indelible mark to remind myself of this hope, especially during the darkest of seasons. But that notion brought about some serious wrestling. First of all, I do not believe as Christians that we need to mark ourselves to show our devotion or to remember verses or dedicate ourselves to the Lord. What He desires most from us is the ongoing surrendering of our hearts and lives. Aside from that, I also had a slew of questions motivated by fear.
What if I disappoint God?
Am I too old for this kind of thing anyway?
Will people think I’m foolish for doing this?
What if I have ‘tattoo regret’ afterwards or it comes out badly, or….?”
Then the Lord broke into my fretting:
Do I have so little grace that you cannot step out and take a risk?
I received his words as comfort and a green light. Deciding now to take the plunge and do it, I set out to choose an image. An anchor seemed the obvious choice (plus I love the sea!). So where does the forward-thinking modern woman seek divine inspiration? Pinterest, of course.
I logged in and delved into a seemingly endless collection of anchor tattoo ideas. I knew basically what I wanted: something simple, small, tasteful, beautiful, and just different enough to feel like a true personal expression. After a couple weeks weighing out the contenders, I finally settled on a simple line drawing of an anchor with a cross at the top and a tiny heart at the bottom. I loved the heart—it was my favorite part. It reminded me that God’s love is what anchors me, and that my own heart needed to be anchored in that truth.
Getting it done was relatively quick and easy, and only mildly uncomfortable. I was kind of neutral—or numb—emotionally during the appointment, but positively giddy afterwards. It looked just like I wanted it to, and I could not stop looking at it once the bandage came off. I wanted to perfectly protect and preserve this little work of art, so I followed the care instructions I was given to the letter. The next day I awoke to see my little anchor there, bravely sitting atop the angry, swollen, and inflamed skin underneath it. I knew this was part of the process and it still looked great, so I went on happily with my day, caring for it as I should.
On Day 3, I was horrified to see what had become of my precious hope-symbol, and the two days following that it looked even worse: still painful and irritated, but now also scabbing, misshapen, and almost splitting open along the lines. I emailed the tattoo artist with a photo, and she assured me that this was normal. That made me feel better for about four minutes.
I spent the remainder of that day and the day after obsessively worrying about my tattoo-gone-wrong. I still could not stop looking at it, but now it was with morbid preoccupation and fear. What have I done? What can I do now? I think I made a mistake. Oh God, I think I’m experiencing tattoo regret already! What I had so carefully planned and intended to be beautiful and wonderful and meaningful was turning into a terrible, ugly mess. Isn’t that just like my whole life right now? I thought.
Then, just as He had before, the Lord broke in:
Yes, it is. It seems that way. Your tattoo is a parable; watch what will happen.
I paid a visit to the tattoo artist so she could see it herself in person, and I tried (in vain) to hide my panic and disappointment behind smiles and polite questioning. She patiently explained that this was a normal part of the healing process; a tattoo is a wound, and it needs time to heal. She reassured me that after the healing process was complete, the image would be fully restored. Hmm. A parable was unfolding.
Within a few days, I could begin to see some progress. One night, while reading a fantastic book on forgiveness and restoration, I began studying my tattoo again. Looking at it closely, I could now make out the delicate ink lines deep under my skin. Beneath the scabs and the mess, my anchor was there all along.
All I had been able to focus on was the ugliness I could see on the outside, and when you’re right in the middle of the process, healing can be really ugly. There is pain, tenderness, the vulnerability of a raw wound that is just barely covered over; it’s uncomfortable to look at it yourself, and often embarrassing to show it to others. And there’s that nagging temptation to pick the scabs off, because we want to rush the healing process along—we want to get to the beautiful and healthy without having to go through the ugly and the damaged.
For me, it’s also because I want to see that healing is taking place with my own eyes; I want to supervise it to make sure it’s happening because I lack the trust that healing will come even if I can’t see it. As subsequent days have passed, the angry swelling and pain have subsided, the skin around it has begun to regenerate, and the anchor is beginning to emerge more clearly. Funny thing, though, is that there is still a big scab at the bottom of the anchor—it’s the heart that is taking the longest to heal. A profound truth, and it cannot be rushed. And that’s exactly where I am in my real-life healing process.
Things are beginning to settle down a bit and normalcy is returning. The promise of hope and beauty and goodness is slowly beginning to emerge and become clearer, yet my heart is lagging behind, taking longer than I want it to heal. But, as with my tattoo, healing is happening under the pain and the mess, in places I am not yet able to see for myself. I can’t really supervise it—that’s God’s job. He promises to complete the work He has begun, and we can have confidence and hope that what God promises, God will accomplish.
And that hope is an anchor for our souls.