Why I Got a Tattoo (and Why You Shouldn’t Freak Out)

In the Fall of 2006 I found a faith in Jesus. This came as a surprise to me as much as anyone else, and I’m happy to say that in the years to follow my passion for him hasn’t faded one bit. Now, while I’ve been on this path I have learned that faith is a long and winding road that takes us places we never dreamed of. As Ephesians 4 notes, we are to put off our old selves and instead put on our new. So I guess that’s what I did today when I got my first tattoo.

Perhaps this might seem ironic since tattoos might seem like something to mature out of rather than into. But I would have to disagree, as there is much meaning behind mine and I certainly feel I’ve matured into its message. So now I guess I’ll need to tell you what it is, which at first might appear a little odd. That’s why I ask that you read this post until the end.

The tattoo, written in Greek, asks God why he’s forsaken me. It is a quote of some of Jesus’ final words as he was dying on the cross. It actually comes up in two books of the gospel, Matthew and Mark, and both times Jesus is quoting Psalm 22:1, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Or in the Greek dialect, “Eli, Eli, lema sebachthani,” which is what is now on my arm, but in ancient Greek lettering.

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In both Matthew and Mark these are the Jesus’ last words on record. However, according to John, after this he then said “it is finished,” which will play a part here as well. 

Still, it came as no wonder that I had not one, but two co-workers wrinkle their noses and ask “are you sure you want that on your arm the rest of your life?” They are both loving moms and I commend them for asking the tough, motherly questions. And though the permanency of it certainly frightened me (I had this on my to-do list for three solid months), the sentiment was dear to me and needed to be expressed in this way. Here are four reasons why.

1. I Smile Too Much

Sometimes I feel like a wind-up doll, like someone pulled a string and I can’t stop until the string runs out. Sure, it is nice to have a tendency to focus on the bright side of things, but it can sometimes prove problematic, too. Right alongside my faith journey, this has evolved over time – before I believed in God I tried to distract myself occupying my time with anything else – friendships, love interests, movies, video games, baseball, etc. Even after I found my faith in God I still just tried to overlook my problems and shift my focus on the beauty of God and his creation. This was the gospel I followed, keeping my focus on the good stuff in order to avoid the bad.

But as I continue to tear off my old self and put on the new, I’ve become painfully aware that God wants a more honest relationship with me, and in order to obtain that I’ve had to slow down to acknowledge my circumstances, thanking God for the good and expressing my discontent for the bad. It’s not a forceful act, bent toward hating on God, but an authentic, real one, in which I am being transparent with myself and him.

For instance, my father passed away completely unexpectedly this past summer. As soon as the news came I forced myself to allow the pain to enter in, which was new for me. My old self would have been piling up bricks, trying to keep all of the pain out at all costs. And my post-faith old self would have done everything in my power to make sure I wouldn’t be upset with God. Though I now believe that is a very healthy step in order to truly mourn.

2. Without winter we wouldn’t have spring

I have a friend who used to really get wound up on telling people that “every day is a Friday.” People regularly rag on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and often say “is it Friday yet?” so his solution was to not wait until Friday, just make every day a Friday. And any time someone said “I’ve got a bad case of the Mondays,” on cue, my friend would blurt out “every day’s a Friday!”

In theory, this seemed pretty good, but in practice it really wasn’t. My friend also had a sunny-side up personality and I believe he had every good intention in the world, but his catch phrase was soon met by only groans and arguments. Perhaps people want to be able to complain and have problems. Perhaps it’s good for us to admit we don’t like something, rather than trying to “look on the bright side.” Perhaps having Mondays make Fridays all the more enjoyable.

Similarly, I just lived in Florida for four years where every day it is sunny and with the high in at least the 70s, even in January. Sounds nice, huh? I mean, it is, but the thing I missed was spring. One might think that every day is spring out there, but it wasn’t, because the beauty of spring is the exit from winter. Without winter, warm weather isn’t a fraction as appreciated. So I never drove around with the windows down in Florida, and neither did anyone else, but you can guarantee that when it hits 60 up here in Sioux Falls, SD, my tattooed arm’s going to be hanging out the window and I’ll be blasting Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mr. Blue Skies.’

My tattoo helps ensure I remember this lesson – we must have winter in order to have spring.

3. Hold On

The context of all this is of the greatest important to me. Jesus was on the cross, beaten and bleeding to death and suffering the most agonizing death of all. Meanwhile, to make matters worse, in the hours preceding his death, from noon to three in the afternoon, darkness had covered the land. And I don’t believe that refers only to a lack of sunlight, but a spiritual darkness.

When you were a kid did you ever run a temp and your mom or dad was there to pat you on the head and tell you it will be okay? Jesus was without the presence of his father as he was dying, and that was when he uttered “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So I think we can understand why.

Jesus came down from heaven in the first place to understand our pain, as it states in Philippians 2: “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness,” and Hebrews 4, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses…” 

Pain for me is that God took away my father at the age of 67. Many of my peers still even have their grandparents and I had lost all of them by the time I was 21. So I’m constantly reminded that while none of my friends have had to experience this, here I am, and if I’m ever to have children they will never know their grandpa, either. This stuff haunts me on a daily basis.

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However, I can only imagine the sadness and pain Jesus was feeling. And after Jesus breathed his final words, that was just the beginning for those who proclaim him as savior. He removed all of our sin, and therefore removing the power of the Law, replacing it with an entirely different sort of fulfillment – faith. The beautiful relationships we share with Jesus were all thanks to his holding on in excruciating times of pain and despair.

This is why this verse means the world to me. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’ve experienced time and time again that when I finally acknowledge that I’m in pain, that’s when progress begins. That was also written in a fortune cookie I ate the other day. Sometimes even cheap stale desserts get it right.

My tattoo serves as a reminder that things may be tough right now, but I must hold on. Not only will things be okay, they will be triumphant.

4. He Walks With Me

Here is my final point, and a crucial one at that. I believe when people enter this stage they sometimes never get out. They become convinced he must hate them considering what he’s put them through, leading to their own hatred or mistrust of God, or a complete abandonment of faith. In order to help me avoid this place, at least symbolically, I’ve placed this phrase on my left arm. Throughout scripture it mentions that God will help us, and he will guide us with his right hand. But in order for this to occur I must reach up with my left arm. So even if I may feel that God has forsaken me, I will reach up with my left arm in hope that he will take it.

And for the record, my other arm will then be ready for a second tattoo: “It is finished.” 

  • Amy Schultz

    I like it…thanks for sharing!

    • Matthew Rennels

      Thanks, Amy! (Sorry, just saw this. Better late than never?)