Fathom Mag

Whose approval?

Tattoos and the permanent insecurities they bring up

Published on:
May 1, 2018
Read time:
3 min.
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When I was growing up, the list of people sporting tattoos was relatively small: bikers, Army guys, and men in jail. My grandfather fit that mold, as he was a salty GI who served in Korea and Vietnam. He wore every picture proudly, but, as far as I knew, he was the only close relation to have them. I was amused by the tattoos people would wear, but as a Gen-Xer, closer in heart to a Boomer than my own generation, I adopted a kind of arrogance toward tattoos: I was better than that.

Much has changed over the nearly fifty years of my life. In the last few years, I started thinking I’d like to put something permanent on my own body in memory of meaningful times: maybe a Ranger tab, or my wife’s name, or I could be really holy and get some scripture. 

Then my oldest child decided she’d get one, married a man boasting a body full of them, and my brother got some himself. And last fall I finally convinced myself the time had come. Yes, I’m the senior pastor of a church. Yes, I’m almost fifty years old. Yes, I will be accused of a mid-life crisis. But whatever! I’m bold. I’m courageous. At least this is what I told myself every day on the treadmill. 

What to make permanent was another battle. I was drawn to Lamentations 3:24, which reads, “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” Key words: the “Lord” (couldn’t go wrong with that). Check. “My portion” deals with contentment in Christ. Check. My church’s name includes the word “hope.” Check.  All of these things resonated with me so this seemed like the perfect verse to ink permanently to my right forearm.

I found myself seated in the chair with a rowdy Irish Catholic artist. He tattooed four letters on my arm and I screamed. He and my wife looked on stunned while I sat there taking in the reality of what I’d just done: people will see this tattoo. On purpose, with thought (and a little prayer), I chose the words, the font, the ink, and the location. I was 100% on board . . . until the lettering started to appear and I realized that everyone would eventually and actually know. 

It dawned on me that people wouldn’t just know, but they would make judgments about me. Not about whether the tattoo was cool or stupid but about me. I felt that if the Irish Catholic had tattooed that fifth letter, it wasn’t going to matter who I was, where I’ve been, how I preach, or anything else. It was only going to matter that I had a tattoo. And that tattoo will make people sort me into a category that I can’t control. And if I can’t control what people think about me they can judge me before they even know a thing about who I am. I was horrified.

The ink on my arm was exposing what was branded on my heart. My greatest ungodly love: approval.

This is the tattoo that’s on my soul. 

I discovered several years ago that much of my commitment to perfection, to achieve great things, to inspire thousands, no, millions, has been rooted in the thought that I would never be good enough in people’s eyes. It traces as far back as my parents’ divorce. I was in elementary school at the time, convinced I was the reason, and no one could convince me I shouldn’t carry the blame.

That dug a trench in my brain that I’ve spent decades dredging and deepening. Perfection, achievement, edgy-behavior all in service to the one concept: “If I am not the best, someone will not like me and that will be bad for me.” Well, this seems to work for worldly achievement and I had my share. But, in God’s kingdom, approval is not connected to personal achievement but to Christ’s. 

This drive permeated everything I can think of: the way I played soccer, my choice of university, our honeymoon location, my branch assignment in the Army, the truck I drove, the number of children I have, the electives I took in seminary, the calls I sought, and . . . getting a tattoo. I mean what other almost-fity-year-old senior pastor do you know has fresh ink?

The permanent quote from Lamentations counters the permanent brand on my heart. Is the Lord truly my portion? Or, only a portion of my portion? Is he my hope? Or, is he a fraction of my hope? Every time I look at the tattoo I’m now ashamed that what it says is so often different than what drives me. 

My love for people’s approval was like a submarine lurking under the surface of my soul until the slightly painful ink-filled buzzing on my forearm, and now it sits prominently in dry dock where all can see.

Cover image by Yannic Läderach.

Gabe Sylvia
Gabe Sylvia, born and raised in the midwest in a typical middle class home with divorced parents, a brother and a step sister. Attended the United States Military Academy and served in the Army for 9 years as an Infantry officer and Chaplain Candidate. I was converted to Christ at West Point and later followed the call of God to ministry. Married to a precious lady for 27 years, father of 5 (plus a heavily tattooed son in law), been in ministry (mostly) since 2001 and currently serve as a senior pastor of a Presbyterian church in North Carolina.

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