Why I Don’t Get Tattoos or Have a Life Verse

by Mike McKinniss


Bad Tattoo” by Matt Niemi under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I don’t get tattoos. I mean that both in the practical and cognitive sense.

People who do get tattoos—people I admire and respect—have told me they’re a way of memorializing a time or event in their life. If it was especially meaningful, they say, why not get it permanently written on your body so it goes with you everywhere?

There’s a certain logic to that, but I’m not going there. And here’s why: I can’t think of any one thing I’d want to have written on my body both now and—God willing—when I’m 94.

These days, I’m really into this one pizza joint in town and I’m telling everyone around they’ve just got to go. But by the time I walk out of the tattoo parlor with the restaurant’s name and logo emblazoned on my chest, I’ll probably be hungry for the Thai place across the street because: drunken noodles.

This is likely the same reason I don’t have a life verse.

The idea behind a life verse is simple: like a personal motto or mantra, one might home in on one particular passage of scripture that bears some special meaning and use that verse as a guidepost to life. Call it a scriptural tattoo.

But I never had one. Good news is, I just took a handy five-question online quiz to find out what mine should be. Over 31,000 verses in the Protestant Bible, and it only takes five multiple choice questions to zero in on the right one for me. Technology, man.

I got “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10), but I’m not positive it’s a great fit. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fine verse. But right now it feels like the kind of thing you say to someone when you’re looking for a quick conversation extraction maneuver.

“Gee, and you say your in-laws arrived unannounced for the holiday weekend? That’s rough, buddy. But, hey, ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength.’ You know? I think I hear my wife calling. Catch you later.”

Anyway, I’m more of a right-verse-for-the-right-time kind of guy.

When I was graduating high school, my parents gave me a new, grown-up Bible to replace the children’s Bible I’d been using the previous 10 or 15 years. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that Nearly Inspired Version—so much so that the actual text has freed itself from its leather binding; the first few pages of Genesis are now loose leaf; and a couple lacunae have developed in Matthew, where some foodstuff had glued two pages together and which I had to tear away in order to save. Moreover, there are layer upon layer of underlines, scribbles and editorial comments I’ve deposited throughout.

These multi-colored notes effectively serve as my tattoos, and it’s a worthwhile exercise to flip through the pages of that old Bible and come across passages that meant a great deal to me at certain stages of life.

For example, Zechariah 8:23 has a hastily scratched “I want this!” beside it, as it undoubtedly does in your Bible: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.'” I had wanted—and still do—for people to be able to somehow recognize that the living God was an intimate part my life.

I must have read Psalm 27:13 at a time when I was recognizing the folly of “private religion,” when I was longing for God’s activity in and among real people in real space and time. There’s a giant “YES!” there in the margin. “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

And for years I was praying and waiting for the Lord to do something very specific and seemingly impossible. Something very valuable to me had “died” and I was looking for a kind of resurrection. For that season, Abraham’s story became dear to me as I identified with the long suffering faith he displayed as he awaited his son of promise. Naturally, then, I spent ample time in Genesis 12-22, but it was a half-verse in Romans 4 (Paul’s own reflection on Abraham’s story) on which I stood for several years: “[Abraham] is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17b).

Each passage has had its special meaning to me in its own time. But then life changes, and I find I’m in need of fresh inspiration. So, I’m not a life verse guy. For me, certain verses stick out at certain times.

It’s like Solomon said: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecc. 3:1), which sounds like a pretty good life verse.