I've always been in awe of people who have the guts to get a tattoo. It's not their physical bravery or social courage that impresses me so much as the permanence of their decision. Maybe at the time you really like Mickey Mouse, but what if you outgrow your Disney phase in a few years? Or what if things don't work out with Billy or Johnny?
I think it's this idea of permanence that makes Isaiah 49:16 so appealing: "See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands."
Did you catch that? God has a tattoo. And it has your name on it. With full knowledge of what he was getting himself into, God made a decision to love us. That decision wasn't a temporary commitment—his love won't stop if someone better comes along. And it wasn't a conditional commitment—his love isn't based on what we can contribute to the relationship. It's a forever promise, a "not even death can part us" promise.
In our human relationships, we long for tangible reminders that we're loved. We want people to remember our birthday, send us flowers for no particular reason, tell us what they appreciate about us, hug us.
Yesterday I ate dinner with some friends who have a four-year-old son, Zach. He seized the first lull in the conversation to tug on my sleeve and say, "I have a secret to tell you." Then he "whispered" into my ear, loud enough for the whole table to hear, "I love you!" Five minutes later, another tug, another whisper. This time: "I love you very much!" Throughout the evening, Zach's eyes lit up every time he thought of another way to express his love.
I melted each time he delivered his secret. And I was reminded of how we're wired to be told we're loved.
God knows we have this need. He understands our short memory and our desire for tangible proof. So not only does he tell us over and over in Scripture how crazy he is about us, he went so far as to engrave our names on the palms of his hands. If there ever was a doubt of his love, God's tattoo settles it now and forever. We belong to him. Permanently. Uncon-ditionally. "It is he who made us, and we are his" (Psalm 100:3).
Apparently we aren't the first ones who needed reminders of God's love. Thousands of years ago, God assured the Israelites of the coming Redeemer and of his plan to save them (Isaiah 49). But the Israelites weren't convinced. Though they'd seen God's faithfulness in the past, they were desperate for a little proof. They lamented, "The Lord has turned away and forgotten us" (Isaiah 49:14, cev).
I, too, have seen plenty of evidence of God's faithfulness. But like the Israelites, I've been parched for some proof of God's love recently. Since third-grade Sunday school, I've known that God so loved the world, but in the past few months I've longed for some affirmation that he so loves me. Maybe I crave God-love so much because I've been reminded recently of how conditional and transitory human relationships tend to be.
Two of my close friends just had a baby, and another friend's due any day. As a single woman who barely manages to keep my houseplants alive, I'm trying to figure out how these friendships will work now that my friends' schedules and priorities have shifted. While these changes are inevitable and aren't personal, they remind me that relationships don't stay the same. Two other friends and three family members have their sights set on cross-country moves within the next year—further proof of how fluid life can be. And in the midst of these changes, my relationship with two guys I thought might stick around fell apart—one rather abruptly, the other by gradual disintegration.
None of these adjustments is so different from what everyone else goes through—it's just life. And maybe that's part of why change is so difficult to swallow. At the core of who we are, we long for permanence, for someone who'll never leave us, move away, get too busy for us, grow tired of us. Someone who'll never stop loving us.
"I have engraved you on the palms of my hands."
At the time the prophet Isaiah recorded these words (about 2,500 years ago), it was common for pagan worshipers to carve the name of their god into their hands. The throbbing pain reminded them of their devotion and hopefully earned them their god's attention. God spoke into this mixed-up religious climate—and turned things completely upside down. Instead of asking us to prove our love and worship, he took great pain on himself to show us his love. And instead of demanding our sacrifice, he sent his Son to be the sacrifice in our place. "Christ … loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:2).
My friend Angela used to have a tattoo with Ryan's name on it. She was pretty proud of it … until she broke up with Ryan. She faced a decision: Go through the painful, expensive, and not-guaranteed removal process? Or get another tattoo to cover it up? Angela opted for the latter, and Ryan's name was covered by successively larger and darker tattoos until finally she was left with a fist-sized black flower across her abdomen. Angela confided to me that even worse than the physical pain was the tattoo's nagging reminder of the broken relationship.
Thankfully, God's tattoo isn't like that. There's no chance of a removal process, no possibility of a cross-out. He'll never get tired of us; he'll never break off the relationship. He'll never abandon us or leave us for someone else. And he'll never ever stop loving us.
I don't know if I'll ever have the guts to get a tattoo. But I know I'm looking forward to one day seeing the tattoo on my Savior's hands. The one with my name on it.
Stephanie Voiland lives in Illinois.
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