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Herpes zoster (a.k.a. shingles) is a disgusting, painful virus. At the ripe old age of 45, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am but dust, weak and vulnerable, struggling with gross blisters and in need of a great deal of compassion. Shingles feels like hundreds of red fire ants crawling on the outside, and on the inside, my muscles are all knotted like I’m a human punching bag for some bug that thinks its extremely funny. When I was reading about shingles on the internet, someone said, “I wouldn’t wish shingles on my worst enemy,” and I concur.

I have grown in my understanding of what it means to be in need of compassion and what it means to offer compassion. But, I also find myself at odds with my religious community who struggles with this concept.

Hurting people are afraid to share their illnesses, whether physical, spiritual or emotional because of a rampant spirit of criticism and judgment. Quite frankly, I was afraid to tell people I had shingles because the number one thing they would imply is that I wasn’t dealing with my stress level very well. (Shingles reappears in a person who has had chicken pox due to a low immune system and has also been attributed to stress.) Brothers and sisters, we aren’t known for our love, for showing compassion and mercy to each other, for showing sympathetic sorrow and support.

I know of several examples of Christians who are afraid to share because of a lack of compassion in our community: a pastor’s wife who doesn’t want anybody to know she’s been in the psych ward because of suicidal thoughts… a woman battling chronic life-long illness… a parent faced with a child’s homosexuality… a woman who wants to keep her adultery a secret. God help me that I am part of a culture that won’t allow people to be where they are and to grieve over each other’s misfortunes. We aren’t good at giving the grace to be and the room to become.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jonah, maybe because we just went through Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) where we study his story and maybe because he was a guy who really struggled with God’s sense of compassion and judgment.

Jonah had a death wish because he didn’t want to live in a world without sound judgment. Nineveh was an evil, wicked, sick city that deserved destruction. Jonah was so angry about it, he asked to be thrown off a ship. He didn’t imagine God would go to the extreme of a whale saving him, he wanted to die, and he told God so after Ninevah repented and God relented. He threw God’s compassion in His face, and “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD, is not his what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful…please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”⁠1

God then gave Jonah an example of what it would feel like to live in a world of only judgment with no compassion. He caused a plant to grow to save Jonah from his anger, but a worm came and ate it. A world based on judgment couldn’t allow a plant to exist without a seed and proper growth. The plant simply didn’t belong there, and so, the worm came and gobbled it up. Compassion would have let the plant live. Judgement said, “No way!”

The book of Jonah ends so abruptly, the reader is left with a sense of, “What then?” I wonder if that is exactly the point. What if God is not allowed to show compassion because of our warped sense of judgment? What happens then?

I’ve also been pondering all of Jesus’ Sabbath healing stories where He experiences serious conflict with His own religious community. The disputes always boiled down to the issue of compassion. Jesus’ goal was to alleviate human suffering. It was #1 because the Sabbath is a foretaste of Messiah’s rule and reign here on earth during the Messianic Era, where everyone will have all he needs because of God’s provision. Sabbath is a chance for God to extravagantly love on us and show the human race compassion.

Here is but one example: “And he (Jesus) said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he (Jesus) said to them (Jesus’ religious community), ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”⁠2

We love to point our fingers at Jesus’ religious community and say how awful they were. But they are us. When we do our religious things (sacrificing) because we love God, but don’t have compassion on/for the people those religious things are supposed to affect, what good is it?

The opposite of compassion is wondering what that person did to deserve or cause it, thinking you know enough about his/her situation to bring judgment. Like, if you were in his/her shoes, you’d handle it differently.

Our judgment of people gives us an excuse to not show compassion. And, we actually fish around and dig deep for blame because it is so much easier than going out of our way to grieve over their misfortunes and do something for them (take care of their kids, pray, send a meal, write a note).

In Judaism, there is a blessing when one faces something truly unexplainable and painful. It is, “Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who is the true judge.” He is the true judge, and He is a god whose compassion and mercy overflows and spills onto us, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty,”⁠3

My experience with shingles may ultimately be my fault, or it may just be the normal side effect of life. I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. The risk of getting shingles increases as one gets older, and the truth I’ve learned is so does my need for compassion, and the need for me to show compassion to others who are suffering. I have made a commitment to choose compassion over judgement.

May we never see Jesus’ face full of anger and grieved at out hardness of heart because of our lack of compassion for one another’s sufferings. May we cultivate an atmosphere where people can share their sorrows because they perceive and fully expect compassion to be heaped upon them.


Questions for Reflection:

• Is it difficult for you to show compassion and grieve over the misfortunes of others? Why do you think that is?
• How have you responded to someone in pain when you see “obvious” reasons why they are in pain?
• How could you show compassion today to someone who is suffering?

See Jonah 4:1-3.
See Mark 3:3-5.
See Exodus 33:6-7.

Feature image copyright © Angel Simon–

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