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Pacific Northwest heat wave breaks records: Why context is essential to empathy

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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During the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave, the sun beats down over the Space Needle in Seattle, WA.
The sun shines near the Space Needle, Monday, June 28, 2021, in Seattle. Seattle and other cities broke all-time heat records over the weekend, with temperatures soaring well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius). (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The National Weather Service predicted that the heat wave baking the Pacific Northwest would be “historic, dangerous, prolonged and unprecedented.” 

If anything, they undersold it. 

As the Pacific Northwest continues to suffer through a record-breaking heat wave, with temperatures in Portland, Oregon, reaching as high as 112 degrees this past weekend, the escalating conditions are expected to prove fatal for far too many across the coming days. 

For those in the south, triple-digit temperatures are often a fact of life during these summer months, and it can be difficult to understand why this heat wave is such a big deal. Sure, temperatures that high are a bit extreme, but, at a certain point, heat is heat and you just ride it out inside while waiting for a higher-than-normal electric bill to hit the next month. 

But it’s not so simple for many in the Northwest. 

Degrees of difference

Because temperatures normally don’t reach anything remotely close to the current levels in that region, the air conditioning that is typically a necessity for people in warmer climates is often considered more of an optional luxury. Only 70 percent of people in Portland, for example, have air conditioning in their homes. In Seattle, the number is less than 34 percent. Residences, moreover, are often designed to retain heat during the colder winters rather than let it out, further exacerbating the problem. 

When a similarly record-setting winter storm hit Texas and other parts of the south this past February, the response from many in the north was similar bewilderment. They struggled to understand why the falling temperatures, along with the accompanying snow and ice, was proving to be such a problem. 

After all, those conditions and worse are as much a fact of life in certain parts of the country as summer heat is in the south. 

How Jesus modeled empathy

Both situations remind us that it’s only when we take the time to understand why someone is struggling that we are truly able to empathize with them and be of any real help. When we make snap judgments or assume that we have all the necessary information before we do, then we’re likely to only make matters worse. 

We see Jesus model this principle at various points throughout his ministry. Whereas the religious leaders would often respond to the people’s problems with a list of ways they were failing to keep the Law, Christ often responded by taking the time to listen and make people feel heard before stepping in with guidance. His interaction with the woman at the well is, perhaps, the best example of this strategy at work, but it was hardly the only time he used it (John 4). The time spent eating with “tax collectors and sinners” likely had a similar tone (Mark 2:13–17). 

What his critics couldn’t understand is that the extra effort was as much, or more, for the benefit of those suffering than it was for him. Even when he already knew exactly what they needed, by taking the time to listen he was able to tailor his answers in a way that better applied to their struggle and made them more open to heeding his advice. 

If our omniscient Lord needed to make that effort in helping others, how much more do we?  

Whether it’s commenting on the heat wave in the Northwest or talking with a friend who has worked up the courage to confide in you, make it a point to follow Christ’s example and not respond until you’ve first taken the time to prayerfully understand what’s really going on. Once you’ve done that, ask God to help you structure your reply in such a way that it gets to the heart of where the other person is actually struggling. 

Few things are less helpful to someone who is hurting than unsolicited and irrelevant advice. But, by the same token, few things can heal like the presence and compassion of someone who is willing to take the time to really listen and understand. 

Our culture is filled with people who are more than willing to do the former but far too few who will make the extra effort to do the latter. 

Into which group will you fall today?