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The Dead Sea is one of the earth’s most extraordinary natural features.
This large lake, located on the border of Israel and Jordan, is the lowest point on the surface of the planet – a full one-third of a mile below sea level. It’s not shallow, either. At one spot it’s 997 feet deep. It is also assumed to be the saltiest body of water on earth. Since the lake has no outlet, it is the final repository of numerous minerals that are steadily leached into its waters from adjoining desert wilderness. With a saline concentration approaching 34%, it is nearly ten times saltier than the world’s oceans.
That has produced two novel effects. The first is that the Dead Sea, true to its name, is almost entirely devoid of life. Apart from a few exotic microorganisms, nothing can live within its waters or along its shores.
The second is that the extremely high concentration of dissolved mineral salts ensures that its waters are far denser than fresh water. Human bodies, which are roughly 60% water, turn out to be considerably less dense. That means that people can actually bob like corks on the surface of the Dead Sea. In fact, no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to stay submerged beneath the surface.
I learned all that 45 years ago in a Bible geography course at seminary. It’s one thing to know the facts, however, and even to get an A on the test, and quite another thing to believe what one has learned.
That became clear to me when I had the chance in 2007 to stand at the edge of the Dead Sea. I had come prepared. I was wearing my swimsuit. Other members of our travel group had already taken the plunge. They were laughing at the sensation of floating effortlessly. I could see them paddling out into the deep.
But I had a twinge of doubt. What if I was about to become the first person in recorded history to vanish from sight beneath the surface of the Dead Sea, receding helplessly into a sodium grave? There’s a big difference between knowing about something and actually knowing it from personal experience.
Here we should pause to point out that churches, especially in America, have succumbed to a serious misunderstanding concerning spiritual growth.
It’s widely assumed that if we teach well, preach with passion, and convey all the nuts and bolts of what it means to follow Jesus, our listeners will take it from there. But it simply isn’t so. Studies clearly show that mastering theological data isn’t enough for someone to grow in Christ. Knowing God requires something more.
What does it mean to believe?
Historically, Christianity’s brightest teachers have spotlighted three Latin words – Latin being the western church’s theological language of choice from the earliest centuries through the Middle Ages. Each of these three words designates one of the necessary components of saving faith.
The first term is notitia, from which we derive the word “note.” Think of taking notes in class. In order to know something, we need the right data. If you want to swim in the Dead Sea, it’s crucial to know the chemistry and buoyancy of saline solutions. If you want to follow Jesus, you’ll want to dig deep into the stories of his ministry, his death on the cross, and his resurrection.
The second term is assensus, the origin of the word “assent.” Now we’re talking about personal conviction. I happen to know that Goodyear makes tires. That’s notitia, or entry-level knowledge. But I also happen to know that according to Consumer Reports and the experience of many trusted friends, Goodyear makes excellent tires. And I personally believe those reports. That’s assensus.
It’s worth noting, however, that I don’t have Goodyear tires on my car. The last time I went tire-shopping, my current brand was cheaper. Even though I admire and assent to the goodness of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, I’m currently not committed to their product.
What I’m missing is the third Latin term, which is fiducia. This represents the crucial transition from knowing about something intellectually to knowing something from personal experience.
Fiducia means putting my life into the hands of something or someone whom I trust will hold me up. If I put a set of Goodyear tires on my car, I’m trusting they will hold up my car on the interstate. If I plunge into the Dead Sea, I’m trusting that the salt will hold me up above the surface. If I abandon myself to Jesus, I’m trusting that he will hold me up if my bank account goes to zero, if a good friend shatters my heart, or if I feel overwhelmed by depression or fear.
We need to dismiss, once and for all, the idea that faith in God is an irrational leap into the dark. That idea appears nowhere in Scripture. When we’re acting in concert with all three of the words we’ve just mentioned, faith turns out to be a leap out of the darkness into the light. It’s not belief without proof, but trust without reservations.
The devil, by the way, as James reminds us (James 2:19), is fully up to speed on both notitia and assensus. He has all the right data about God and believes every word of it. But he has no interest in fiducia – no intention whatsoever of taking that third crucial step.
Back on the salt-encrusted shores of the Dead Sea, I did take that step. I strode out into the water, let myself go, and lived to tell the tale.
Faith in Jesus is more than just knowing important facts. It means coming to believe him with your whole body – your actual life, that is, and all the choices you’ll make today.
So do your homework. Draw your conclusions.
Then take the plunge.