A couple years ago, I was part of a conference about global missions called CROSS. David Platt was one of the speakers, and preached an incredibly inspiring message from Romans. Early on in his talk, he asked us all to turn to the beginning of the letter. You could hear pages flipping as his voice rang out, “Paul, a bondservant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God . . . ” I followed along as he read, expecting him to wrap up a few verses in, as usual. But he didn’t.
He kept reading — all the way through chapter 1. Then I noticed something. He wasn’t looking down at his Bible — at all. He was looking out at us. He wasn’t reading the letter; he was reciting it! For the next thirty minutes we sat and reveled in the good news filling our ears and hearts as he quoted from memory the entire first eight chapters of Romans (you can watch the video below beginning at the 4:00 mark).
As I sat there enjoying every moment, I couldn’t help but think how much sweeter that past year must have been for Platt as he tucked those golden words into his heart day after day, discovering new beauty in old lines, pouring over the often overlooked sections, learning, forgetting, relearning, and savoring. If his recitation excited so much hunger in me for God and his word, how much more must all of that meditation increased his own!
Make the Word Stick
Experiences or stories like that always inspire us. As soon as we hear it, we rush to our Bible with fresh zeal, open it to our favorite verses or chapter, and get to work. “I can do this!” we think. That is, until we realize that, “These verses sure do repeat themselves a lot.” And, “Was it will or shall?” And, “There’s how many more verses to go?!” What started as a forest fire of excitement and resolve gets snuffed out by the heavy rain of reality: Memorization is hard work.
Many of us know how valuable it is to memorize God’s word. But we often don’t know where to start. We get discouraged. We burn out quickly and move on to something less taxing. I’ve wrestled with these frustrations for years now. As a performer and worship leader, I’ve had to develop techniques so that I don’t drop the ball when I take the stage. I want to share a few of the methods I use regularly when memorizing God’s Word. More could always be said, but I have come back to these principles most often to help make the words stick.
1. Eat first.
To read the Bible well, we have to realize that this book is more than words on a page. It’s a banquet. You are more likely to remember what you read if you come not mainly to memorize, but to feast.
Most of the longer passages I’ve committed to memory have been the happy byproduct of simply enjoying them long enough — digging into the text, looking up keywords, cross-referencing passages, reading commentaries, and marking up my Bible. The more I dug around, the more familiar I became with the author’s flow of thought, or the way a particular story or paragraph unfolded. Meditation made it far less difficult to recall the verses when I needed them later. If you plan on taking on the challenge of memorizing God’s word, come ready to dine.
2. Give it a soundtrack.
I’m teaching my daughters the Beatitudes. Every week I give them another verse that I put to a simple melody. By the fourth or fifth time I sing it for them, my three-year-old can recite it back to me. Music is a powerful medium for memorization. You know this even if you haven’t thought about it. You probably seldom leave church on Sunday quoting long excerpts of the pastor’s sermon from memory, but most of us leave humming or singing one of the songs.
Next time you’re facing a long passage of Scripture to memorize, you might try getting out your smart phone and recording yourself reading the passage with a familiar piece of instrumental music playing in the background. Let that short recording be your new favorite song for the week. Play it in your car on your drive to work. Listen to it while you go for a walk. When you begin to feel more confident in what you’ve memorized, go back and listen to the track without your voice. You’ll likely find that your recording served as a type of training wheels for your mind. Now that it’s gone, the musical moments will trigger your memory of the passage you’ve been working on.
3. Be willing to fail in public.
There’s a helpful concept in leadership circles called “failing forward.” It’s the notion that mistakes and missteps actually help us along the road to success and growth. The same has been true for me with memorization. I have come to love my botched recitations because they reveal the chinks in my chain, and show me which areas need the most work. No scenario emblazons my weak areas on my mind better than when I fail in front of people. For some reading this, I’ve just described your worst nightmare and greatest fear. But take heart!
I’m not suggesting a massive public face-plant. I’m suggesting a more controlled burn where you can dictate who your audience will be and where it will go down. For me, it’s usually my wife and her friends sitting in our living room. When I’ve gotten a couple error free recitations under my belt on my own, I want to share it with others. I want them to experience the joy I had listening to Platt. Inevitably I fumble on a couple parts, but now my weakest areas have been exposed, and I can focus there. It refines my memorization. Many of us will never recite Scripture on a stage, but I will say this: If you can quote Scripture in front of an audience successfully, you have truly memorized it.
4. Turn down the noise.
Memorization can be hard work, and it will always take time. You don’t necessarily have to have music or an audience, but you cannot memorize the Bible without time. Our brains need time to mull over the words and phrases, to pull apart the concepts and connections, and to ask lots of good questions about the passage. In our modern age of social media, streaming music, 24-hour news outlets, and around-the-clock work schedules, it is near impossible for our minds to linger over anything meaningful for very long.
When I am memorizing a particularly long passage, I often unplug from many of those distractions. Car rides become silent, radio-free journeys. Apps get deleted. Podcasts get missed. Take the time to identify one or two distractions that can be sacrificed in order to make way for the quietness and concentration memorization requires. Fast from those things, at least for a time, for the sake of your memorization. You’ll never regret making space for God’s word.
5. Use it or lose it.
In third grade, my teacher challenged our class to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. At eight years old, I was her only student to recite it. At the time I felt pretty accomplished, but ask me to deliver it now and I’ll only get through the first line or two. Memorizing something is not like riding a bike. We forget and forget quickly. If you don’t build in a system of regular rehearsal, you cannot possibly expect to hold onto many verses for long.
There are some great resources out there to help with this. The Fighter Verses app is a fantastic tool to help you keep track of the passages you’ve memorized, and it provides quizzes and games to help you review them. If technology is more distracting than helpful, there are plenty of great, pre-smartphone methods. I review what I’ve memorized in the shower. I line the wall with print-outs of the passages I’ve learned in gallon zip lock bags. It’s unconventional, but it works for me. Maybe in your struggle to memorize the Bible you have not yet insisted to the point of mounting zip lock bags. What creative approach might work for you and your schedule?
Whatever your method, review is key. The deeper you hide God’s word in your heart, the less likely it is to sneak away when you need it most.