One of the most beneficial spiritual disciplines for me has been memorizing long portions of Scripture.
Now, before you click away because you assume this article isn’t relevant to you, or because you want to avoid another guilt trip that you’re not measuring up to some spiritual Christian standard, would you give me a couple of minutes? I’d like to make a case that memorizing long portions of Scripture is indeed relevant to you and is not about your measuring up, but about your joy.
Confessions of a Bad Memorizer
I know that for many, joy is not the word they associate with Bible memory. Boring or can’t do it or undisciplined might be what comes to mind. I know. That was me.
I remember once, as a young adult, deciding I should take Bible memory seriously. In the flush of idealized resolve, I bought a Navigator’s Bible memory system. As is typical of idealized resolve, it dissipated after a couple of feeble tries, and the system then went unused until I eventually threw it away.
Years later, when my church leaders encouraged members to memorize certain verses each week, I was hit-and-miss. It wasn’t a faulty program; it was a faulty me. I had a fairly bad memory to begin with. I would memorize initially, but it seemed I just lost it so fast. I figured I would never do well at memorizing.
Plus, I harbored some skepticism about whether Bible memory really made much of a difference. I figured it was good — like a comprehensive workout at the gym is good — but I wondered if the actual value wasn’t somewhat inflated, considering all that extra work and time. I had some theological education, attended a theologically rigorous church, read theological books, was involved in Christian ministry, and generally read through the Bible every year in my devotions. How much more would memorizing do for me?
A Memorable Discovery
It was actually an experience in my devotions that pushed me toward a memorable discovery. In my late thirties, I had just completed the book of Hebrews (again) in my reading plan, and it left me a bit frustrated. Hebrews is so rich, so full of glorious truth. But every time I read through it, it was like I just skipped across its surface. I wanted to dive in.
Then I had this unusual thought: I need to memorize this book. Wouldn’t that get me deeper into it and have it get deeper into me? Then I did math: 13 chapters and 303 verses. Seriously? Could I, a bad memorizer, memorize 303 verses? And retain them?
I knew that John Piper used a memory technique taught by pastor Andrew Davis to memorize larger blocks of Scripture. So I decided to try it.
I found this technique worked! It took me quite a while, but I committed all of Hebrews to memory. And as I did, it was like swimming in the book. Deeper dimensions of the text and its application opened up for me. I followed the author’s flow of thought in ways I hadn’t seen before. I learned the warp and woof of each chapter. But more than all that, there were moments I worshiped Jesus as I saw him through the lens of this book — moments that I had not experienced in my read-throughs.
That experience of more profound worship of Jesus made me hungrier to know even more of him. So after Hebrews, I made the crazy decision to memorize the book of John. It took a long time, but again, it was wonderful. It was a long, deliberate, nourishing walk with Jesus. From there I went to Romans, then to Philippians, then to 1 John, then to 1 Corinthians (which I nearly completed — I need to get back to it), and then to a number of psalms.
The memorable discovery was not that I, with my bad memory, surprisingly could memorize big chunks of Scripture, but that doing so yielded joy. The exercise, the discipline, of reciting and repeating forced me to meditate on Scripture in ways I hadn’t done before. As a result, I saw more, understood more, enjoyed more complex tastes of God’s goodness (Psalm 34:8). Bible memory, specifically longer sections, turned out to be not merely exercising a few more muscle groups in the Bible gym, but rather a means to more profound worship and more fuel for prayer.
The Bad Memory Myth
Now, knowing I’ve memorized a few books of the Bible might make you skeptical of my claim that I have a bad memory. If so, that’s only because you don’t know me. My wife and kids will confirm. I regularly blank out on names of people I should remember (I dreaded the reception line at our wedding). I regularly can’t recall specifics of a past conversation or event or book I’ve read that I should remember. Which means I live with a measure of social anxiety that one or both will happen in a public setting (because they do).
I think my brain’s file-retrieval system is below average — less like an orderly file cabinet and more like a messy desk with piles of stuff on it (“Ugh! Where’s that name?” Rummage, rummage. “I know I put it here!”). I do best with a lot of repetition and review. I guess it keeps things near the top of the pile, which is another benefit of memorizing long portions of Scripture.
My experience has taught me not to believe the bad memory myth — that having a bad memory disqualifies us from memorizing much (unless we’re a rare medical/neurological exception). Rather, a bad memory makes memorizing all the more needful and helpful.
Harder doesn’t mean impossible. It just means people like me have to work harder to memorize and retain than people blessed with a good memory. Which is not much different than saying that people like me have to work harder to lose weight and keep weight off than people blessed with naturally faster metabolisms.
God is not egalitarian in his distribution of talents (Matthew 25:15), spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4–6), roles (1 Corinthians 12:18–20), bodies (John 9:2–3), and faith (Romans 12:3). We all have weaknesses that require us to labor more than others must. And this is really good for our souls. It teaches us perseverance and endurance as well as humble dependence on God and appreciation for others’ strengths.
Start Small and Realize a Benefit
I share with you my experience as a bad memorizer for two reasons: (1) if you’ve never attempted memorizing long portions of Scripture, it’s likely well within your reach; and (2) it really is all about joy. If you hear any should implied in what I’ve written, don’t hear it as a legal should that you must do to please God or achieve some elite spiritual rank. Rather, hear it as an invitation to joy — like a friend who says, “You should visit the Grand Canyon”; or a prescription for joy, like a doctor who says, “For the sake of your health, you should really consider getting some exercise.”
If you’d like some specific coaching on how to get started with a particular memorizing technique, I’ve provided that elsewhere. But if you’re new to this, here’s my simple counsel: start small and realize a benefit. Choose a meaningful psalm (like Psalm 27) or a meaningful chapter that’s not too long (like 1 Corinthians 13). Or if you really want to try your hand at a book, I recommend Philippians. Give it a try, stay with it, and taste the joy.
Once you discover you can really do it, and you discover that it yields joy, you will very likely want to keep going. And that’s the beginning of the adventure. Keep venturing! Because there’s a lot of glory to see and savor.