You Really Can! Why and How to Memorize Big Chunks of the Bible

Seminar — 2014 National Conference

Look at the Book: Reading the Bible for Yourself

Welcome to the 2014 Desiring God National Conference. I am going to make sure that I start my stopwatch, so I’m not going too long. Need to keep track of the time here. It is a pleasure to have you here, and I get the pleasure of welcoming you on behalf of the board of directors and the staff and the 100-plus volunteers. It’s wonderful to have you here at the conference. We are praying that you will be enriched; that you will love the word of God; that it will increasingly feel like it’s more than much fine gold, and be sweeter than honey to you; that it will be a fountain of life to you.

Matt is right. This seminar is called Yes You Can! How to Memorize Big Chunks of the Bible, and more accurately I would say it’s about why you should and how you can memorize big chunks of the Bible.

Now, what I mean by big chunks of the Bible is simply a chapter, maybe a number of chapters, and entire books. If you’re thinking, “Well, I can’t memorize entire books,” that’s why it’s called, “Yes you can!” You can, and my aim is to convince you that you should. When I mean you should, you know that I don’t mean a legal should. I’m not here to lay burdens on you. It’s more like a doctor who says, “You know, you really should lose some weight. You really should get some exercise. It’s good for you.”

So, memorizing big chunks of the Bible is beneficial to you, and I want to explain why it is. I’m going to do it in three parts. The first part is that I’ll explain it to you and I’ll give you 10 reasons why I think you should, and why I think it’s beneficial to you. Then I’m going to give you a quick tutorial on how to do it, or at least how I have done it. It’s a technique that John Piper also uses. I learned it from him first, heard it from him first. Then if we have time, I’m going to demonstrate what a review looks like by reciting some of 1 Corinthians 1, which is the book that I’m working through right now in memory.

Ten Reasons for Bible Memorization

Let’s jump in. Here are 10 reasons why you should memorize big chunks of the Bible.

1. A Bad Memory

Reason number one, because you have a bad memory. You have a bad memory. Don’t say, “Well, I can’t memorize big chunks of the Bible because I have a bad memory.” That’s the reason why you need to memorize big chunks of the Bible. I have a bad memory. I do. I think my memory is worse than average. I do not seem to remember names and all sorts of information that people around me seem to be able to remember more effectively. I don’t know. It’s a bane.

When my wife and I got married, I dreaded the reception line, because there were relatives who are going to come through that I knew I was going to forget. I have a bad memory. You might have a bad memory, and most of us do. Not many of us are Charles Spurgeon types or Winston Churchill types who seem to be able to have instant recall of things that they read years ago. Most of us have to drive things into our long-term memory by the process of repetition. That’s what I have done, and that’s what I want you to do. I think you’ll be surprised what you can commit to memory if you devote even 10 or 15 minutes a day to it. You’ll be surprised at how much you can commit to memory.

I’ve memorized five New Testament books so far, and I’m on my sixth, 1 Corinthians. And I’m doing it because I have a bad memory. So that’s reason number one.

2. Food for Our Minds

Reason number two: you need to feed your mind. Philippians 4:8 says:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

But it’s hard to think about these things if you can’t remember what they are. When you are going through a season of anguish, if you’re going through a season of depression or significant trial and disappointment, sadness, grief, or anger, general positive Bible concepts are not going to be very helpful to you. You need specific, precious, and very great promises to be able to hold on to. So memorizing big chunks of the Bible gets you familiar, and it drives them there. It provides food for your mind so that when you need to think about these things, they’re more accessible to you.

3. Familiarity and Externalization

That leads into reason number three why you should memorize big chunks of the Bible: the Bible is too accessible to you. It’s a sad thing and a strange thing that what we have in abundance are things that we tend to neglect. Familiarity really does have a way of breeding contempt. We’ve got Bibles. We’ve got scads of Bibles in America and in the Western world. We have all sorts of translations. We have Bibles on our tables and on our shelves and in our phones and our in tablets. It’s on our computer. It’s on the internet. We can search for keywords. It’s so accessible that it’s tempting to let it be out there, not in our minds.

We can think we know the Bible a lot, and it’s because it’s so accessible. We can go to it when we want. But we’re supposed to hide the word in our heart. The word of Christ is supposed to dwell in us richly, not out there richly. So we can’t fool ourselves by thinking we know the Bible.

4. Access to Modern Resources

Number four: you have the internet. This is a subpoint really, but let’s make it number four. What I want to say about the internet is the internet is teaching us to learn how not to read. The internet is teaching us how not to read. We’re becoming information scanners, browsers. We’re doing a lot of browsing. When you do a lot of browsing you don’t digest very much. We’re losing patience for deeper, more reflective reading.

So if you’re scanning through the Bible, or if you think that maybe a five-minute a day Bible reading plan is good for you, I’d say, “Well, it’s better than nothing, but not a whole lot better.” What we need is deep reflection on the Bible. Memorizing large chunks of the Bible forces us to reflect deeply.

So if you want to think about this as complimenting what Tom just said, Tom talked about arcing, getting in and mining the word. Well, memorizing is a way of mining the word because the amount of times that you repeat makes you think deeply about it, and you make connections that you never had before. So, it is a way of mining the Bible.

5. Knowing the Bible Better

Number five: you ought to memorize big chunks of the Bible because you don’t know the Bible as well as you think you do, probably. If you grow up in the church, if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, and you’ve done a lot of Bible reading and you’ve heard a lot of teaching, you can think you know the Bible.

But if you’ve never memorized a large portion of Scripture, then I want to give you this challenge. Just as an experiment, try memorizing Ephesians 1 or Romans 8 like we’re going to be bathing in this weekend — or Romans 12 or Hebrews 11 or 1 Corinthians 13 or 1 John 4. What you’re going to find is that there is a lot more there than you saw before, than you realize. That’s what it’s done for me. There’s a lot more there.

What I liken it to is that it’s like having a friend who you’ve known for a while. You think you know them pretty well, and then you have a conversation with them that opens up a whole new dimension of them to you, and you go, “Oh, I didn’t see that before. I didn’t know that about you before.” That friend now feels closer. You know them better. You take a different step in your relationship with them. It’s like that. That’s what memorizing large portions of the Bible does for you.

You are going to know biblical writers better. You will see the flow of thought. Books will cease to be just nice Bible friends, and become trusted counselors to you, confidants, and dear, precious friends.

6. Increasing Preciousness

That just leads to number six. The sixth reason you should memorize big chunks of the Bible is that God’s word really will become more precious to you. The principle is simple. What you invest in most becomes most precious to you. If you invest in something a lot, it becomes precious to you. So if we’re not spending much time in the Bible, we should not be surprised that it’s not that precious to us. It’s not that compelling.

But if you spend, accumulatively, dozens of hours, or over a period of years, hundreds of hours, meditating on the word because you’re committing it to memory, it will become a precious and essential part of your life. It will become intertwined in your life, and you’ll know what the psalmist meant when he said, “Your word, Lord, is worth more than much fine gold, sweeter than drippings from the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).

7. Seeing and Savoring

The seventh point is the most important point that I’ll cover here of these 10, I think. You should memorize large portions of the Bible because it will help you to see more of God’s glory. It’s going to help you see more of God’s glory.

If you want to know something about a person, you can learn a few things about them by observing something that they have made. If you look at a portrait that Rembrandt has painted, there are things you can learn about Rembrandt by looking at his work of art, but you will not know him through that medium like you will if you listened well to things that he said, and you observed carefully what he did. Then you would know him.

The same is true about God. Minneapolis is just shining with glory at this time of the year. It’s my favorite time of the year. Get out when you have a chance. Bathe in the glorious, golden sunlight. Look at the natural wonder of the leaves turning. There’s a lot that God wishes for us to feast on. There are things that he would love to show us, like it says in Psalm 19, by looking at the book of nature. But the most precious things about God, you will not find in the book of nature. You will not know, by looking at nature, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), and that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever would believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

You wouldn’t know what eternal life means and what it implies for you. You can only know that by going to God’s word. You want to see more glory. Mountains and microbes and galaxies and goats say something glorious about God, but oh, not as nearly as wonderful as the Word. Memorizing large chunks of Scripture helps us listen carefully and perceive more glory.

8. Discernment for a World Full of Lies

Number eight, you need to memorize large portions of the Bible because doing it will fine tune your hooey gauge. You know what hooey is? Who’s seen the Lego movie? I like the Lego movie. A great definition of hooey is what President Business, the villain of the movie, says. Do you remember the quote, those of you who’ve seen it? That’s a bunch of hippy dippy baloney. That’s what hooey is. It’s a good definition.

On a more serious tone, we’re talking about lies. Lies are lethal. Lies destroy souls, and the world is lying to you all the time. The devil is lying to you all the time. The world lies in the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19). Your sin nature lies to you. False brothers lie to you. And sometimes, in a heartbreaking way, true brothers and sisters will lie.

The question is, how are we going to make our way, discern our way through the morass of lies in this world, and know the truth? Well, Jesus gives us the answer in John 17, when he’s praying to the Father he says, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). In John 8:32, he says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The better you know God’s word, the better you are able to handle it, the more you have in your mind, the clearer you are able to discern. So having a lot of God’s word in your mind, stored in there, functions as a filter, and your hooey gauge, your lie detector inside, is fine-tuned, all right?

So, there are things you will pick up on a finer level than you would if you just breeze through the Bible. They’ll fine tune your hooey gauge.

9. Comfort in Our Tribulation

Number nine: you should memorize big chunks of the Bible because you’re going to suffer. For some of you, suffering is front and center right now. You’re experiencing it. It’s intense. Some of you are fresh off of a season of suffering. Some of you are going to encounter it this year. All of us will suffer. In this world, we will have tribulation, Jesus says (John 16:33). Whenever suffering and anguish comes, it’s always confusing and disorienting. So, memorizing large portions of the Bible, committing it to memory, what that helps you do is have a well to draw from when things break in.

Not only can you call things to mind, but you’ll have learned that portion of the Bible so well that even when the pain is intense, and you can’t quite call it to mind exactly, you know right where to go. You know where to say, “Oh, what is that Hebrews 12:11? What does that say about the discipline of the Lord? It’s painful.” You know right where to go. You know where it is. So, it will help you endure suffering.

10. Comfort for Others’ Tribulation

The last point is related. You should memorize big chunks of the Bible, because your brothers and sisters are going to suffer, all right?

So, memorizing Scripture isn’t just about us. It’s not just about us, and it’s not merely about our own worship of God; it’s also loving toward others. Your brothers and sisters are going to be in need, and it will help them for you to have a well to draw from that’s not just all external and not general. When your brothers and sisters are in anguish, they don’t need general platitude. They don’t just need general biblical concepts; what they need are concrete promises too.

So you can love them in that moment. Your investment of time will serve them. It will bear fruit in all sorts of ways that you didn’t expect. Those are 10 reasons why you should memorize large chunks of the Bible.

A Simple Method for Memorization

Now, what I want to do is explain a simple technique to do that, because that can be one of the biggest problems. How do I do that? Many years ago, I remember I tried to memorize through Ephesians and tried to memorize through Colossians, but the system I had wasn’t very good. My recall was bad. It wasn’t until John Piper introduced me to this particular technique that it clicked for me, and it worked. It’s a technique that’s been developed by Dr. Andrew Davis. He is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. He has memorized a ton of Scripture.

I’m hoping that one of the foods of this seminar is that you might go out and get his 30-page booklet about how to memorize extended portions of Scripture. It’s on Amazon. It’s only 99 cents, all right? But it will explain all this to you and lay out how to really do it, how to memorize even really big chunks of the Bible, and how to do the review and all those kinds of things. So, make note of that, and look for Andrew Davis’s booklet.

Here’s the key to memorizing something. The most effective way is not to say it 100 times in a day. That’s called cramming. That’s what you did for your college exams. It’s what you were able to regurgitate on the exam, and then you did not remember much at all. That’s not how long-term memory works. But if you say something one time for 100 consecutive days, now you’ve got something in your long-term memory. That’s a key concept. Repeat it one time for 100 consecutive days, and you will own that Scripture. You will remember it. It will be familiar to you.

An Example from the Gospel of John

Now, let me show you how this is done. We’ll take John 1:1–3 just as an example. This is how you do it. All right, so John 1:1 is:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

That’s verse one. John 1:2 says:

He was in the beginning with God.

And John 1:3 says:

All things were made through him, and without him was nothing made that was made.

That’s the first three verses. Now, how are you going to begin to memorize? Let’s just say you’re inspired by this, and tomorrow you’re going to say, “I’m going to memorize John 1,” which would be a wonderful thing to memorize. Here’s what you do.

You will open up your Bible, or you will turn it on, whatever it is that you do, all right? You will go to John 1. What you will do is you will read, all right? So, you’ll take your Bible, and you’ll read. You’ll say, “John 1:1.” Now, I do it verbally. I do. I do it out loud. I even pace outside in the nice weather. So if you’re there early in the morning and you hear this guy talking to himself, that’s me, but it helps me. If it helps you to hear yourself, do it out loud. You’ll look at it, and you’ll go, “John 1:1 — ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word is with God, and the word was God.’”

Now, I don’t care how familiar you are to that. Don’t go, “I already know that. I’ll just do that.” Don’t do that. You look at it. You read every word as you say it. The reason is that it is developing a habit for you, and reading it deliberately imprints it in your mind. Believe me, it will help you remember it months later. You’ll have flashes in your mind of what it looks like, even the contour of the sentence if you can’t see the words clearly in your head, but that’s what it’s doing. It’s imprinting it on your mind.

You will read it carefully, and you will do it 10 times. You’ll say, “John 1:1 — ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1).” And you will say, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (1:1).” You do that 10 times, and then you close your Bible or turn it off, and then you will recite it, saying, “John 1:1 — ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (1:1).” Again, you will say, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” You do that 10 times, and then you’re done.

Progressing from Verse to Verse

The next day, you’ll come, and you’ll turn on or open up your Bible, and the first thing you’ll do is you will review what you did yesterday, and you will review it by reciting it 10 times. You will say, “John 1:1 — ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’” You’ll do that by memory 10 times. Then you will look, and you’ll do John 1:2, and say, “He was in the beginning with God” (1:2). Again, you will say, “He was in the beginning with God (1:2).” And again, you will say, “He was in the beginning with God.”

You’ll say those words, or at least say it in your mind, and end with “1:2”. Say the verse number. What you’re doing there is that you are creating little tags in your brain — 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, etc. Let me tell you, this will really help you. Your brain isn’t very good at remembering things, and it will lose it. It’ll shuffle things around. If you don’t make those little tags, you’ll go, “Ah, I don’t know that,” a lot more than you will if you will tag them in your brain. It’s not hard. It doesn’t take any more extra time, but it is more effective to do that. You will do that, and then you will read it 10 times, and you will recite it 10 times, and then you’re done.

The Daily Pattern

On the third day, you will open it up. You will review what you did a couple days ago. You will say, “John 1:1 — ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” by memory. And you do it once. That’s it.

Then you’ll go to verse two. You will recite that by memory 10 times. Then you’ll go to verse three, you will read verse three three times, and you will recite it three times, and then you’re done. Then you’re going to make your way through the first chapter John that way.

Reciting those earlier verses won’t take much time at all. You’re just doing it once. The only one that you’re reciting 10 times is the one you did yesterday and the one you’re doing today. Does that make sense? It’s a very simple technique, but it’s very effective, and I encourage you to give it a try.

Demonstrating Bible Memorization

All right, well, let me demonstrate. I’ve been memorizing my way through 1 Corinthians. I’m going to do chapter one here for you as a way to show you what a review might look like, all right? Here is 1 Corinthians 1:1–31:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, [1:2] To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: [1:3] Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1:4] I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, [1:5] that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — [1:6] even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — [1:7] so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, [1:8] who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1:9] God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1:10] I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. [1:11] For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. [1:12] What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” [1:13] Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? [1:14] I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, [1:15] so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 1:16 [1:17] For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

[1:18] For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. [1:19] For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” [1:20] Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? [1:21] For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. [1:22] For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, [1:23] but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, [1:24] but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. [1:25] For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

[1:26] For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. [1:27] But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; [1:28] God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, [1:29] so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. [1:30] And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, [1:31] so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

An Investment We Will Never Regret

That’s how it looks. That’s how it looks for me. As I’m doing my review, do you see I said the verse number, and I recited the verse? It helps. It helps as you are anticipating the verses to come, and it brings them to mind, and it begins to store them up.

Now, the benefit for memorizing, of course, is not being able to recite it in front of people, although there may be times when that’s helpful. The real benefit for you and for others is it will help you to really listen to God’s word. You will listen to God’s word in a way that you don’t when you just read through things and skip across the surface of it. It will help you to really understand God’s word. It will help you to believe it.

You will see nuances in God’s word that you didn’t see before. Your belief in it will become more profound. You will perceive more glory, more of God’s glory. It’ll help inflame your worship, and it will give you fuel to give to other people — comfort and help and encouragement — and to fuel their worship of God. It’ll help you to spread it. More of God’s words will be on your lips in moments when you need it like that.

You can do this. If I can do this, you can do this, and you should. It’s not as hard as you think. Try it. It’s not as hard as you think. It’s one of the best investments that you may make in your life, and you will not regret it.