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Practical Tools for Extended Scripture Memorization

May 22, 2014 by Larry Lazarus 0 comments

Posted in: Christian Living

Last week I was challenged by these words from John Piper: “What would your ministry be like, if it were led by folks who memorized whole books of the Bible?”  With the question, there was a link to an article written by Jon Bloom titled, Ten Reasons to Memorize Big Chunks of the Bible.

Having memorized the book of Colossians 3-4 years ago, and more recently memorizing Romans 5-8, I can personally bear witness (and I have done so, in this sermon and in this one) to the blessings of Bible memorization, especially memorizing large chunks, and not just an isolated verse here and there. 

Recently I have been sensing that it’s time to gear up for another season of hiding an entire book of God’s Word in my heart, the book of Philippians.  I encouraged my Life Group to join me in that endeavor, and that raised some questions on how exactly to go about committing such a large chunk of Scripture to memory.  “There’s no way I could ever do that…I’ve got a horrible memory,” is a common response to hearing a call to memorizing extended portions of Scripture. 

So I thought about my own experience of Scripture memorization, and particularly the practical lessons I have learned from my previous experiences with Colossians and Romans 5-8.  I offer them here, in hopes that it might give some of you another little nudge to devote yourself to this precious, but practically challenging discipline of Scripture memory.  Here are ten practical lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1.Be convinced of the value of doing this

The most important “practical” thing I can say about the work of memorizing extended chunks of Scripture is that the main barrier is not a lack of practical tools and strategies.  You have to be convinced of the value of having a whole book of Scripture dwelling in your mind and heart, in order to really give yourself to the discipline and work that is involved in actually doing it.

If you start out doing this simply because I am saying it would be good for you to do it, you’re probably not going to persevere with it, even if you have all the practical tools available at your disposal.  So if you’re even thinking about doing this, labor to see why it is so precious and vital.  Check out the links to the sermons I posted above (and the Scripture that is referred to in those sermons), or the article by Jon Bloom.  Check out this eight-minute audio clip of John Piper commending the value of this discipline.

It takes a lot of time and (grace-driven) effort to commit 2,000 words (roughly the length of Philippians) to memory. You have to want it really badly to invest the time and energy needed to do that.  So labor to see that value, and pray that God would give you that kind of heart.    

2. Do it with a firm grasp of the gospel

Again, you’re probably looking for a little more practical than this (we’ll get to that).  But if you aren’t firmly grasping the gospel, you may very well approach something like this as a way of proving yourself.  Maybe you want to prove yourself to God, that you’re a good Christian who has so much of the Bible stored up in your heart.  Maybe you want to prove yourself to others, wanting to impress them with your discipline and hard work (this has been a temptation of mine over the years, which I have had to kill often).  Maybe you want to prove yourself to yourself, that you can really do this.

If you approach the task with this mentality, you may get the book memorized, but your soul will be headed more in the direction of hell than heaven.  Good works done for evil motives are evil, and the evil is of a most insidious kind, because it appears so good on the outside.  The Pharisees had most of the Old Testament memorized, and Jesus’ most scathing words were reserved for them.  So watch out for wrong motivations.  Embrace with joy that your standing before God, and His Fatherly love, is yours not because of your performance for Him, but because of Jesus’ performance of you. 

Scripture memorization is not about impressing God, or others with what you can do.  It’s about positioning your soul before a fountain of grace that you can immerse yourself in all the time, because it can never be taken from you. 

3. Be prepared for the long haul

Memorizing a whole book of the Bible is not easy for people who like instant gratification and results.  Depending on your pace (see #4), memorizing a book like Philippians will probably take somewhere between 6-12 months.  There’s something very satisfying about pouring yourself into a work that can’t be accomplished overnight.  But if you don’t settle in your heart that this is going to be a long endeavor that is going to take a lot of time, you’re likely to grow weary along the way and give up. 

Fight the impulse towards instant gratification; give yourself to this long, slow work, and I can’t imagine you will come to the end of it with regret for your time spent.

4. Set a sustainable, realistic pace

Because this is a long-term work, you shouldn’t rush in and try to memorize a whole chapter this week, or this month.  One of the big reasons people quit is that they try to bite off more than they can initially chew, see that they can’t go at the pace they think they ought to, and then conclude that they can’t do it.  You CAN do it…it just might take more time than you realized. 

If you have never memorized chunks of Scripture before, start with an easy, realistic pace.  Try one verse per week.  “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons…”  That’s Philippians 1:1, and with a little intentionality, I believe anyone (unless you’re part of the very small percentage of us who suffer from a traumatic brain injury or stroke or disability) can memorize that in a week.  Going at that pace (one verse per week), you’ll memorize all of Philippians in two years (104 verses = 104 weeks). 

My guess is that if you do that for a couple of weeks, you’ll find that you can step up to two verses a week, or three.  As you begin to train your mind in this way, you’ll probably find your capacity for memorization increasing.  Whatever your pace might be, I’m just suggesting that you get some clarity on how quickly you think you can do that, so that you don’t burn out because of unrealistic expectations.

I aim for one verse every other day, which would put me at a pace to memorize Philippians in approximately 30 weeks.  Realistically, I might actually do it quicker than that, because I have a good bit of familiarity with the book already.  But I set that pace because I know it is sustainable and realistic for me, even when I’m busy and lethargic. 

5. Write, read, recite, repeat

Here is the crux of my answer to the question, “Yes, yes, but HOW do you actually commit the verses to memory? What do you do?”  This general approach is outlined by Andy Davis in this short booklet, though I do not follow his suggestion of memorizing the verse numbers (I find them too cumbersome in trying to recite an extended portion of Scripture, either for my own soul or ministering to someone else).

  1. Write the verse on to a 3x5 index card (I write small enough so I can fill the card, front and back, with several verses, in paragraph form, just the way it would appear in the Bible.  That helps me in the task of review, so I don’t need to be carrying a stack of cards around with me).
  2. Read the verse aloud, as if you were speaking it to someone, ten times.  Then cover the card, and recite it out loud ten times from memory.  If you need to look down at the card for help, that’s ok, but try to do it ten times from memory.
  3. 3-4 times throughout the day (that’s why I like to put it on an index card, so I can easily carry it with me), pull the card out and recite the verse once or twice, to cement it in your mind.  Again, refer to the card for help if you need to.  Don’t be discouraged if you had it earlier in the day, but by the end of the day it seems fuzzy (see #8).  I find that something clicks while I’m sleeping, and what I stammered through one day seems to be cemented more strongly the next.
  4. On day two, begin by reciting verse 1 ten times.  Then write out verse 2 and follow the steps from above for that verse. 
  5. On day three, begin by reciting verses 1 once, then verse 2 ten times, then write out verse 3 and do it all over again.     
  6. On day four, begin by reciting verses 1-2 together once, then verse 3 ten times, then write out verse 4 and do it all over again.
  7. Keep going until you’re done!

6.Review, review, review

Given the strategy outlined above, it’s not hard to see why consistent review is essential.  I’m told that if you repeat a verse by memory once a day for 100 days, it will be in your permanent long-term memory (you’ll still need to refresh at times, but much less consistently once the verses are so ingrained in your mind.  I still have Colossians in my mind, though I don’t recite it more than once every couple of months).

To get these verses in your long-term memory, though, will require a lot of review.  The most important practical help I can give in how to do this is to determine set times/locations through the day that you will commit to those times of review.  If you don’t concretely determine WHEN you’re going to review, it’s not likely to happen, and as you get more and more verses in your mind, reviewing is going to take longer and longer. 

You know the rhythms of your life better than I do, but try to identify a time when you will make review a priority.  Maybe that’s in the shower, or during your commute to/from work or errands, or first thing when you wake up, or last thing before sleep.  There are a host of possibilities.  But the key is to have a clearly defined time when you will review; otherwise, you won’t do it, and the verses will slowly, but surely, escape from your mind.

7.Expect especially fruitful, and especially barren, seasons

Maybe this won’t be so for you, but I ought to at least warn you of its possibility.  Because memorizing this much takes several months to do, I have inevitably found that there are given weeks where I might have a great passion for this task and get a lot of verses memorized, maybe even more than my anticipated pace.  But then you might find a week or two where you seem totally lethargic and unmotivated to review, or learn new verses.  I may go through one week where I memorize 10-15 verses, then another week where I don’t memorize anything, or just a verse or two. 

I don’t know of a way to get out of those spells, other than to fight through it.  Try to stay faithful with review, and don’t get too down on yourself for having your pace slow down.  It just happens; at least it does for me.  But I think it’s good to at least anticipate those dry spells, because if you’re unprepared for them, they might compel you to just quit altogether. 

8. Fight through “the fog”

When I studied biblical Greek, the textbook warned students about “the fog”, which was the idea that you probably will find the material in lesson x to be vague, fuzzy, cloudy in your mind for a week or two, but if you keep persevering it will click.  I find a similar dynamic with Scripture memorization.  When I memorize a new verse, it typically takes a few days for me to have that verse absolutely nailed, perfectly.  I’ll stumble over one word, or short phrase.  Or I will get it right eight times out of ten, but then those other two I need help from my index card.

Fight through the fog.  Don’t wait until you have one verse perfectly down before you move on to another verse.  Keep reviewing regularly, and the fog will clear.

9. Have the whole book handy

With my Bible software program, I copied and pasted the whole book of Philippians into a Word document and printed it out.  By the time you’re in chapter 4 of Philippians, you’ll have a few dozen index cards, and it’s not convenient to have all those around when you’re doing review.  So as I make my commute to and from work (a 10-15 minute walk), and I do my review, I am holding my 4-page document of Philippians, so that if I get tripped up at some point, or am not certain I just got a particular verse right, I can easily refer to it.

Of course most of you can probably do that with a Bible app on your phone, but I joyfully live in the 20th century in that regard.  In any event, the point is that you have the whole book accessible to you, so that you can review consistently once you’ve reached a point where there’s more in your mind than can fit on one or two cards.  

10. Do it all prayerfully

Jesus said that apart from Him, we can do nothing.  The experience of this kind of helplessness and dependence should drive you to prayer.  All the practical tools and strategies are worthless if God does not bless and sustain and energize and empower.  So be in constant prayer to Him throughout this labor of love.

Ask Him for help cementing verses in your mind.  Praise Him for His Word and all the good that it does in our lives.  Ask Him to keep your motives pure, and to fill you with fresh desire.  Ask Him to take the words and make you a doer of them, not a mere hearer (or memorizer).  Turn the words that you are memorizing directly into prayer (for instance, Philippians 1:1):

“Father, I thank you that Paul lived as a servant of Christ; help me also to have the posture of a servant.  I am not my own, so enable me to respond obediently to Your commands, knowing that you are my Lord and King.  Paul wrote the book of Philippians and addressed it to all the saints.  I thank You that in Christ, I too am a saint, a holy one, and ask that you would help me to live in light of who I am, a holy one…”

Pray, Christians.  Apart from Him, we can do nothing!

So I’ll close out this (not so) little blog post by praying for you:

Father, I praise you for giving my heart a love for Your Word.  I could not create that appetite; You have done it, and I am so grateful.  Would You work in your beloved children to increase their appetite for the Scriptures, and if you mean to pour out blessing in their lives through their meditation on and memorization of big chunks of Your Word, would You confirm to them that You are speaking to them, and direct them to the passage or book of Scripture that you have for them, for their joy and Your glory?

Purify their motives, so that they long to experience more of Your grace being more consistently available to them as they hide Your word in their hearts.  Grant them perseverance in well-doing, so that as they devote themselves to Bible memorization, You would grant a great harvest of holiness in their lives through Your abiding Word, which creates and sustains life.  We cannot live apart from Your Word.  Feed us with it, for the sake of Your great name. 

Amen!

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