Many Christians are intimidated by memorizing Scripture, all the while able to recall hundreds of song lyrics and movie quotes. Matt Johnson shares why it doesn’t have to be this way, and offers helpful advice on how to get started in this formative, spiritual discipline.
How is your memory? The Bible is full of forgetful people: the Israelites in several different places, Peter walking out to Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, the church in Ephesus. Jesus even told the disciples to eat bread and drink wine “in remembrance of me.”
I feel like I’m more forgetful than most. I can’t even remember some of the most basic things of life like taking my wallet or phone with me when I leave the house, which is why memorizing verses from the Bible seemed like an impossible discipline. My head has been crowded with lines and quotes from Seinfeld or the Simpsons for years. But memorize Scripture? No way.
I read the Bible growing up and knew the big stories thanks to church activities. Finding those stories later was a nightmare for me. It took a long time to look them up in a concordance when I tried to share anything with another person. I heard stories about people who memorized verses and passages from the Bible, but I never thought I could memorize Bible verses.
Four years ago I bought the Topical Memory System (TMS) from the Navigators and carried the cards in my pocket but never memorized any of them. A few months later, I met a guy named Dennis who had memorized what seemed like hundreds of verses. We met weekly to review and by the end of the year I completed the TMS pack of 60 passages. Because of this discipline, I noticed the verses I memorized coming out during sermons, counseling appointments, and prayer sessions. They gave hope both to me and the people with whom I shared.
I began following Christ when I was 15 so it took me nearly twenty years before I got into this discipline, but it has been one of the most rewarding practices I have ever experienced and I would love for you to join me in hiding God’s word in our hearts (Psalm 119:11).
Here are three things to remember:
1) As Ben Witherington likes to say, “A text without context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to say.” This is a danger in memorizing Scripture. Make sure you read the verse in its context so that you know what it is saying. Use your inductive Bible study skills to discern what the verse or verses highlight in their larger context so that you have a strong and clear understanding of the bigger truth to which they point.
2) Find someone with whom you can memorize and review verses. You and I probably aren’t that different: on our own we’ll put it aside and forget that we desired to engage in this spiritual discipline. Having someone else review your verses with you is not only fun, it provides accountability and it increases your hunger to know God more deeply.
3) Memorizing Scripture is a spiritual discipline. As Phil Meadows said at the New Room Conference recently, for many people, the spiritual disciplines are just disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are meant to increase our hunger and desire for God. They are instruments through which the love of God infuses our souls, which is why they are best done with others. Holiness is inherently social so as you memorize together you and your partners are helping each soul prosper in the love of God instead of memorizing for the sake of saying something like, “I have memorized 100 verses!” Without the holy love of God filling your heart in this practice, well—congratulations, you are a clanging cymbal of memorized Bible verses.
If you want to get started, the Topical Memory System is a great place to start. Another, more challenging starting place, is this downloadable PDF I created. In theout of print Wesley Study Bible, there is a page listing the thirty texts central to Wesley’s conception of Christian Perfection. I created a template, plugged in those verses in the English Standard Version, and printed them out on card stock. They are the same size as the TMS cards once you cut them out.
That’s my next goal. I memorized a few of them already and just last night, before I fell asleep, I mulled over Hebrews 7:25 “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him since he always lives to make intercession for them.” I used that verse to pray, “Jesus, as you intercede for me, help me to draw closer to you. I want to love as you loved. I want your will to be my will. I want your life to infuse me to the uttermost. Draw me close to you.”
May God use the spiritual discipline of Scripture memorization to draw you closer to Jesus and sanctify you completely in body, soul, and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Thanks for writing this, Matt. It is a needed challenge for me to memorize Scripture.
I think it’s helpful, also, to consider why we more easily memorize lines, phrases, or text in its entirety, from songs, books, movies, etc. These are mediums for storytelling (with the exception, for instance, of very ambiguous or loosely themed songs), and when we inhabit stories, they are more memorable! And often, these stories are in contexts closer to our own contexts, more understandable (and other times, not so close in context, but so beautiful and well-told and in a language we understand, that it still pierces us).
I’m a songwriter, so this is close to my heart and work. I think it is also a good challenge to “give the understanding” (as Eugene Peterson says in “Eat This Book” of the priests doing alongside Ezra to God’s people) through melody and lyric; we can help people memorize Scripture in this way. And this is nothing new but definitely not as common anymore, when many modern praise songs/choruses say the same thing over and over.
Thanks again for writing – and for stirring this up for me!
So true, Abbye. My daughter is homeschooled and we’ve got her in Classical Conversations. She’s 9 and knows more world history facts than I ever will and she learned them through song. I told Sandra Richter a couple of years ago that my (then) 7 year old daughter knew the dates of the divided kingdom and exiles – dates I didn’t know until I was 23 and in her class!
Thanks for the encouragement!
Thank you Matthew for the great reminder!
Johnny, the guy named Dennis I mentioned was a Navigator! I look forward to seeing you next year so we can review verses together! 🙂
This has been one of my biggest struggles, but I have two ministry trainees for the next year, so I’m thinking…here is a great opportunity to do this together over the next year as part of their training experience!
From one D.Min. student to another, I love this Matt. Thanks. I’ve been wanting a system to help me memorize more scripture and this migt just be it.looks like it
Thanks, Ed. If you have any further questions I’d be glad to help. Shoot me an email at email@example.com.
Thanks Matt. It’s been years since I tried to memorize verses. It’s time to get back at it, and I’m going to start with your pdf.
Awesome, Victor! I hope they bring a great delight to your soul!
Thanks Matt, for over a year now since i left Navigators, i have not done scripture memory. Its time i went back to this awesome spiritual discipline!