Most people think they have a bad memory, but it’s not true. As we’ve already discovered, most of the time memorizing is mainly a problem of motivation. If you know your birthday, phone number, and address, and can remember the names of your friends, then you can memorize Scripture. The question becomes whether you are willing to discipline yourself to do it.
When Dawson Trotman, founder of the Christian organization called The Navigators, was converted to faith in Christ in 1926, he began memorizing one Bible verse every day. He was driving a truck for a lumber yard in Los Angeles at the time. While driving around town he would work on his verse for that day. During the first three years of his Christian life he memorized his first thousand verses. If he could memorize over three hundred verses a year while driving, surely we can find ways to memorize a few.
Have a Plan
There are several good prepackaged Scripture memory plans available in Christian bookstores. But you might prefer selecting verses on a particular topic where the Lord is working in your life right now. If your faith is weak, memorize verses on faith. If you’re struggling with a habit, find verses that would help you experience victory over it. One man told Dawson Trotman that he was afraid that following his example of Scripture memory would make him prideful. Trotman’s reply: “Then make your first ten verses on humility!” Another option is to memorize a section of Scripture, such as a psalm, rather than isolated verses.
Write Out the Verses
Make a list of the verses on a sheet of paper or write each one on a separate index card.
Draw Picture Reminders
Nothing elaborate here, just a few lines or stick figures beside each verse. But this makes the verse “visual” and puts the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words principle to work for you. One simple picture can remind you of a couple dozen words. This is especially true if the drawing illustrates some action described in the verse. For instance, with Psalm 119:11, you might make a crude drawing of a heart with a Bible inside to remind you of treasuring God’s Word in the heart. For Ephesians 6:17, a sketch of a sword is an obvious reminder. You’ll find this method particularly helpful when memorizing a section of consecutive verses. I realize that you are probably no more of an artist than I am, but no one else has to see the pictures and they can make Scripture memory easier.
Memorize the Verses Word-Perfectly
There’s a great temptation, especially when first learning a verse, to lower this standard. Don’t settle for just getting close, or getting the “main idea.” Memorize it word for word and learn the reference, too. Without an objective standard of measurement, the goal is unclear and you may tend to continue lowering the standard until you quit altogether. Moreover, if you don’t have the verse memorized exactly, you lose confidence in using it in conversation and witnessing. So even though memorizing “every jot and tittle” is harder in the beginning, it’s easier and more productive in the long run. Incidentally, verses you know word-perfectly are easier to review than those you don’t know so accurately.
Find a Method of Accountability
Because of our tendency toward sloth, most of us need more accountability on Scripture memory than on other Disciplines. And the busier we are, the more we tend to excuse ourselves from this commitment. Some, like Dawson Trotman, have developed personalized means of accountability to this Discipline that keep them faithful. Most Christians, however, are more consistent when they meet or talk regularly with someone else—not always another Christian—with whom they review their verses.
Review and Meditate Every Day
No principle of Scripture memory is more important than the principle of review. Without adequate review you will eventually lose most of what you memorize. But once you really learn a verse, you can mentally review it in a fraction of the time it would take to speak it. And when you know a verse this well, you don’t have to review but once a week, once a month, or even once every six months to keep a sharp edge on it. It’s not unusual, however, to reach a point where you spend 80 percent of your Scripture memory time in review. Don’t begrudge devoting so much time to polishing your swords. Rejoice instead at having so many!
A great time to review your better-known verses is while going to sleep. Since you don’t need a written copy of the verses before you, you can repeat them and meditate on them while dozing off or even when you have trouble sleeping. And if you can’t stay awake, it’s fine, since you’re supposed to be sleeping anyway. If you can’t go to sleep, you’re putting the most profitable and peaceful information possible into your mind, as well as making good use of the time.
As we finish this section on the Discipline of Scripture memory, remember that memorizing verses is not an end in itself. The goal is not to see how many verses we can memorize, the goal is Godliness. The goal is to memorize the Word of God so that it can transform our minds and our lives.
Dallas Willard said in this regard, “As a pastor, teacher, and counselor I have repeatedly seen the transformation of inner and outer life that comes simply from memorization and meditation upon Scripture. Personally, I would never undertake to pastor a church or guide a program of Christian education that did not involve a continuous program of memorization of the choicest passages of Scripture for people of all ages.”
Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991), 29–31.
I have prepared a 13 week study of Donald Whitney’s classic book. It is available as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. Through this service, you get access to thousands of Bible lessons for one low monthly cost. This Study Guide is also available on Amazon.