Two brothers were walking on their father’s extensive, wooded acreage when they came upon a young tree heavy with fruit. Both enjoyed as much of the delicious fruit as they wanted. When they started back, one man gathered all the remaining fruit and took it home with him. His brother, however, took the tree itself and planted it on his own property. The tree flourished and regularly produced a bountiful crop so that the second brother often had fruit when the first had none.
The Bible is like the fruit-bearing tree in this story. Merely hearing the Word of God is to be like the first brother. You may gather much fruit from the encounter and even bring home enough to feed on for a few days, but in the long run it doesn’t compare with having your own tree. Through the Disciplines of reading and studying, we make the tree our own and enjoy its fruit. Among the Spiritual Disciplines we also find the tools of memorization, meditation, and application, which bountifully increase our harvest of fruit from the tree.
MEMORIZING GOD’S WORD—BENEFITS AND METHODS
Many Christians look on the Spiritual Discipline of memorizing God’s Word as something tantamount to modern-day martyrdom. Ask them to memorize Bible verses and they react with about as much eagerness as a request for volunteers to face Nero’s lions. How come? Perhaps because many associate all memorization with the memory efforts required of them in school. It was work, and most of it was uninteresting and of limited value. Frequently heard, also, is the excuse of having a bad memory. But what if I offered you one thousand dollars for every verse you could memorize in the next seven days? Do you think your attitude toward Scripture memory and your ability to memorize would improve? Any financial reward would be minimal when compared to the accumulating value of the treasure of God’s Word deposited within your mind.
1. Memorization Supplies Spiritual Power
When Scripture is stored in the mind, it is available for the Holy Spirit to take and bring to your attention when you need it most. That’s why the author of Psalm 119 wrote, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (verse 11). It’s one thing, for instance, to be watching or thinking about something when you know you shouldn’t, but there’s added power against the temptation when a specific verse can be brought to your mind, like Colossians 3:2: “Set your minds on the things above, not on earthly things.”
When the Holy Spirit brings a definite verse to mind like that, it’s an illustration of what Ephesians 6:17 can mean when it refers to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” A pertinent scriptural truth, brought to your awareness by the Holy Spirit at just the right moment, can be the weapon that makes the difference in a spiritual battle.
There is no better illustration than Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the lonely Judean wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11). Each time the Enemy thrust a temptation at Jesus, He parried it with the sword of the Spirit. It was the Spirit-prompted recollection of specific texts of Scripture that helped Jesus experience victory. One of the ways we can experience more spiritual victories is to do as Jesus did—memorize Scripture so that it’s available for the Holy Spirit to take and ignite within us when it’s needed.
2. Memorization Strengthens Your Faith
Want your faith strengthened? What Christian doesn’t? One thing you can do to strengthen it is to discipline yourself to memorize Scripture. Let’s walk through Proverbs 22:17–19, which says, “Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise, and apply your mind to my knowledge; for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, that they may be ready on your lips. So that your trust may be in the Lord, I have taught you today, even you” (NASB). To “apply your mind” to the “words of the wise” spoken of here and to “keep them within you” certainly pertains to Scripture memory. Notice the reason given here for keeping the wise words of Scripture within you and “ready on your lips.” It’s “so that your trust may be in the Lord.” Memorizing Scripture strengthens your faith because it repeatedly reinforces the truth, often just when you need to hear it again.
Our church has sought to build a new worship center. We felt that we would most honor God if we built the building without going into debt. There were times when my faith in the Lord’s provision would begin to sink. More often than not, what renewed my faith was the reminder of God’s promise in 1 Samuel 2:30, “Those who honor me I will honor.” Scripture memory is like reinforcing steel to a sagging faith.
3. Memorization and Witnessing and Counseling
On the Day of Pentecost (the Jewish holiday being celebrated when the Holy Spirit first came to dwell within Christians), the Apostle Peter was suddenly inspired by God to stand and preach to the crowd about Jesus. Much of what he said consisted of quotations from the Old Testament (see Acts 2:14–40). Although there’s a qualitative difference between Peter’s uniquely inspired sermon and our Spirit-led conversations, his experience illustrates how Scripture memory can prepare us for unexpected witnessing or counseling opportunities that come our way.
Recently, while I was presenting the message about Christ to a man, he said something that brought to mind a verse I had memorized. I quoted that verse and it was the turning point in a conversation that resulted in him professing faith in Christ. The same kind of thing happens frequently in counseling conversations. But until the verses are hidden in the heart, they aren’t available to use with the mouth.
4. A Means of God’s Guidance
The psalmist wrote, “Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:24). Just as the Holy Spirit retrieves scriptural truth from our memory banks for use in counseling others, so also will He bring it to our own minds in providing timely guidance for ourselves.
Many times when I have been trying to decide whether to say what I think in a given situation, the Lord brings Ephesians 4:29 to my mind: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” I’m sure that sometimes I misunderstand the voice of the Holy Spirit, but His guidance could hardly be more clear than when He brings to mind a verse like that! But it’s the result of disciplined Scripture memory.
5. Memorization Stimulates Meditation
One of the most underrated benefits of memorizing Scripture is that it provides fuel for meditation. When you have memorized a verse of Scripture, you can meditate on it anywhere at anytime during the day or night. If you love God’s Word enough to memorize it, you can become like the writer of Psalm 119:97, who exclaimed, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” Whether you’re driving the car, riding the train, waiting at the airport, standing in line, rocking a baby, or eating a meal, you can benefit from the Spiritual Discipline of meditation if you have made the deposits of memorization.
The Word of God is the “sword of the Spirit,” but the Holy Spirit cannot give you a weapon you have not stored in the armory of your mind. Imagine yourself in the midst of a decision and needing guidance, or struggling with a difficult temptation and needing victory. The Holy Spirit rushes to your mental arsenal, flings open the door, but all He finds is a John 3:16, a Genesis 1:1, and a Great Commission. Those are great swords, but they’re not made for every battle. How do we go about filling our personal spiritual arsenal with a supply of swords for the Holy Spirit to use?
You Can Memorize Scripture
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.”1
Whitney, Donald S. 1991. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
We have just completed a 13-Part Study of Donald Whitney’s classic book, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. It is available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Lesson Subscription Service. It is also available on Amazon
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