The Hardest Spiritual Discipline Is the Most Important One
The case for memorizing Scripture.
The lyrics to Switchfoot’s latest single. The Farmers Insurance jingle. Zingers from your favorite sitcom. Your iPhone passcode. That repetitive Spotify ad. All these things get stuck in our heads, whether we want them to or not.
In any conversation, we can slip in that funny tweet we saw last week or our favorite Mean Girls quote. It doesn’t take much—in fact, you probably thought “She doesn’t even go here!” as soon as I mentioned the movie, didn’t you?
But, if we’re honest, it’s a lot harder to get Scripture into our heads.
I hated memorizing Bible verses growing up. So when I committed myself to memorizing Philippians for a college project, I was pretty proud of myself—for about three days.
Then I panicked.
I knew “good Christians” should memorize Bible verses, but I wasn’t very good at it. I had the YouVersion app on my iPhone; I could tap on it anytime I wanted, so I pretty much gave up on the idea. Committing to memorizing Philippians, though, I discovered something: I wasn’t bad at memorization.
The lies I had fed myself for years—“I’m too busy,” “I’m not good at it,” “I can’t make a whole chapter stick in my mind”—faded.
I know English teachers who can conjure up their favorite lines of Shakespeare and poets who recite Milton’s poems as easily as if it were their own writing. And I’ve seen what joy and richness they draw from knowing these lines so intimately. If remembering these words by heart could bring joy to someone’s life, I wondered: How much more would knowing Scripture by heart bring joy to my own?
I found techniques that worked. In the end, I realized that memorizing is just a combination of three skills I already had: reading, writing and speaking.
Read the Bible.
When you’re memorizing long passages, simply read them—and reread them. When we re-watch our favorite episodes of The Office or replay a conversation in our head, the words and ideas become ingrained. The same is true of anything: Read it over and over and eventually it sticks.
Don’t just skim it, though: read it slowly. Read it aloud and practice hearing the words in your own voice. Think about the words’ meanings: What argument or train of thought do they follow? Which words or phrases stand out? Listening to the text also helps. Find an audio version, or better yet, record yourself reading it.
Write the Bible
Write out what you are trying to memorize. Or type the verses over and over. Write out what you can remember, and then compare it to the original. “Reciting” what you know and reviewing for accuracy allows you to correct errors and note mistakes.
Write chunks of verses on index cards and tape them on your fridge, your computer monitor, the mirror above your sink. Keep them in your purse and have them with you to practice. You’d be surprised how much “empty time” you have in each day—waiting on the gas pump, your barista, the frozen peas that are warming in the microwave.
Speak the Bible.
Reciting something from memory is unlike writing it from memory, so try both. Recite it out loud to yourself. Run it through silently in your mind while you’re falling asleep, commuting to work or rinsing the silverware. Have a friend listen as you recite it and get them to highlight the sections you’ve missed. Record yourself reciting it and check it for yourself.
There are many ways to use these three practices, but, in the end, memorizing depends more on small, focused acts of repetition than any talent or technique. There is no shortcut to memorizing something: it simply takes sustained effort. Thankfully, this is something that can be accomplished even amid the default distractions of your everyday life.
It was also easier than I expected to retain such a large amount of memorized text. If you focus on just one or two verses, they’re easy to forget. But in a chapter or book, the context is built in, making it—counterintuitively—easier to remember and understand.
Memorizing a large section of Scripture can be incredibly meaningful. I have found it a comfort and delight to have Philippians “on call” at any moment. When someone asked, “What is that verse about Jesus emptying himself in service for others?” I knew the location and was able to provide the verse.
When trying to make a decision that involved a lot of people, I thought of Philippians 2:4 and remembered to ask myself “In this decision, am I also looking out for the interests of others?”
In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things … and the God of peace will be with you.”
By giving myself the time to let Scripture seep into my heart and mind, it naturally overflowed into my daily life—and the peace of God overflowed as well.