Chapter 2  Table of Contents  Chapter 4

How to Memorize Scripture

What things can hold us back?

by Stephen Simpson

Reasons why we may never get started (or quit soon after we started)

It may be that you see the value of memorizing scripture, but just cannot get yourself started, or if you do, it does not last for long. If you have tried to memorize scripture before you probably had some sort of trouble. Let's identify some common causes of a fizzled out scripture memory program.

Lack of previous success

Fear of failure is one of the major causes of procrastination. It can be really depressing to think about restarting your scripture memory program for the 10th time. Well, though this feeling is real, it is totally unnecessary. Paul describes what the mature Christian should think about this:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Philippians 3:14-16)
Paul sees that the important thing is not to worry about what you have or have not done. These things are not as important as keeping yourself moving forward towards the goal. As Christians we have been set free from all forms of condemnation. We need not be bound up by our own weaknesses and fears. The only one who fails is the one who does not get up when he falls down.

Another related issue is the feeling of frustration caused by not being able to remember verses for long. I think that this is often a matter of technique. Our memories have to be properly trained. Nevertheless, some people do have better memories than others. But remember that at the beginning of this chapter I said that it is not those who learn the most scriptures who are the winners, it is those who internalize what they have learned. Sometimes I personally feel like a man who has been given the task of filling a large tank with water using a wicker basket. I fill up the basket and no matter how fast I run, it is almost empty when I get to the tank. It seems will take most of my life to fill that tank. Later I realize that the reason I was given the task was not to fill the tank, but to have a clean basket. The task we have been given is to develop a pure mind and a pure heart. The information in you mind is not the end in itself, but a means to the end. Be warned also that a mind continually exposed to garbage will yield an impure mind and an impure heart.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)
Do you remember what you ate for supper last Monday night? How about three weeks before that? Probably not. But you probably did eat, and you are well nourished because of it. The important thing is that you eat every day, just as it is important that you feed yourself spiritually every day.

Some have better memories than others, but I think that everyone can train themselves to remember things permanently - if they really want to.

The Progress is too slow

Sometimes we do not get started at a task because we are overwhelmed by the size of the task. I get scared when I think of the time and effort required to organize my life around the memorization of scripture. I want the progress to be faster! I want instant holiness! Sorry, but it does not work that way. Spiritual training takes a very long time just like the training of an Olympic athlete takes a very long time. But the prize is worth it. In any case, if you don't get started at a task you will certainly never accomplish it. I fear the thought of coming to the very end of my life, and while looking back, wish that I would have tried harder. Later may be too late. Now it is not. I am reminded of a comic I once read in a daily paper. The main character of the strip was noting that he was getting a little plump and immediately got down to do some pushups. Once he was face down on the floor he strained a little, then noted that it is important to start small at the beginning and do more later. In the final frame, he confirmed with a gasp that one pushup is a good beginning expectation. The point is, you should not look at all the work to come, or all the work you should do. The important thing is to start. Memorize one verse then another later. You will build endurance and skill.

It is easy to underestimate the value of slow growth. I have been 'dabbling' with memorizing scripture for 15 years and during that time have learned then forgotten a few hundred verses. There are several reasons for my forgetting them. But, I now think about what I could have accomplished. If I had learned only one verse per week for 15 years and made it a point to learn it well, I would now know 780 verses! But right now, I don't.

You get caught up with other activities, both good and bad.

One of the things which can pull the rug out from under your feet are changes in your life and routine. Life is a continual sequence of changes. You go through school, move away from home, go to College or University, get a job, get married, change jobs, get sick, get better, have children, buy a house, move, grow older, retire, etc. Change never ends. When a change comes to your life your time schedule will change. Change is also stressful, and the amount of extra time it takes to adjust to you new situation can very easily distract you from your spiritual disciplines. Urgent things which come up can quickly pull you away from the important. Something changes and soon you are no longer in the habit of memorizing scripture. You will think about it less and less and all of a sudden it is six months later and you realize that you need to get started again.

About two years ago (1994), I was memorizing scripture on a daily basis. In fact, I was working on it each day for over a year. Everything was running smoothly then suddenly one day my second son was born. This added a significant amount of work to our family routine and my scripture memory program was lost in the dust.

Change is inevitable, but the practice of your spiritual disciplines should not have to get lost in the shuffle.

There is a second group of things which can take the momentum out of a scripture memory program. These are the things which grab your interest and time and then grow so big that they displace what you were doing. You lose interest and again, soon you are no longer in the habit of memorizing scripture. After a while you realize that you are spending your free time an energy doing something else other than what you should have been doing.

We need to have hobbies, and frequent distraction is good mental therapy, but what we do must be evaluated on a regular basis against the goals we have made. Frequently, the things we get involved in are good things and are of value. But they are not the most important because they do not move you to the fulfillment of your goals. Other things are more obviously a waste of time and are not profitable at all.

Now we get back to the ideas of self control and training. The laws of Physics say that things left to themselves always tend towards disorganization. We Humans follow this law of Physics to the letter. But this does not _have_ to happen. If it does it is your own fault and loss. Later, we will discuss ways to prevent you from drifting away from your goals. We will discuss some principles which you can use to develop priorities in your life.

Fear that it is too hard

Perhaps you worry that the effort required to memorize scripture might be too hard, or too dull and the work uninteresting. As we have said, fear of failure is one of the major reasons why we stop. Fear of hard work is also understandable because it might involve some sort of pain or difficulty. People in this society want instant reward for minimum work. We want everything delivered and installed yesterday. But spiritual maturity just does not come like that. No one has said that discipline is easy. Do you want to seek spiritual maturity? Then you need to study the word and if you want to memorize any more than a few verses, it will take some time and some sweat. Choose not to fear the work. Do not focus on the time spent during day to day monotony of reviewing piles of scripture verses. Rather,
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
Most people do not have bad memories, they have untrained memories. We all have fairly good memories. Think of the amount of memory it takes to talk and to write and find your way around each day. You could show me many thousands of people and things which I will be able to recognize or remember. Think of all the songs and stories you know. All these things (and much more) are a function of your memory. One complaint people have is that they have bad memories. This just is not true. They say they can't remember this or that as well as they used to be able to. But this is not a sign that you have a bad memory, but one which has not been trained to organize information well. Your memory does not have to grow worse with age. You just have not been taught how to use your memory, and it grows ineffective through lack of use. So do not disqualify yourself from the task before you get started. One who groans 'I am not good at memorizing scripture' is defeated already.

We are not accustomed to using our memories these days so it hurts to do so when we first try. Many of us are not accustomed to putting in the extra work required to meet personal goals and therefore it is left undone. Mark Underwood, a friend of mine from my University days recently wrote to me the following comments regarding this issue:

I remember a couple of years ago I used to jog around our neighborhood. About three quarters of the way through, after a slight incline (upward) in the road, I would get an overwhelming urge to stop. Undoubtedly, this was because I had to work a bit harder to get up the hill, and I would become tired and want to stop. And stop I did. Later, however, as I became more fit the hill wasn't so tiring. But I discovered that I would STILL get the same strong urge to stop at that same place. And I would stop. Once though, as I was running, it occurred to me that I should try to keep on going. I ran up the incline, came to the point of the 'urge', but kept on going. It was a strange moment of freedom, realizing I could break this stopping habit so easily. All it took was a revelation that I didn't have to stop any more, and a persevering through a 'pain' period of about 20 seconds, where my body would cry out to stop. The next time I ran up the incline, stopping wasn't even a serious option!

That experience has given me a suspicion of everything which I perceive as a barrier, which often now the Lord shows me is a mere self-deception rising up from a certain fear in my heart. Heaven knows that there are barriers in my life that I don't even perceive yet. But by the grace of Christ there will be a revelation, an exposing of a fear, a casting out, and an fuller penetration of the love of Christ by his Spirit in my heart.

Our Society Does not Encourage the Hard Work Required for Self Improvement

We live in a society which encourages lazy minds and lazy bodies. We have cars so we do not put the effort into walking anywhere, even to the store down the block. We have televisions which show programs which shut our brains down. We even have remote controls so we don't have to get up to turn the set on. We have movies which make it unnecessary for us to read. We have calculators so we don't have to add numbers in our heads. We don't need to think to do well. Although we work hard at our jobs and are good at what we do, we have not been taught to discipline ourselves to strive to be anything more than average. This applies to all aspects of human achievement. It is not uncommon for people to come out of the school system in Islamic countries having memorized the entire Quran. I would not suggest that we in the western world should try to do that, but what I am saying is that we probably could not do it if we wanted to.

Unrepentant Sin

Sometimes when we sin our first response is to run away from God and hide. This is what Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden after they sinned. (Gen 3:8-9) It is a reflex reaction. But this type of behaviour drives us away from God. It destroys our fellowship with God. When we sin, our response is often to stop praying and to stop reading the Bible. Sin creates in us a reluctance to come face-to-face with God. This broken fellowship certainly will grind your scripture memory program to a halt.

When you become aware that you have sinned or are sinning the proper response is to confess it (admit it and agree with God that it is wrong) then repent of it (stop, turn away, have a change of heart) then renounce the behaviour (treat it like filth and cast it away). If you do this your bond of fellowship with God will be restored.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1Jo 1:5-10)

Failure to review/use what you have learned

If you plan on memorizing any more than a few verses, that is, if you hope to make the memorizing of scripture a long-term, continuing part of your life, you will find that review will take more time than the learning of new verses. This thought can be disturbing if you are the kind of person who likes to keep things moving forward. This is the way I am. I want to memorize new verses each day and review gets in the way. This attitude is immature. The result is a large quantity of scripture that is so poorly learned that after a few weeks, it cannot be recalled with any reliability.

Review is a vitally important part of a successful scripture memory program. Each set of verses you learn must be completely mastered before you go on to the next. To be successful, you must first be convinced that this is true. If you do it will be easier to be patient. According to my Websters', patient means:

Bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint; manifesting forbearance under provocation or strain; not hasty or impetuous; steadfast despite opposition, difficulty or adversity

Remember that the goal is to learn the scripture you learn perfectly, 100% error free. If you have a problem with patience then stop and consider this. Slow and steady wins the race. Determine to be steadfast. Convince yourself that this is the best way to ensure that you will get to the goal.

Make certain also that the scripture you memorize is used for something else than using up spare neural connections in your brain. The purpose of this, after all is so that you and the people you know will grow more obedient to God and more like Christ in character. Meditation and application are important steps in a successful scripture memory program, somewhat separate from the memorization process, and must be tended to with the same diligence and deliberate discipline if this success is to come.

You cannot find the time

Some people do not get started at scripture memory because the feel that they do not have the time. We live in a very busy society. In a typical Christian family today, both the wife and husband work outside of the home. Our responsibilities to our families, church and community leave little free time. In my own home, there seems to be a never ending stream of work and activity for us to do to keep everything in order. By the end of each week we often do not have the energy to drag the whole family to our Bible study. We have obligations to our family, our employers and our Church. How can we fit in the time to memorize scripture?

Other people spend all of their time just getting by. Consider the single parent of two young children who works each day. He or she may not have a car and has to spend a lot of time on the bus going to and from work, the daycare, the mall and such. After this they still want to spend quality time with their children, give them the opportunity to take swimming lessons and participate in Church. At the end of each day, they are also tired out. How can they find the time to memorize scripture?

This perception that you lack sufficient time (and energy) can sometimes prove to be a significant challenge to one who wants to memorize scripture. The reality is, people always find the time to do the things that are the most important to them. This may require a certain amount of serious reflection on what you do with your time. The athlete organizes his life around his training because it is important if he is to achieve his goals. He puts in the extra effort required to see that this is done while still meeting his other obligations. If you think that you do not have time to memorize scripture, you are really saying one of two things:

The people near me think it is a waste of time

It can be difficult if you live with someone who thinks that what you are doing is a waste of time. They may not be of any support to you or may even try to actively discourage you. You must pursue Christ in any case, no matter the circumstances. The important thing is that you live your faith in the hope that through your prayers and Godly behaviour they will be convinced that they need to dedicate their own lives to Christ.

I was surprised to discover that even in Christian circles, very few people are interested in memorizing scriptures. They often act indifferent when I start talking about it. For example, I have told people I am writing an Internet book on the subject of scripture memorization and instead of asking questions about it they would say 'OH' and then start talking about something else. So do not be surprised if people do not understand because if many Christians do not see it as being important, then certainly most non-Christians won't either.

Perhaps you are not fully convinced that it is important

If you do not think that memorizing scripture is very important then you will have the natural tendency to spend your time doing something else. I have written a short article called Why Memorize Scripture to discuss this.

Previous Chapter  Table of Contents  Next Chapter

Return to The Scripture Memory Connection Home Page.
Email:  memoryhelp@memoryverses.org
Copyright (c) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by
permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers