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Memorization Type #2: Long-text memorization (paragraphs, psalms, chapters, books)
The other kind, and in my opinion the more fruitful kind, of memorization is to memorize longer passages of Scripture, even up to whole books.
I am certain that the method I am about to describe is not the slickest or most glamorous way of memorizing longer passages of Scripture. But it’s what I stumbled upon in my own efforts to try to get more of God’s Word into my heart, and being a creature of habit, I’d have a hard time switching to a better method, of which I am sure there must be many. Again, a googling of Bible memorization or Scripture memorization will turn up abundant results, most of them superior, I’m sure.
After briefly surveying some of the alternate methods, one of the striking differences between my approach and theirs is that I do not bother trying to remember the chapter-and-verse references for each verse in the case of “long-text” memorization. My reasons for this are threefold.
1. I personally don’t find knowing all the exact references very valuable, except for showing off. If you’re memorizing a whole chapter or book, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where each verse fits in relatively speaking. Who cares about the exact numbers?
2. The chapter and verse divisions, while invaluable for reference, are not part of the original text, and can get in the way of reading it and hearing it. We rely too heavily on the numbers to parse the text for us, rather than the logic and flow of the text itself.
3. (most importantly) I memorize longer passages of Scripture in part so I can recite them (either aloud or silently) as a devotional practice. So for me it significantly defeats the purpose if I have to recite a verse number before every verse.
What to memorize? I would start out with a Psalm. (Many of them are short and sweet, verse is easier to memorize than prose, and they are readily incorporated into your personal worship/prayer life.) Or else a particular part of the New Testament that is dear to your heart. Start small and work your way up. If you start by trying to memorize all of John’s Gospel, I suspect you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Here are some recommendations of possible things you might want to memorize starting out:
- any of the Psalms
- Romans 8, or better yet Romans 6-8
- any of the shorter (six chapters or fewer) Epistles (suggestion–if you’re an evangelical, non-Pauline Epistles are great for balancing out the overwhelming emphasis we tend to place on Paul.)
- Favorite parts of the Gospels–Mt. 5-7 (The Sermon on the Mount), Luke 15 (parable of lost coin, lost sheep, and prodigal son), John 1:1-18 (Intro “In the beginnng was the Word…”) John 3 (Jesus’ conversation w/ Nicodemus, and John the Baptist’s testifying about Jesus), John 13-17 (the upper room discourse)
- Isaiah 53 (the suffering Servant)
I think any of these would be a great starting point.
I do my memorizing in the morning, because I find that an essential key for success is recalling the Scripture, reviewing it and reciting it in my mind and meditating on it, throughout the day. I can never remember anything I do or think right before I go to bed, so I don’t try to memorize Scripture then.
Here are the steps in my memorization process:
1. Decide how much you’re going to try to memorize right now in today’s memorizing “session.” You’ll have to learn your own style and limitations, but for a reference point, I can commit about 25-30 verses to memory in a half-hour sitting, and I find that my marginal gain drops off steeply after that point. I have never tried to teach anyone else to memorize, so I don’t know how others’ capacities compare. I have some slight reason to suspect that it may come a bit easier to me than it does to the average person, so don’t be surprised if you can’t do that much. Also, if you don’t have a half-hour to spend, you could memorize as little as one new verse a day, as the John Piper excerpt I mentioned above describes.
2. Read aloud the entire portion (paragraph, chapter, whatever) you want to memorize in this session two or three times. It should flow and feel comfortable. Reading aloud is imperative. You want to engage as many senses and faculties as possible. If you are reading aloud, you are not only seeing the words, you are hearing them too. Don’t just blurt it out or rush through it. Read it seriously and with feeling. After you’ve read it aloud a couple of times, go back to the beginning.
3. If the passage you want to memorize in this session is longer than 3-5 verses, break it up into subsections of that length.
4. Start with the first subsection. Read aloud the first sentence, or if it’s a long sentence, read aloud about as much of it as you think you can remember in one pass. Stop. Close (or avert) your eyes. Recite that bit aloud from memory. If you can’t, don’t worry, just open your eyes and read it again and try again until you’ve got it good, until you can recite it consistently without cheating.
5. Then read the next sentence/bit. Close your eyes and recite that one, just as you did the first.
6. When you’ve got that second bit down, try to recite the first one and the second one together. Keep trying until you can do it without cheating.
7. Then try to memorize a third bit and add it to the rest, reciting the first, second, and third bits together.
8. And so on. So the basic idea is add onto the first verse bit by bit, reciting it with each new addition, until you’ve gotten the subsection of three to five verses down pretty well.
9. Then do the same thing with the next subsection, starting with its first verse, and going through steps 4-8 for it.
10. Once you’ve finished the second section, try to recite the first and second sections together, and so on. Then start the third section, etc.
11. When you’re all done with all you plan to memorize in this session, recite the whole thing through a couple of times from start to finish.
One big advantage to this method is that by the time you’re near the end, you’ll have recited the earlier parts many, many times over from memory, and they should be pretty well scorched into your brain, which is the desired result. Yes, it involves a great deal of repetition and demands patience. I don’t think there’s any way around that. But I think the process has devotional fruitfulness, provided that you reflect on the verses as you recite them over and over again, and don’t mindlessly just rattle them out like a parrot. Recite them every time as speaking to God Himself. I sort of experience it as a “call-and-response” sort of thing–the Lord speaks His Word to me in the Scripture, and I speak it back to Him reverently.
When your memorizing session is over, and you’ve hopefully got some part of Scripture lodged up in your brain, here’s the important part: You need to review this Scripture passage in your mind throughout the day. It doesn’t need to be constant, but at least a couple of times would be great. Recite it to yourself silently (or aloud, if you have some privacy, or are in the company of those who won’t be alarmed by such behavior.) Reflect on the verses. Make them the subject of prayer. At the very least review them before you turn in for the night.
If you’re lucky, when you wake up, you’ll still remember most of what you read the day before. Read the passage through quickly in your Bible, and try to run through a recitation of it from memory before you move on to the next day’s portion. Don’t worry too much if you can’t remember yesterday’s material perfectly, but press on to the new material, starting where you left off the day before (if you didn’t finish the entire passage, chapter, or book that you wanted to memorize) . Save fixing your troubles with yesterday’s text for a review day. I recommend trying to do a new portion each day for three or four consecutive days, and then taking at least a day or two off from incorporating new text to simply review and meditate on what you’ve already done and focus on putting it together. It’s easy to bite off more than you can chew, and it’s better to get one chapter really memorized than it is to kinda-sorta know ten that you end up completely forgetting within a month or two. Be sure to check your memory against your Bible from time to time!
For the first week after you’ve memorized a particular bit of Scripture, you need to be reciting it daily at some point in the day. After that you can loosen up a little, but still be reviewing it often.
USE IT OR LOSE IT!!!!!!!
I can’t emphasize this enough. You will forget what you’ve read if you don’t use it. I am ashamed at how much I have forgotten through simple neglect. So, use it or lose it!
What should you do with the Scripture you’ve memorized?
Well, first, simply reviewing it, running through it in your mind, is valuable in itself. When you’re feeling distracted or upset and your mind is everywhere except focused on God, simply call to mind and recite (either aloud or in your mind) a passage of Scripture. I have found it to be calming and helpful for refocusing my attention and priorities where they should be. Sometimes it is good to just review the Scripture in your mind without trying to think about it or analyze it–as a way of shutting up and letting God speak to you. In the right sort of company, you can also share the Scriptures you’ve been memorizing with friends.
Thinking about each verse is profitable too. Go through the pasage slowly, and really chew on each verse. Think about what it means. Think about what it meant for its original intended audience in their context (e.g., the Israelites, or the audiences surrounding Jesus, or the churches or individuals to whom the Epistles were written.) Think about what it means for you now. What is it calling you to? Even if the verse initially seems irrelevant or unpromising, keep “chewing” on it, keep dwelling on it, as you’ll find that the more you work on it, the more you’ll be able to get out of Scripture and the easier it will be to do so.
If you’re memorizing a narrative portion of Scripture, a part that tells some sort of story, try to picture the scene in your mind as you go through each verse. Try to imagine the sights, smells, sounds, and feels. Try to put yourself in the shoes of different characters in the scene. Try to imagine and feel what they were feeling. Play the verses like a movie in your imagination. I especially like to do this with passages from the Gospels, with events in the life of Jesus. (Of course, you can do this in somewhat lesser detail even if you don’t have the verses memorized.)
Another really great thing you can do is pray the Scriptures–turn each verse into a prayer. With the verses that actually are prayers, like those in the Psalms, it’ll be obvious and easy how to do this. Some verses may require a little more creativity. Martin Luther suggested that many verses could be turned into prayers in four different ways–they could be treated as an occasion for instruction, thanksgiving, confession/repentance, and petition. So, for a given verse, you can affirm what the Lord is teaching in it, you can worshipfully thank Him for that truth and for whatever great things it says about Him, you can confess to Him and repent of your failure to believe it or live it out or respond appropriately, and you can petition Him to help you to understand it better and live it out more faithfully. There are other ways to pray with Scriptures as well. If you are looking at a narrative, story-like part of the Bible, then if one of the characters’ actions displays a particular virtue or sin, you can ask God to strengthen that virtue in you or confess the sin if it is one you share. It may take some effort at first, but if you practice trying to derive prayers from Scripture in whatever way works for you, you will find that it soon comes easily.
So, that’s all I have to say about memorizing right now. In closing, I offer this quote from God Holds the Key, by Geoffrey T. Bull, a missionary who was imprisoned and subjected to “thought-reform” by the Communists in China in the late ’40s and early ’50s, which sums up well how I feel about memorizing Scripture:
The man who is spiritually occupied with the Word is a man who has his feet on earth but whose mind is instructed by the very wisdom of heaven. He is surrounded by corrupt fragmentary opinion and yet is hearing daily the counsels of the Father at the Throne of His power. The din and noise of the world’s traffic hurry past him but amidst it all he finds green pastures, still waters and the quietude of God. On every side is shifting sand but the Rock beneath him stands impregnable. With the advancing years his eye may dim but he endures as seeing Him who is invisible. All about him is riddled to decay and ready to pass away, not only man’s tiny buildings and his puny culture, but the entire panorama of the earth and sky. All shall be folded up as a garment, yet for this man there is in his heart that precious deposit which liveth and abideth for ever, the imperishable Word of the Almighty and Eternal God.