For nearly forty years now, I have been probing the storehouses of treasure in God’s word, like Edmond Dantès taking inventory of the value and quantity of gems and coins that filled the chest he discovered on the tiny island of Monte Cristo. The Bible is a limitless treasure! And nothing I have ever done in life has enabled me to take stock of this treasure as much as the discipline of extended memorization of Scripture.
I discovered the benefits of memorizing whole books of the Bible on a summer missions trip in 1986. While sitting on a bench waiting for a bus to Nairobi, Kenya, I began working on Ephesians 1:1. God has led me to add thousands of verses to my mind since then, and to this day, I continue to embrace the relentlessly hard work of hiding God’s word in my heart. So, having fought to commit Scripture to memory over decades, what lessons have I learned?
1. The rewards of Bible memory are measureless.
I know very little about the stock market, but I have enough basic knowledge to use this metaphor: memorizing whole books of the Bible has been like investing in a blue-chip stock when it first became available and holding on to it for decades. Like Standard Oil in 1882. Like Microsoft in 1986. Like Amazon in 1997. If you had the foresight to take the plunge into one of those stocks, you would have seen it grow exponentially until it was worth millions. So it has been for me.
The books I have stored up in my mind have paid back with extraordinary interest — more than I can possibly estimate or describe. This discipline has paid off in my battle for personal holiness (Psalm 119:11), as the Spirit has unleashed the power of his sword to slay temptation after temptation, day after day (Ephesians 6:17). It has paid off in my evangelism, as the Spirit has called to mind miracle accounts in detail from Mark’s Gospel to make it plain to a lost person that Jesus can heal our most fundamental disease: our sin.
Bible memory has also paid off week after week in sermon preparation over 23 years of sequential exposition of passage after passage in my church. As I write those sermons, the word of God comes flowing out of the depths of my being like the oil that made Rockefeller wealthy — only infinitely better. And as I preach, I often experience the immediate ministry of the Spirit bringing another text to mind that wasn’t in my outline.
Seeing all I have gained from memorizing the Bible, I do not regret a single moment I have invested.
2. Bible memory gets harder with age.
The older I get, the worse my memory becomes. A day may come when I cannot remember any verses at all (or the names of my closest friends).
The process of aging and death is meant to be humbling. My ever-decreasing mental ability has matched the earlier drop in any athletic ability I ever had. We know that our mortal body will be buried like a seed in weakness and dishonor (1 Corinthians 15:42–43). We also know that “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” is hidden in “jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:6–7). So, our clayish brains are fragile. Which means that, as I memorize the Gospel of Mark now by learning three new verses every day and retaining/reviewing the ten chapters that preceded them, accurate recitation has never been harder.
This past summer I had the privilege of hearing my talented nephew Peter play a Bach Toccata on a pipe organ. I asked him how he could play so nearly flawlessly. His answer was obvious: by hard work and disciplined practice. It convicted me that I need to work as hard at my instrument (Scripture) as he does at his. No excuses. I walked away more resolved to work at memorization as long as I still have strength.
That being said, even while we have our memory, and even when we discipline ourselves to really work at memorization, we still won’t remember every verse. And that’s okay. The point is not ultimately to be able to recite every verse perfectly, but to humbly and deeply saturate ourselves with the word of God. Regardless of what we eventually remember, the kind of meditation required for extended memorization will change us. That means no prayerful, meditative Scripture memory is wasted, even if we seem to have forgotten it all (and you won’t forget it all).
3. Bible memory clarifies the beauty of Christ.
The best part of memorization, by far, is what it does to my faith. I believe that faith is the eyesight of the soul by which we see invisible spiritual realities past, present, and future.
Just as faith comes initially by hearing God’s word (Romans 10:17), so faith is nourished and grows more vigorous, accurate, and vivid by hearing God’s word. If faith is the eyesight of the soul, we know that “we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), that we see men that “look like trees, walking” (Mark 8:24). The more I swim in the words of God, the more vivid the invisible Christ becomes. I live more and more “as seeing him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27).
As I review ten chapters of the Gospel of Mark every day, I see more vividly the power of Jesus over demons, the compassion of Jesus for brokenhearted sinners, the healing skill of Jesus over every disease, the resurrecting power of Jesus over death, and the atoning power of Jesus for all of my sins. I see more vividly that he is the vine, and I am a branch. And by his words, I feel his life-giving, nourishing sap flowing in me every moment of the day. It makes me yearn to see him with my own eyes. It makes me love him more passionately with my fickle heart. Bible memory preserves and feeds my soul.
4. Bible memory has built a city of truth within me.
The river of detailed insights that 38 years of memorizing whole books of the Bible has given me has caused the city of truth to be erected in my soul — stone by stone, beam by beam, window by window, boulevard by boulevard. Some call it rather dryly “systematic theology.” But it really is a vast system of interconnected living truths that make up my worldview. It is truly breathtaking, even while it is unfinished, and I can see it only in a mirror dimly. And this city of truth within me, verse by verse by verse, is preparing my soul for heaven.
I burn with a yearning to see that New Jerusalem. But before I get there, I want to do everything I can to beautify the city God is building within me. The more Scripture I have in me, the more boldly I can live every moment with a powerful, almost tangible hope in heaven. And the more able I am to instill that same energetic hope in the people around me.
So, what about you? Have you begun your own journey in this marvelous discipline of extended memorization of Scripture? Yes, it is incredibly hard work. But it is so worth it! Let me ask you two questions: If you could memorize a whole book of the Bible over the next year, what would it be? And if you do that, do you think you will ever regret having invested the time?