How, When, and Why You Should Memorize Scripture

When I was in college, I worked part-time as a dental assistant. One afternoon, a friend from church was in the office for a procedure, and when I stopped by her exam room to say hello, I noticed she was perusing a large binder with lots of plastic page protectors, sticky notes, and handwritten pages. I leaned closer and asked what she was working on.

She held up her binder and said, “This is my Scripture memorization work.” She walked me through the process she used to memorize Scripture with a friend, but even as she explained, I was surreptitiously backing out of the room. If I asked her any follow-up questions, I knew she would invite me into her process, and that was just not something I felt I had time or margin for.

Several months after that encounter, I ended up in a discipleship relationship with this woman, and you’d be impressed by how neatly (and how often) I skirted any conversation about memorization. I truly believed I didn’t have what it took to memorize Scripture like she did, and I avoided the subject at all costs.

What I learned later is that though I didn’t adopt her method, I, too, was able to hide God’s Word in my heart during idle moments of my day. Looking back, I so admire my friend’s dedication to memorizing Scripture in the cracks of her day! She was one of those women you knew was fully devoted to Christ by watching her life. She didn’t memorize His Word because she was a legalist or a perfectionist. She loved the Lord and treasured His words enough to meditate on them in the dental chair. This was before smartphones or apps, but rather than bring a book with her, she dedicated her downtime to memorization. She had found a system that worked for her, and she used it often.

That is the principle I want you to take away: Find a system that works for you and use it often.


The Power of Repetition

No matter what method you use for memorization — notecards, apps, the first letter method, writing or listening to the Word, or reciting it in the shower — repetition will be a necessary ingredient. Reciting, rewriting, remembering — what do all of these have in common? Repetition. Repetition turns the thoughts we’re thinking into information we can retrieve again and again. Your brain was designed to remember things through repetition.

Lisa Genova refers to the process of holding whatever is in our minds right now as our “working memory” and that you use it “to keep a phone number or passcode in your consciousness just long enough to enter the numbers into your phone or computer before they vanish from your mind” (Lisa Genova, Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, 38, 39). But our working memory wasn’t designed to hold information for very long — only about 15 to 30 seconds. With repetition, though, you keep information in your working memory long enough for the hippocampus to consolidate the information into your longer-lasting memory. Anything we want to remember, we must remember or rethink. Repetition aids us in moving a phrase or sentence from Scripture from the unknown to the well-known. Whatever method or combination of methods suit you best, they won’t work without repetition.

So how do we harness the power of repetition for Scripture memorization? You’ll use repetition to begin, practice, and finish memorizing a verse, passage, or book. When you’re standing in the shower in front of your ziplock bags of text, begin by reading and repeating the very first phrase aloud 10 times. Then try to recite it without looking. Tomorrow, read the first phrase again and recite it 10 times. When you’ve got it (and it may take a couple of days or a week), read and repeat the next phrase aloud 10 times. Then recite it without looking. Then, circle back to the phrase you learned yesterday or last week and combine it with what you’ve just added. Read, recite, repeat.

While this part of memorization may feel rote, the purpose is to get the words down into the grooves of your mind and the corners of your heart. As you repeat and recite, you’ll meditate on and think about the words.

For example, when reciting Psalm 23:1 multiple times, put your emphasis on the italicized words:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

I can attest to how helpful the use of emphases is with a repeated text; it’s a tool I often use when dealing with anxiety and insomnia at night. While my brain focuses on the meaning of the emphasized word in each repetition, my heart calms, feeling the depth of every word. The Lord watches over me, shepherding me. He gives me everything I need; there’s no need for me to worry about the things I think He’s withholding. He has rescued me from my greatest enemies of sin, Satan, and death through the work of Christ at the cross, so I can trust Him to provide for me in whatever situation I find myself, even anxious episodes in the middle of the night.

Do you see what’s happening here? I’m not merely memorizing. I’m meditating on the truth of the words, and they are having their effect on me. I’m growing in love for my Shepherd with my mind and my heart because of the simple use of repetition. If you’re listening to a chapter on repeat in the car or standing at the sink and working through the verses on the notecards propped up on your kitchen windowsill, use the same process. Read (or listen) 10 times, recite 10 times, repeat the process by adding a new phrase next time. The practices might seem pragmatic and rote, but they can result in your spiritual growth as you use them to love the Lord with your mind. Eventually, that love will warm your heart with affection for Him.


Getting Started: Verses, Chapters, or Books?

I had read This Changes Everything by Jaquelle Crowe with one of the teenaged girls in my church, and we both marveled at Jaquelle’s story of memorizing the Book of Romans with her dad. These are ordinary people doing something quite extraordinary. If they could do it, surely we could, too.

This prompted me to move from memorizing a couple of verses to a whole psalm, then the first chapter of James, followed by the rest of James. Since then, though I do memorize verses or short passages from time to time, working through whole books of the Bible has been my preferred goal in memorization. Keep in mind: I routinely forget people’s names. If I can memorize a book of the Bible, you can, too. Let’s look at why memorizing a whole book is important.

If you’ve done any in-depth Bible study in your life, chances are you’ve heard many Bible teachers or pastors praise the importance of context. Knowing the authorial intent and aim behind a book of Scripture helps us better understand the text and avoid twisting verses out of context to suit our desires or hopeful outcomes. To quote my pastor-husband, “The text means what it has always meant.” Understanding a verse in its greater context will make it more valuable and richer with meaning in our estimation when we see its place in a narrative, epistle, or Hebrew poetry.

The authors of the Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, were organized in their writings, and followed certain literary styles and rules. If you’re memorizing the passage about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 6, it’s helpful to understand that Paul was writing to Christians who were fusing works of the law with justification by faith, resulting in a false gospel. They could not expect to bear fruit of the Spirit through the works of the flesh because both our salvation and our sanctification are miraculous works of the Spirit. If you’ve meditated on Galatians 1 through 5, then chapter 6 packs more punch and makes more sense when you begin to memorize it. Context is key!

Is memorizing a whole book of the Bible intimidating? Absolutely. But you do it the way you tackle any project that’s overwhelming at first: bit by bit, a little each day. I recommend starting with a book like James or Colossians. They’re not long books, and both have a flow that is relatively easy to follow. It usually takes me a year to memorize a book with four or five chapters. A longer book like Hebrews takes about twice as long. That’s okay! The journey of memorization is where the benefits lie.

If a whole book still feels like too much, try a long chapter like Hebrews 11 or Romans 8. Or choose a psalm — many of them stand alone like individual books within the Book of Psalms. If you make a goal to memorize 10 verses this year, consider choosing 10 consecutive verses from a chapter or psalm. It’s perfectly fine to start with a verse you love, but I’ve learned that also memorizing the verses surrounding that favorite verse will enrich my understanding considerably!

Whatever you decide, first pray about a verse or passage that seems doable to you, and then go for it. Pick a date on the calendar and do try to finish by then — not because it’s a race, but because the goal might help you stick with the process. You’ll be surprised what your brain can do with persistence and repetition. And if you need more accountability than a date on the calendar, try bringing others into your process.


Mental Downtimes and Daily Tasks

One of the many excuses I used to give to avoid memorization was lack of time. We’re busy people, and we’re doing well if we can set aside some regular time for Bible reading and prayer, right? Who has time for memorization? You do! Memorization can easily be done in short bursts of time, so learn to use mental downtimes during your day. Sitting in a carpool line at your child’s school? Whip out your notecards or listen to the passage you’re working on in your audio Bible. Standing in line at the pharmacy? Play a couple of memorization games on your Verses app. Sitting in a waiting room? Keep a notepad and pen in your purse and write your passage a few times using the first letter method. If you’re like me, you have several downtimes during your day, and you likely give it to the never-ending social media scroll. I often close my phone feeling restless and discontented. What a better use of my time and encouragement to my spirit to spend those mindless scrolling moments memorizing Scriptures about the Lord!

Are there times in your day when your hands are busy, but your mind is not? These are perfect opportunities for memorization! Consider daily tasks as an opportunity to “find time” to memorize. You’re already folding laundry or commuting to work. Incorporate some memorization into those moments. You don’t have to find new time to memorize Scripture; simply redeem the time you already have. I promise that the time you give to memorizing the Bible will never be wasted.


A Typical Week of Memorization

I want to walk you through the memorization habits of a regular person with a regular, unexceptional memory — me. My memory may not be great, but God made my brain, and He has given me what I need to meditate on His Word. He’ll do the same for you.

I begin by choosing a book I’ve already studied so that the structure and purpose of the book are already pretty familiar. A couple of times a week, after my morning Bible reading and prayer time, I turn to a fresh page in my notebook and write out the passage of Scripture I’m working on memorizing, using the first letter method. Typically, I memorize a verse or two per week, which helps me get through a whole chapter in a couple of months. The first letter method allows you to move so quickly through a passage that this is a good time for a long review of a whole book or chapter you’ve been working on.

Later, after my morning walk and fixing breakfast for my family, I continue working on memorization when I take a shower, referring to the ziplock bags taped to my shower wall. Sometimes I’ll listen to the passage on repeat during my morning walk or while running errands. A few times a week, I run through the passage while working in the kitchen. Sometimes I recite it aloud to my husband on an evening walk to make sure I’m not skipping or forgetting parts. He can follow along on his phone and prod me when I get stuck. Often I recite at night when I cannot sleep.

None of these are earth-shattering or paradigm-shifting practices. They’re ordinary, repetitive parts of my days and weeks. Yet, they yield a harvest of fruitfulness, praise, love, and growth in my life because God is faithful to use our obedience for good. He is pleased for you to hide His words in your heart. He will use the time you give to memorization to bring about His good purposes in your life. When the Lord commissioned Joshua to take His people into the promised land, He commanded Joshua and the Israelites to obey all the words of His law, being careful not to turn away from them. He said, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Josh. 1:8). God then tells them to be strong — not afraid — reminding them that He would be always with them.

Keeping God’s Word before us helps us obey Him. How can we obey God if we don’t know what His commands are?


The ‘Why’ Is Really Important

Like Israel, we are a forgetful people, and we need regular exposure to Scripture to remember and obey. Memorization requires that we remember, recite, review. Thus, it is a vital tool God has given us to obey His Word and grow in love, faithfulness, and joy. Our aim is not the accumulation of words stored in our long-term memory. Our goal in Scripture memorization is to know our Lord more and more, which will result in a greater and deeper love for Him.

Memorization can feel like hard work because it is hard work, but the rewards are immeasurable and will aid you in your walk with Christ until you see Him face-to-face.

— By Glenna Marshall. This article originally appeared at Bible To Life.