Thursday, June 7, 2012

a three-course banquet of Bible memorization

This is the second post in my series on memorizing Bible passages. You can read part 1 here.

A couple of weeks ago, I invited you to commit Bible passages to memory. The fact that you're still reading encourages me a lot, because I know that memorizing the Bible - especially whole passages! - isn't popular:
Once, I thought that memorising anything longer than two verses was for old people or super holy people. - Anna

In my late twenties was challenged by some Navigator friends to memorize Scripture...I thought they were saying that because Navigators sell Scripture Memory courses. - Duncan1
When I encourage people to memorize the Bible, I sometimes feel about as popular as a peddler of bad-tasting, expensive medicine. And yes, this is medicine for our sickly souls. But memorizing Bible passages isn’t just medicine: it’s sweet-tasting food that will feed and nourish us and others for years to come (Psalm 119:97-104). God's word is a feast, not a box of pills.

Today I want to tantalize your spiritual tastebuds with a three-course banquet of Bible memorization. In other words, I'll talk about the "what" of memorization: what kinds of passages should we memorize? Here's our menu (you'll notice that the third course isn't actually Scripture, but it's worth devouring all the same):

  • Psalms
  • Bible passages
  • hymns and songs.

Here are some of my favourites in each category to get you started. This is not in any way an exhaustive list! I've chosen these because, of all the passages I've learned, they've stayed with me through the years.

Entree: Psalms
When your emotions are out of order, memorize a psalm.2  When you need to express wonder, fear or grief to God, memorize a psalm. When you want to recall God's mighty acts of creation and salvation, memorize a psalm.

Like most poetry, psalms are relatively easy to remember. When he was young, my husband performed the remarkable feat of committing all 150 psalms to memory, including Psalm 119. I've never made it that far, but I find it helpful to memorize a range of psalms so I have one on hand for different situations and moods.

Here are three ways the psalms have helped me. If you want to learn some psalms, you might like to start with some of the ones I mention.
  • The psalms reshape my emotions. There have been black times in my life when a psalm was my lifeline (Ps 103, 130)3 and anxious times when only a psalm could soothe my fears (Ps 23).
  • The psalms give me words to speak to God. They help me express longing (Ps 24, 84), confession (Ps 51) and praise (Ps 148).
  • The psalms grow my faith. They give faith sold food to chew on (Ps 1, 139) or help me to rest quietly in God (Ps 121, 131).

Flicking through the psalms, it's clear I've only begun to absorb the riches they have to offer. Maybe my husband's idea of memorizing them all isn't so crazy after all; but I doubt my brain's capacity is that big. Still, I'll keep packing more in!

Which psalms have you found particularly helpful over the years?

Main course: Bible passages
You could memorize any Bible passage and it would yield unexpected delights and satisfying goodness every time you call it to mind (Matt 4:4; 2 Tim 3:16-17). But unless you have the memory of the proverbial elephant, I doubt you'll memorize the entire Bible any time soon. So how do you choose which passages to learn?

I usually memorize passages of about five to fifteen verses: not too many to be intimidating, but enough to give me something satisfying to chew on. (I also learn whole books, but that's another story, and I hope the next post in this series will equip you to do even that.4) Here are six kinds of passages I've found particularly helpful. You might like to use these categories to choose what to memorize:

There's not a lot of Old Testament on my list, except for the psalms. I'm eager to learn Isaiah 53. I'd also love to learn more of the New Testament, from Matthew 5:3-12 to the last chapters of Revelation. All in good time!

What passages would you add to my list?

Dessert: Hymns and spiritual songs
While most hymns and songs aren't directly from the Bible (unless you count Scripture in song) they're well worth memorizing, along with Christian poems, prayers and other kinds of writing. Often when I pray, I start by singing or reciting a hymn; this is helpful when I struggle, as many of us do, to put my adoration and thankfulness into words. (Col 3:16)

When I select a song to memorize, I don't usually pick a modern chorus: I choose one of the grand old hymns, bursting with great truths about God and the gospel. How rich we are if we fill our minds with great words about God from the past, words that speak through time as well as space! Here's a selection of timeless hymns I've learned that have encouraged me.

Before the throne
Crown him with many crowns
My song is love unknown
Before the throne
None other lamb
When I survey the wondrous cross
I cannot tell
Be thou my vision
Be still my soul
My hope is built on nothing less

The only reason And can it be isn't on my list is that I don't find it very singable, which is an important quality when choosing hymns to memorize. And even as I write this list, I think of others that should be included, like Amazing Grace, Rock of ages and It is well with my soul. Clearly, it's time to learn some more.

What hymns and songs have I forgotten?

So there you have it, a three-course banquet of Bible memorization. Don't be overwhelmed by the number of passages I've suggested: this is the fruit of twenty years of memorizing the Bible. Just start by learning a single passage. Every bit of God's word is packed with sweetness and sustenance, and those few words will continue to feed you abundantly twenty years from now.

I'm going to talk about the "why" of Bible memorization soon. But the best argument for learning Bible passages is to commit one to memory and seeing what comes of it. I'll make you a promise: once you've done that, you won't be able to resist learning more. Tell me how it goes!

1. From the comments on my post Why you shouldn't memorize Bible verses
2. See Christ Brauns' post In the wrong place emotionally? Memorize a Psalm in order to be moved.
3. See my posts Psalm for the discouraged part 1 and part 2.When I encourage people to memorize the Bible, I sometimes feel about as popular as a peddler of bad-tasting, expensive medicine. And yes, this is medicine for our sickly souls. But memorizing Bible passages isn't just medicine: it's sweet-tasting food that will feed and nourish us and others for years to come.
4. You'll find one useful method in Andrew Davis' An approach to extended memorization of Scripture.

This post first appeared at The Briefing.

image is by chefranden at flickr


BG said...

Yay Jean, that is awesome, I am so excited about these posts. I am a huge fan of this kind of memorising- I agree that it is easier to do in chunks and it is great knowing the context of some of the great verses. I memorised the crucifiction of Jesus from Mark and it is still to this day one of the most encouraging things I have done for my Christian faith. You learn so deeply and notice everything when you memorise. Once (I don't know if I could do this all the time) I memorised a chapter that I was going to cover in Bible study, and it was by far the most effective style of Bible study prep I have ever done- because I knew the passage back to front.

Fiona McLean said...

Thanks for this encouragement, Jean. I've memorised Philippians and Jonah over the past year, but am afraid I will forget them! Any tips on how to lodge Bible passages into your brain for the long-term? How often do you have to recite a passage to make it "stick"?
Fiona McLean

Jean said...

Hi Fiona,

The truth is I've learned Philippians, Ephesians and Romans 1-8 and "forgotten" most of them. But I know these books so much better now. And much has stuck firmly in my head because I repeat it to myself often, even if the rest is gone. Yes, you can retain things long term; you just have to revise them periodically (once a year? once every few years? Probably no rules on this). I am planning to revise these books myself once I've finished learning Colossians. It will be pretty much a re-learn, but that's okay! Spending any time in God's word is worth doing, whether you remember every detail or not. And yes, there will be some hints about this in my next post. :)

Love Jean.