Thursday, July 26, 2012

The delightful results of memorizing the Bible

This is the final post in my series on Bible memorization. Today I'll talk about the "why" of memorizing Bible passages and the impact this has had on me. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.

God's word written on three-by-five inch index cards: it doesn't sound like much of a weapon. But there I was, sitting on the floor, staring out the window, repeating words scribbled on the index card in my hand: " not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own..." (Matt 6:34).

I was twenty-five years old, four years married, and filled with anxious questions about the future. I'd never set out to memorize whole Bible passages, and I'm not sure what prompted me now; but I chose Philippians 4:4-9 and Matthew 6:19-34 and committed them to memory. Slowly but surely - and I still remember how miraculous this felt! - my worries actually went away. The battle against anxiety was won with a set of Bible passages written out by hand, driven into my head through sheer repetition, and pressed into my heart by the Holy Spirit. Anxiety is still one of my chief struggles; but at least I now have a weapon close at hand.

 Old fashioned. Unpopular. Weird. Those are a few words that spring to mind when I think about Bible memorization; but I've experienced the delightful results of this neglected practice, and I can't shut up about it. Here are seven of the benefits. I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones that stand out for me.
  • Memorization won't let us skim the surface of God's word. The Hebrew words for "meditate" literally mean to "mutter",1 and that's what happens when you memorize: whether you write, sing or speak, you tell God's word over and over to yourself. When I read silently, or even study a passage, it's easy to skip words and phrases, and see only what I expect to see. Memorization forces me to stop and say every word, so that passages I thought I knew well surprise me. Even when I forget what I learned, the act of memorization forces me deeper into the Bible and the Bible deeper into me.
  • Memorization fuels meditation and prayer. One of the signs we belong to God is that we delight to meditate on God's word "day and night" (Psalm 1:1-2; 119:97, 148; Josh 1:8). But how can we do this if God's word isn't available, right there in our minds, in the odd moments between activities and during the empty hours of the night? JI Packer says,
    Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God...It is a matter of talking to oneself about God and oneself; it is, indeed, often a matter of arguing with oneself, reasoning oneself out of moods of doubt and unbelief into a clear apprehension of God's power and grace.2
    More than any other practice, Bible memorization fuels my meditation, helping me to preach God's word to myself and turn it into prayer and praise.
  • Memorization transforms our minds, emotions and choices by turning our thoughts to Christ. How does true change come? By the renewing of our minds, as we look to Jesus and set our thoughts on him (Rom 12:1-2; Col 3:1-17; Heb 12:1-2). Our thoughts and desires are, of all things, most difficult to master; yet discipline them we must. Memorizing God's word lays a new set of thought patterns over those that come naturally to us. It transforms our hopes, desires and choices as God's truth cajoles and pummels them into a more Christ-centred form. Most amazingly for me, it even shapes my emotions, slowly but surely changing despair into hope, fear into trust, and self-pity into joy.
  • Memorization is a help in times of struggle. Some of us face suffering when we are younger, some when we grow older; but suffering comes to all of us, bringing sorrow, doubt and fear. Grief over a child's sickness, the struggle with depression, the temptation to grow weary and give up: in times like this, passages like Romans 8:18-30 and  1 Peter 1:3-9 have become my solid stepping-stones in the dark. They give words and purpose to my pain, affirm the faith I don't feel, reassure me that God hasn't let me go, give me courage to endure, and remind me that Jesus trod the path of suffering and is now in glory.
  • Memorization puts the Spirit's weapon in our hands. The word of God is a sword in the Spirit's hands, uncovering sin and equipping us for the fight (Eph 6:17; Heb 4:12).3 But a sword isn't much use if we leave it in its scabbard. In a battle with envy, despair, lust or anger, I don't need my only offensive weapon in a book on my shelf or on my iDevice. I want the words of God inside me, ready to be picked up and used by God's Spirit. "I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you" (Psalm 119:11 cf. Matt 4:1-11; Josh 1:8).
  • Memorization is for others. It's tempting to turn memorization into just another pious practice, another means to personal change; but the Bible is not just for me, but for others. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom" (Col 3:16). Like a glass so full that it overflows, the words of God poured into our minds will spill out through our lips, encouraging our brothers and sisters and equipping them for service (2 Tim 3:16-17) and helping others to come to know Jesus through his powerful word (Isa 55:10-11).
  • Memorization is an expression of love. What we choose (and don't choose) to remember shows what matters to us: the words of a song; a child's birthday; a friend's phone number. A miser counts his gold. A collector pores over her treasures. And we leave our Bibles on the shelf! Perhaps, in the end, the best reason for memorizing the Bible is simply because we love it and want to make it our own (Psalm 119:72, 103, 127, 131): the wisdom in our thoughts, the music of our hearts, the power in our words.
Why memorize the Bible? There's no "have to" about Bible memorization! If I spend time reading and studying and reflecting on God's word, it will make its way inside me without me deliberately remembering it. In fact, if memorization becomes mechanical or magical or the indispensable mark of spiritual maturity, we'd be better off engaging with God's word in other ways.

(But here's another question: why not memorize the Bible? Why do we emphasize Bible reading and study so much, and not memorization? My guess it's got something to do with the fact that we're an electronic and print culture, not a memory-based culture. We assume that we will always have our Bibles with us, forgetting that, one day, they may be unavailable to us or taken from us. Perhaps it's time to revive some old skills.)

They said that when you pricked John Bunyan, he bled Bible. That's my goal. I want to bleed Bible all over my death-bed and my life as well. I want to carry my lamp with me so it can illumine my path. I want my tools to hand so I can teach and train others. I want God's sword in my heart, probing my actions and motives. I want to open the door and invite his word in to dwell in me richly. I want it written across my forehead and my doors and the inside of my skull, so I can think it and speak it and pray it and live it day and night.

That's why I memorize God's word.

Have you tried memorizing God's word? What have been the benefits? Share them with us, and challenge and encourage us.

1. From the Olive Tree article Meditating on God's word.
2. From chapter 1 of JI Packer's "Knowing God".
3. Spirit and word go together: compare the parallel passages  Eph 5:18-20 and  Col 3:15-17.

This post first appeared at The Briefing.

image is by chefranden at flickr

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