Midway through one of his famous “cookie pushes,” Dr. Dorsett shared with us a book, Wesley’s Hymns as a Guide to Scriptural Teaching. Charles Wesley was a prolific songwriter. He wrote more than 6,000 hymns, and 200 years later we still sing many of them. In this book, John Lawson printed Wesley’s hymns and added notations for each reference or allusion to scripture in the lyrics.
It was amazing. As Dr. Dorsett thumbed through the book, we saw page after page full of references. Lawson found 2,500 references from nearly every book of the Bible in Wesley’s hymns. Can you imagine how steeped in scripture Wesley had to be to write this way? Is there any doubt Charles Wesley had the word of God hidden in his heart? Dr. Dorsett would say Wesley “lived in Bible territory.”
The Psalmist wrote, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11) God said to Joshua, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.” (Joshua 1:8) Jeremiah said, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty.” (Jeremiah 15:16)
It is important to read scripture, but these passages seem to be speaking about something far deeper than devotional reading. How can we hide God’s word in our hearts? What can we do to keep the Bible always on our lips? What would it look like for us to dine on scripture until it becomes our joy and our hearts delight?
Why should we know the Bible by heart?
School for a Jewish child in the first century was called Beit Sefer or “House of the book.” At age 6, boys and girls (many scholars believe both boys and girls attended school at this age) began their study of Torah. Class began with the rabbi putting honey on the students’ slates. “How sweet are your words to my taste,” he would recite from Psalm 119, “sweeter than honey to my mouth!” Then the rabbi would invite the students to lick the honey. In this way, the students were introduced to the sweetness of the Holy Scriptures.
As they continued, the children would learn to read and write the books of Moses. They memorized large sections. In fact, it is likely that by the time this stage of school was complete (around the age of 10), children would have memorized the entire Torah!
Jesus would have attended Beit Sefer. He knew the scriptures inside and out, so when the Spirit led him into the desert, Jesus was ready. Each time the enemy tempted him, Jesus responded with scripture. “Change these stones into bread,” and Jesus responded, “Man doesn’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) When the evil one tempted him to leap from the temple in a spectacular display of God’s favor, he responded, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16) Finally, Satan tempted Jesus with power, and he quoted Deuteronomy 6:13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
Jesus had the word of God hidden in his heart. He knew scripture. It was a part of him in such a deep way that it naturally flowed from his mouth in a moment of temptation. Joshua Choonmin Kang writes, “When we commit ourselves to memorizing Scripture, we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We cultivate his lifestyle.”
Spiritual formation giant Dallas Willard once said, “Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs.” Elsewhere he said keeping God’s word at the front of our minds “brings the order of God into our mind and soul. The soul is “restored” as the law becomes the routine pattern of inward life and outward action. We are integrated into the movements of the eternal kingdom.”
The discipline of scripture memorization changes us fundamentally. As we do the work of learning scripture by heart, we are engaging in a form of meditation. The repetition forces us to slow down and notice the language and phrasing of the passage. We begin to own the words of God in a way that does not happen when we simply read and move on.
In a world where we move at a faster and faster pace, we seldom move slowly enough to reflect on anything. Our attention spans are shrinking. We browse and skim rather than considering with any depth what we read. Learning scripture by heart stands against that trend. It helps us wade into scripture and soak in the words of God until they become a part of us and shape us.
When we memorize scripture it is woven into every aspect of our lives. It can be called up by the Holy Spirit at any moment in our everyday experiences. This is important because I believe scripture is a foundational part of being a disciple. It is a record of God’s love for us, and through scripture we come to know the voice of God in our lives.
Joshua Choonmin Kang reminds us memorizing Scripture is not an end in itself. “When we meditate deeply on the words of Scripture, we begin to bear fruit… The more we commit the Word to memory, the richer our being becomes. The melodious concert of his Word will continually echo within us. Then we’ll encounter the conductor, our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, who helps us remember the Scriptures, and the Father, who’ll receive glory through all of this.”
We should remember, however, why scripture is so important. We are not committing to memory principles for running our business or instructions for life. Our memorization is not to earn a spiritual merit badge or to become successful. The Bible is an invitation into relationship. We memorize scripture to form our minds on the very words of God, to deepen our relationship with him. This is why I love Jan Johnson. She says this discipline is not about getting scripture in our heads but getting it in our hearts. That’s why she would rather call it “knowing scripture by heart.”
How do we learn the Bible by heart?
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. This is how we learn scripture by heart. In many ways it is rather simple. Recite a passage over and over until you have committed it to memory. On the other hand, this practice can be quite difficult. You might question whether or not you are able to memorize. I promise you can, but it will require a commitment to be consistent, setting aside at least fifteen minutes a day for the practice. You should choose a specific time you can regularly dedicate to the practice. Don’t expect to fit this into the margins of your day. Practices without a designated time will be inconsistent at best.
In this set aside time, begin with reading the surrounding text to understand the context of the passage. Remember that we are not memorizing passages to argue a particular point. We are not pulling a verse out of context here and there. This discipline is motivated by relationship. It is because I love God that I want to know his words by heart.
After familiarizing yourself with the context of the passage, break it down into manageable phrases. Most passages are too long to tackle in one bite, so look for places that feel natural to divide the text. Recite the first phrase over and over until you have the words committed to your short-term memory. Do the same with the next phrase, and then recite both together. Then repeat the third phrase until you have it and recite all three together a number of times. Continue that pattern until you can recite the whole passage.
It can be very helpful to repeat the phrases aloud as you learn it. Speaking aloud forces us to slow down. It allows us to reflect on the words, and it engages more of our senses. Speaking engages our voices and allows us to hear the words. For the same reasons, you may find it helpful to write the text.
This method will get the passage firmly planted in your short-term memory, but you will need to continue to work with the passage if you are going to hide God’s word in your heart. Continue to repeat the passage throughout the day. It might be while you drive or as you brush your teeth. When the Midwestern weather cooperates, I love to work on passages as I walk, particularly in the woods.
You may also write the passage on a notecard and place it in a visible place. The visual reminder can help keep the passage in front of you and spur you on to continue reciting it throughout the day. You should also continue to review the passage in your next time in the practice. Keep your attention on one passage until you feel you know it by heart.
Don’t be discouraged if you need to look back at the text more often than you would like. This is not a rushed practice. One of the great values of this discipline is its ability to slow us down. So what if it takes a month to memorize one passage? You may feel that is too long, but is there anything wrong with chewing on a single passage of God’s word for a whole month?
If you are just beginning to memorize scripture, you might begin with a handful of single verses. I would recommend memorizing verses that connect with a reminder you feel you need in your life. But as you grow in this discipline, begin to learn larger passages of scripture by heart.
Single verses don’t necessarily capture the full meaning or intention of the passages, so we can easily resort to cherry picking proof texts, verses that prove a point or reinforce what we already believe. Or we only learn key principles from the Bible and neglect the invitation to a relationship. If we know longer passages by heart, we are forced to live into the whole of scripture, even some of the harder texts. If you are willing to move in this direction, I would recommend memorizing the Sermon on the Mount. I guarantee it will form you in profound ways.
Scripture memorization is an immensely valuable discipline. It is a way of taking seriously God’s instruction to keep his word always on our lips and to meditate on it day and night. When God’s word is hidden in our hearts, we are better able to discern his voice. This builds a foundation that serves a holistic life with God. When we know scripture by heart, it is available to be recalled by the Holy Spirit at any given moment. This practice helps us internalize the teachings of God’s word so they become personal and begins to form us into Christlikeness.
Other Scripture Memorization Resources
Scripture by Heart by Joshua Choonmin Kang
Meeting God in Scripture by Jan Johnson