“I have hidden Your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Psalm 119:11
I have always admired those who have made a habit to hide God’s Word in their hearts. When I was in college, I was much impressed by my friends in the Navigators ministry, who were disciplined and passionate in Scripture memorization. The Awana ministry also is known for encouraging children to commit Scripture to memory, and the kids could often put the grown-ups to shame!
In both of these cases, the Scripture memorized tended to be lists of verses or short passages from various books of the Bible. That kind of Scripture memory never really got traction in my soul and, as a result, I was never able to benefit from it as perhaps I ought. I have since found some other approaches to Scripture memory which might be helpful to you, if you have the same struggle I did. So here are some ideas — take ‘em or leave ‘em!
Uses of Scripture we have learned
One of the things that has helped me to more readily hide God’s Word in my heart is to have a clear idea of what I want to do with the text, once I have learned it. While meditating on God’s word is a good motivation, I did not find that that reason in itself drove me to commit much scripture to memory. Once I could identify other reasons for learning passages of Scripture, I had a lot more motivation. Different kinds of texts can have different uses. For example:
Psalms. I have committed a number of Psalms to memory. For each day of the week I have certain psalms that I recite as part of my morning worship. These are psalms which have been meaningful to me and which are useful to guide my praises and prayers. I probably have a cycle of 30 or so psalms that I work through each week on a regular basis. These psalms keep my worship times in the morning fresh. So think about the psalms which have been especially sweet to your soul and work to commit those to memory. Reciting them back to God will add a new breath to your times with Him each morning. For some of the longer psalms, I have learned only a portion, rather than the whole psalm. Reciting these portions is like singing only some of the verses of a hymn. It still constitutes worship and praise to God, which He gladly receives from us. Start with one psalm, learn it, and then recite it back to God each day for a week or two. When that one becomes second nature, learn a second psalm and say that one every day, while continuing to recite the first one every other day. Be patient with yourself and build your repertoire of worship poems (a.k.a. psalms) over time. The key is to make these psalms a regular part of your private devotional prayer times. I have likewise found the New Testament doxologies (like Romans 16:25-27 and Ephesians 3:20-21) to be rich sources of content for my personal worship times.
Scripture prayers. Jerod and Sarah Gilcher model the use of Scripture to shape their prayers so well. I too have found the prayers recorded in the New Testament epistles to be a wonderful way to focus my prayers for specific people each day. When I have identified a place where, say, Paul reports that he prays for the recipients of his letters in a certain way, I isolate the verses which comprise the content of Paul’s prayer, and then I change the pronouns, and occasionally tweak the grammatical structure to make the prayer easier to learn and more natural to say as an oral prayer to God. As an example, here are the prayers I pray for my family (Linda, our kids, and grandkids) each morning:
O God, may our love abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the Day of Christ. May we be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to Your glory and praise. (Phil 1:9-11)
Fill us with the knowledge of Your will through all wisdom and understanding. May we live lives worthy of You and please you in every way, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in our knowledge of You. May we be strengthened with all power according to Your glorious might that we might have great endurance and patience and joyfully give thanks to You, Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Col 1:9-12)
May we enjoy good health and may all go well with us, even as our souls are getting along well. (3 John 2)
So when you are reading an epistle and see the writer report what he is praying for his readers, you can adapt that content to become your own prayer and pray it for those you are on your heart. I learned many of these prayers simply by praying them each day for my loved ones and friends. I composed them on 3×5 cards and stuck them in my Bible. Quietly praying them out loud each day will eventually put them into your brain, without having to work at “memorizing” them per se.
Teaching passages. I have committed some teaching passages to memory mainly for my own meditation and reflection. These include the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Paul’s opening praise in Ephesians 1:3-14), and the hymn to Christ in Philippians 2:3-11. I am currently working on Jesus’ Upper Room discourse John 13-17. I find teaching passages are difficult to learn but immensely rewarding. I tackle them in small chunks and review them incessantly. For example, I have been working on the Upper Room Discourse already for a couple of years and won’t get it all under my belt until sometime in 2020, probably. I say the discourse through from the beginning to whatever part I am working on learning several times a week. The Sermon on the Mount is well settled in my memory and my soul, so I say it to myself as a meditation probably about once a month. The main thing is to identify a passage, perhaps from an epistle, that is particularly meaningful to you, learn that and commit to saying to yourself and thinking about it. It is a rich discipline and will feed your soul.
Scripture narratives. Learning stories from Scripture has been the most rewarding kind of Scripture memorization I have done. The key motivator to me has been the use of these stories to share my faith. The first story I learned was the birth of John the Baptist in Luke 1. When I shared it as the Scripture “reading” one Sunday during advent in 2009, I was struck by the magnified impact the Scripture had when I shared it orally. It was the same content as if I had read it, but the response was incredible! That hooked me on committing stories to memory as a ministry tool.
I learned many stories from the life of Jesus and shared them with Christian friends as a means of encouragement and with those not-yet-in-Christ also. When I have said, “I am learning some stories from the life of Jesus. Would you like to hear one?” I have never been turned down! Sharing Scripture truth in story form plants seeds which will bear fruit but does not come across as threatening or preachy to the lost. I have had many amazing conversations with casual acquaintances (e.g. Uber drivers), our unsaved neighbors, and international students from UTA when I have shared a Bible story and then prompted them to talk about it with me. There are five easy questions I have learned to help guide a conversation about a Bible story. These five questions are used by many different ministries around the world to guide people to engage with Scripture stories told in oral form.
- What in the story was interesting or caught your attention?
- Was there anything that confused or troubled you?
- What does the story teach us about God?
- What does the story teach us about people?
- How can we apply the lessons of this story to our lives?
Scripture narratives are amazingly impactful when you learn them by heart and share them with others. I commend this to you as a way to equip yourself to bless others in conversation.
Tips on committing Scripture to memory
Here are a few keys which have been helpful to me as I have sought to hide passages of Scripture in my heart:
Don’t get stuck on one version. My devotional Bible is an NIV. I usually start there when I decide to learn a passage of Scripture. However, inevitably I find that some verses, sentences, or phrases just do not come easily and I can’t keep them in my head. Often that is because the wording of the translation is not the way I would naturally say it. When I run into a phrase or sentence that I am struggling to reliably recall, I turn to other versions and see if the way they have rendered the same sentence is any easier to understand and commit to memory. This strategy has helped me numerous times.
Choose passages that resonate with your soul. While all Scripture is inspired and profitable for us, some passages are already precious to our souls because God has used them to touch your soul. You will find it easiest to learn those passages. They already have carved some grooves in your memory because they are beloved to you. You will find it lighter lifting to learn them.
Study the passage. You are doing more than just memorizing words, like you memorized poems for recitation in school. The more you understand the text, both what it is saying and the context, the easily the text will sink into your memory. I have found this especially true for Scripture narratives. If a sentence doesn’t seem to hang together with the rest of a passage, it is sometimes because we aren’t understanding how it fits. Reading lots of other versions and also consulting a good exegetical commentary, and perhaps a Bible dictionary, can help you understand the passage and how the story flows. All this will help you remember the story more easily.
Practice, practice, practice. The only way the scriptures you have learned will stay in your heart is if you regularly repeat them to yourself, or tell them to others. I have to carve time out of every day to review the passages I have committed to memory. It takes me a couple of weeks or so to plow through them all, but by having a fixed order and reviewing a few each day, I can cover them all and keep them fresh. I have decided to keep the radio off in my car when I am driving so I can have quiet to review scripture on the road. When I bike to work I have some specific passage I am going to review. The main thing: If you don’t review them, you will lose them. When I commit a Scripture passage to memory, I am doing so with the intention of making it a friend for life. Regular review means you will have the story inventory ready whenever you might find someone you would like to share with and you can choose the passage most relevant to your listener.
May God bring you great reward as you hide His Word in your heart.