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Bible Memorization: It’s Too Hard

Many years ago, I recall hearing a story of a group of WWII POWs captured by the Japanese. Placed together in a common cell, forced into hard labor, abused by their captures, they found comfort in the Bible. Naturally, they did not have one nor could have kept one had they had it. But each of them scratched all the scripture into the back wall of the cell they could each remember, trying to reconstruct it, thier Bible memorization.

Captured by Scripture

Now, I was not able to find the facts or documentation behind this story that was told to me. But I did find in a book called We Came Home one similar from a Vietnam veteran and POW named James Edwin Ray. Captain James was a US Air Force fighter pilot who had to eject over enemies control territory on May 18th, 1966. Captured, for the next six long years, he resisted the attempts of North Vietnamese captures to break him down. Discussing his nightmare, Captain James said,

“Bible verses whispered back and forth by the American prisoners, were vital to our daily existence. Those Bible verses became rays of light, constant assurances of His love and care…For five weeks out of the six years, one prisoner was allowed to see a Bible one hour per week for copying. When we would start to copy, the interrogator would plant his elbow on the Bible for the first fifteen minutes. After he’d let us start, he would ask mundane questions to distract us. I would ignore him and write as fast as I could. The next week we would have to return the previous week’s copy work. They seemed to be afraid to have us keep the scriptures as if they sensed that the spiritual help kept us from breaking.”[1]

In either story, I distinctly remember a particular conviction coming over me as a voice whispered in my ear, “If that was you, how many verses could you remember.” Bible memorization, we know it’s important, we know it’s beneficial, we know it’s something we should do, but…we ignore it. It’s hard work. It seems beyond achievement. It’s something people are gifted towards but not us. So here are the excuses we give.

Memorize Scripture? Ugh…

My memory isn’t that good: This is a really good on to use when you get over 40. You can then point to younger kids and says, “You have no excuse, your mind is still young.” I have used this one plenty. And it’s not entirely wrong. I often forget people’s names I know very well, struggle with numbers, and don’t mention birthdays. But it’s not a sin to have a bad memory right? Perhaps not, but it can leave us defenseless against the temptations of sin.

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Ps 119:11

I’d like to, but I’m swamped: Hey, once I retire and slow down, I will be able to do that finally. But you won’t. You’ll move back to excuse number one. Most of us are busy and often much busier than we should be. Busyness, however, does not have to equal neglect. John Wesley kept himself busy. He rode 250,000 miles on horseback, gave away $30,000 pounds in charity, and preached more than 40,000 sermons.[2] It was said by someone once that, “I am supposed to be a busy man, but by the side of Wesley, I join the ranks of the unemployed.”[3] Wesley’s life was very full, but he did not neglect to memorize scripture.

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to youMt 6:33

I know a lot of scripture, but I’m not good with verse and chapter: In other words, I’m real familiar with the gist of it just not the specifics. Imagine if someone said they could tell you all about their family but couldn’t tell you where they lived. The verse address were added later, so they are not important…right? Yes, the chapters were added in by Stephen Langton[4] in 1227 and the verse numbers in 1551 by Robert Stephanus[5]. But it’s still important because when someone asks where it says what you claim and your response is “ it’s in the Bible,” that’s not entirely helpful. Certainly not helpful when sharing our faith with others. It’s not even helpful for your personal study of scripture. When you are sitting in Bible study, and something reminds you of Jesus’s sayings but it takes you the rest of the class skimming the gospels to find it, you’ll know what I mean.

…the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Lk 4:17-19

So how do I Memorize Scripture?

Scripture memorization was harder to start than to accomplish. Believe me when I say that the excuses above were my own. However, once I made an effort and disciplined myself, it was easier than I had imagined. In fact, you probably know more scripture than you think. You just don’t know it precisely or its location in the Bible. Work on these first and then expand your limits.

There are many different ways to improve Bible memorization. Each person is different in what works best for them. So I will just give you one that works for me. Personally, I use an app called Scripture Typer. It forces you to practice, to type out the verses, and reminds you daily. My phone is always with me, so it’s most convenient and has worked well. But you may need to write them out, record them and listen over and over, or use old school index cards. There is no wrong way to go about it. But spend time polishing your swords each day, so they do not rust. This is the real key to remembering and not losing what you have learned; repeat, repeat, repeat.

In the end, we must know God’s word to obey it. Jesus said, “if you abide in me, my word abides in you.” (Jn 15:7) and “Whoever hears my word and believe him who sent me has eternal life.” (Jn 5:24) As believers in Christ, how can we honestly say that we do not have time to memorize the words of life?

[1] Wyatt, Barbara Powers. We came home. Toluca Lake, CA: P.O.W. Publications, 1977.

[2] Tomkins, Stephen. John Wesley: a biography. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2003.

[3] Society, Wesley Historical. Proceedings Of The Wesley Historical Society,. Vol. 17-18. S.L.: Forgotten Books, 2016.

[4] Archbishop of Canterbury 1207 to 1228.

[5] English writer and Bible publisher who converted to Protestantism.