Andy Naselli recently wrote two pieces that encourage and equip believers to memorize whole books of the Bible. At the same time that I noticed his articles, I celebrated 25 years of systematic long-term Scripture memorization (SLTSM). Together, those events encouraged me to reflect on how this practice has benefited me. (Details regarding the system I use are available here.)
My reflections on SLTSM can be summarized like this: its blessings grow exponentially over time. Certainly there’s value in memorizing a passage over a six-month window, yet I’ve found that the blessings of hiding God’s Word in my heart “snowball” across decades.
Here are seven blessings I’ve discovered from systematic long-term Scripture memorization:
1. It allows you to follow the example of the ant.
The demands of life swamp my days. I might as well drain the Everglades as carve out an entire morning for memorizing Scripture. But on most days I have time to put a crumb on the tip of my tongue and carry it from one room to the next, like an ant (Prov. 30:24–25).
Crumbs add up. Memorize Scripture for 15 minutes each day, five days a week, for two decades, and you will have devoted 1,300 hours to SLTSM.
Learning from the ant has motivated me to be methodical while practicing other disciplines; I’ve developed parallel strategies for writing, praying, and sermon prep. “Ant-like” methods for spiritual disciplines multiply over time.
2. Along with prayer, it offers the most immediate and intentional way to pursue sanctification.
The paradigm of progressive sanctification is straightforward. As we look deeply into the face of our Savior, the Spirit graciously transforms us to be increasingly like him (2 Cor. 3:17–18; 1 John 3:3). Sanctification takes place across years, and we must choose to participate. SLTSM offers a primary sanctification strategy (Phil. 2:12–13).
SLTSM is my first line of defense in battling temptation. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve preached Philippians 4:8–9 to myself. After all, if I’m tempted to think of chocolate, it does no good to tell myself not think about Snickers. I need an alternative focus.
3. It enables you to identify insights in Scripture that take years to see.
When I think consistently about a passage for years, my insights grow geometrically. For example, I memorized Philemon more than 20 years ago. This little letter offers a case study in motivating others to unpack forgiveness. Pondering it for 20 years has allowed me to notice wonderful subtleties in Paul’s approach. For instance, he encourages Philemon:
At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. (v. 22)
The first 500 times I thought about Philemon, this verse didn’t get my attention. It seemed like an aside regarding travel arrangements. But somewhere across the years, it struck me that the Greek word translated “graciously given” is often translated “forgive.” “I hope to be graciously given to you,” then, was a subtle reminder—a jab even—to his friend that, if Philemon hoped to be on the receiving end of gracious gifts, he should also be gracious where Onesimus was concerned.
SLTSM allows me to more effectively read the Bible as a whole. The Bible interacts with itself. The student of the Word who’s memorized Psalm 110 or Isaiah’s Servant Song will more efficiently process direct quotations elsewhere and will hear allusions not otherwise evident.
4. It teaches you what to pray.
Memorizing Paul’s great prayers in Ephesians 3:14–21 or Colossians 1:9–14 gives me words to pray. Memorizing benedictions (Num. 6:24–26; Rom. 15:13; Jude 24–25) allows the words of those prayers to spill out of me when I dismiss our congregation.
Further, SLTSM gives me words to pray in times of crisis (Heb. 4:14–16). This September there was a terrible automobile accident in our community. Two lives were lost, and the life of one young lady hung in the balance. I rushed to the hospital to be with the family. There was no time to Google emergency prayers. I dropped to my knees and prayed for her like I would’ve prayed if she was my own daughter.
SLTSM also organizes long-term prayer projects. I track particular prayer projects on the 3 x 5 cards of verses I review. When a friend endured a deep disappointment in pastoral ministry, I wrote his name on my review card for Nehemiah 12:43. As I reviewed this verse, I asked over and over again, “LORD, would you see my friend through this valley and bring him to a time of rejoicing?”
5. It preserves memories of when God’s Word was impressed on you.
There are occasions in the Christian life when the Spirit touches our hearts in a particular way. I long for those moments. If I’m not intentional, though, the business of life crowds such moments out of my thoughts. SLTSM maximizes my experiences of those times.
For example, I was convicted in early 2013 when I read John Piper’s article “How Much Is Left to Do in the Great Commission?” He begins: “We should be dumbfounded at how doable the remaining task of world missions is.” Piper proceeds to share estimates of how many unreached people groups remain. Given the conviction of that moment, I memorized Matthew 24:14, and on the 3 x 5 card wrote: “11,310 people groups, of which 6,405 are unreached.” Now, whenever I review this verse, I ask God to allow our church to be part of reaching the unreached.
6. It offers a tool for discipling others.
Paul instructed Timothy to entrust to reliable men what they’d also be qualified to teach others (2 Tim. 2:1–2). SLTSM has been one of my most effective strategies for handing off the Bible. The method is simple and easy to pass along. I don’t know how many generations of SLTSM I’m involved in, but I like the math. If one person can teach just five others to do SLSTSM, and if this continues for six generations, the number mushrooms to more than 15,000.
Even if only a few adopt the system, SLTSM can set an example for all your flock and stress the eternal value of God’s Word. I don’t talk much about my memorization of Scripture from the pulpit, but over time others pick up on my commitment, and it influences their goals.
7. It makes you a more efficient reader of theology.
Great works of theology interact with the whole counsel of God, yet authors avoid quoting all the relevant passages since doing so would interrupt the flow of their arguments. (Theologians often parenthetically cite passages instead.) SLTSM allows me to more immediately dialogue with the passages to which they parenthetically appeal.