A Simple Way to Memorize Scripture

A lesson from Billy Graham

A 2006 interview with Bill Graham (the most well known evangelist of the 20th century) in Newsweek reported the following:

‘If he had his life to live over again, Graham says he would spend more time immersed in Scripture and theology. He never went to seminary, and his lack of a graduate education is something that still gives him a twinge. "The greatest regret that I have is that I didn’t study more and read more," he says. “I regret it, because now I feel at times I am empty of what I would like to have been. I have friends that have memorized great portions of the Bible. They can quote [so much], and that would mean a lot to me now.”’

Think about that. Billy Graham wishes he would have memorized more Scripture. There’s something to learn here. I took that to heart when I first read it and I’ve thought about it ever since. I remember saying to myself, “If this is something that the greatest evangelist of the last 100+ years feels at the end of his life, how likely is it that I will feel the same way unless I make some changes now? Very likely.” By God’s grace, albeit imperfectly, I’ve been attempting to work that out ever since. 

For those that do not have photographic memories.

I once heard a pastor say that he’s never had to memorize scripture in his life because he has a photographic memory. That’s not very helpful for all of us non-photographic-memory-types. What about the rest of us who forget our mobile phone number or forget where we put our keys, let alone remember how Psalm 23 ends? As I was attempting to reinvigorate my practice of scripture memorization, I came across this by John Piper and this article by Andrew Davis, “An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture.” I have been influenced by both. 

A simple way to memorize scripture. 

I started memorizing scripture when I first began to follow Jesus at the University of Washington, but it was slow going. Previously, I was marking my progress by how much I could remember and because it didn’t stick right away it led to discouragement and, eventually, abandonment of further attempts.

But, I discovered something in 2006 that forever changed how I approach this means of grace. What changed? I stopped focusing on perceived progress and just kept track of daily time spent working on a verse, trusting my brain will get it when it was ready. Operate off of this principle: if your brain reviews something enough it can’t but help to learn it. No question. 

The nitty-gritty. 

Here’s how it has worked for me ever since. Similar to Piper above, I try to get about an hour of personal time in the Word every morning – 25 minutes in the text, 25 minutes in prayer and about 10 minutes focused on scripture memory.

Right now I’m working on Psalm 103 and taking one verse (sometimes two) every day, with the exceptions of Wednesdays and Fridays when I review the verses/sections previously committed to memory. Here’s how it works: 

  • When I begin, for the sake of further repetition, I slowly repeat the verse(s) I memorized the previous day out loud ten times without looking at the text. You may need to look at the old verse briefly to remind yourself. That’s ok and normal. 
  • Then, I move onto the next new verse and read it carefully and slowly out loud ten times. As I do so, I try to visually emboss the verse into my brain as I read over it.
  • After, reading the new verse ten times, I will then repeat that same verse out loud ten times without looking at the text.
  • If time permits or depending on the structure of the verse, I’ll do the same thing for a second verse.  
  • Additionally, some days you may wish to only review  instead of learning new verses. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you. If you hang in there, you’ll actually begin to learn how your brain memorizes best.

That’s it. That will take 5-10 mintues. Repeat that every day, or in my case 6 days a week, and you will be surprised by how your brain absorbs what you’re doing, over time, even if you don’t feel like its working. It is working. When you hit a hard patch you may need to focus on the same verse/section for a couple days. Don’t be hard on yourself. Rather, be encouraged you’re actually doing something.

Think about it this way. Psalm 23 has six verses. If you did the above over the next week, you would have it pretty well memorized in 6-7 days. It may take you another week to have it polished. Davis, above, has some great recommendations for how to cement sections of scripture into your memory after you’ve memorized them so that you don’t lose them. (i.e. repeat Psalm 23 once every day over the next 100 days and you’ll never forget it) You’ll have to find what works for you. 

This has been a transformative means of grace for me.

Personally, this has been an incredibly transformative means of grace (i.e. spiritual discipline). But, we do have to watch our hearts. The goal is not merely to memorize for the sake of memorization, but to trust and treasure Jesus more by hiding His Word in our heart. This practice has changed how I pray, what I think about, how I think about what I think about, where I turn for hope, how I read and understand the Scripture, how I offer hope and encouragement to others and more. Give it a shot. You may be surprised by how the Spirit may use even 10 minutes a day in your life as you internalize His Word.