In my last blog I discussed Christian meditation as a practice that helps us win the battle over our minds. It is, in Thomas Brooks’ words, “a soul-fattening duty.” For part two, I want to focus on memorizing as a way to meditate deeply on the Word.
Psalm 119:11: I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
There may be other ways to “store up”, “hide” (NIV), or “treasure” (NASB) God’s Word in our hearts, but the one that makes the most sense to me is to memorize it. When we memorize Scripture, it is right there in our hearts, able to be accessed at any time.
There are two objections I have heard (and have used myself) against making this effort of memorizing Scripture. They are:
- “I can’t do it, it’s too difficult.”
- “I don’t think it’s beneficial because it’s legalistic and unhelpful.”
Here are my thoughts on both objections.
“I can’t do it, it’s too difficult.”
I basically believed this to be true until this year. For the last 20 years leading up to the year 2023, I tried to memorize verses or passages of Scripture, but would inevitably fail. A couple years ago I tried to memorize Ephesians 1, and I announced this effort to the church so others would try it as well. After a few weeks of bludgeoning my brain, to no avail, I quit trying. This experience, along with sporadic attempts to memorize other verses over the last two decades with little success, contrasted with my first years of memorizing the Word. When I first became a Christian in high school, the youth leaders who were mentoring me gave me a list of verses to memorize, which I was able to do with success. Galatians 2:20, John 3:16, Philippians 4:6-7, Romans 12:1, John 10:10, and a few others have been stored in my long-term memory. The truth is, our minds are more adept at memorizing when they are young and more plastic. As we age, it does become more difficult. I am not getting any younger, but I have memorized around 60 verses in this calendar year (the vast majority coming from the first two chapters of 1 Peter).
How has this happened? I am not taking brain-empowering supplements. And I am not naturally adept at memorization.
There are two primary ways I have done this: song and a concept called the memory palace.
Songs are easy to remember. Think of how many song lyrics you have memorized over the years that are filled with bizarre, lewd, ridiculous content! Why? Because our minds are receptive to remembering music. Off the top of my head, I can spout dozens of lyrics to songs of questionable value, such as:
“Welcome to the __________, we got fun and games. We got everything you want, __________ we know the name.”
“You can’t always get __________ you __________, but if you try __________, you just might __________, you get what you __________.”
“Hey __________, don’t let me down. Take a __________ song, and make it __________.”
“Billie __________ is not my __________, she’s just a __________ who claims that I am the __________, but the __________ is not my __________.”
[the first one to fill in the above blanks correctly without looking them up and emailing me the answers will receive a prize from me].
The most powerful and helpful tool in memorizing 1 Peter has been the song that composer, arranger and performer Amy Doerfler has produced. Doerfler is an accomplished musician who earned her PhD from Kent State University in music theory and composition. Her 1 Peter song is about 35 minutes long with all of the verses of 1 Peter sung by Dr. Doerfler to an original piano arrangement. When Lia (who started memorizing 1 Peter before I did) started working on it, I thought the song was hilarious as well as unappealing. I repent of that opinion. It is actually a brilliant score, very easy to listen to, and aids tremendously in memorizing the text. One example – there is a passage in 1 Peter 1 that reads, “15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.” She set this portion of the text to the tune of the great hymn “Holy Holy Holy.” Brilliant! And helpful.
If you want to remember something, sing it. And, place it in your memory palace.
“Pastor Nerd,” you reply, “what is a ‘memory palace’”?
I’m glad you asked. A memory palace is a mental, imaginative construct that takes advantage of the aspects of our memory that are most effective, and stores key information within that construct that we can easily recall. The term “memory palace” comes from an ancient story told by the 1st century BC orator and statesman Cicero. He wrote about a man who lived 400 years before him, who lived in Greece, a man named Simonides of Ceos. Simonides gave a banquet one day for his friend Scopas. During the banquet, two men came to Simonides’ door to pass along a message. A moment after he stepped out of the room to answer the door, the roof of that portion of the house tragically collapsed, hurtling tons of marble and wood atop the guests. As the story goes, in the wake of the terrible accident, servants and friends were trying to move the rubble around and determine who was there. Simonides paused, closed his eyes, and imagined the room as it had been the moment he left it, the same moment the roof caved in. He was then able to identify each guest and their exact place at the banquet table. This was the birth of the idea of the memory palace.
The Romans called this method of memorization the “method of loci” (“loci” = place in Latin). It works because it utilizes spatial memory, which we are extremely adept at using. Think of your childhood home, or your grandma’s house from long ago. It is likely you can still remember, if you close your eyes and try, how the house was organized and how each room connected with the next. My Grandma Milroy’s house has not been the home of a Milroy in over 35 years, and I haven’t been in there since. Yet I can mentally walk through every room if I close my eyes and imagine it.
Now, within that mental space of a well-known home/apartment/condo/etc., you place interesting or strange or outlandish items that symbolize whatever information you are trying to keep in your brain. This sounds difficult and elaborate, but once you do it, it is incredibly effective. I use this method to remember some of your names (one family in our church, all 4 of you, are symbolized by a particular hip-hop artist sitting in my front room holding a sliver of Noah’s ark. I told you it was weird, but it works).
Here is another example as it relates to my effort to memorize 1 Peter 2:2-8:
2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8 and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
The image I use for this text is located in our basement storage room, where we still keep a baby bassinet (awaiting grandchildren). I have a mental image of a large baby crawling out of the bassinet, crawling out of the storage room, finding a milk bottle and loving the flavor, growing instantly, maturing into to toddler status, plodding on around the ping-pong table towards a big stone, stumbling over it, getting back up, and setting it in the corner (“cornerstone). It is a strange, perhaps creepy, but extremely effective mini-video I play in my head to help me remember that passage.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the history and methods of memorization, Joshua Foer wrote a book about the path he took from journalist writing about oddball memorization mavens to memorization champion himself called Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. I’m about 3/4ths of the way through it, and it is quite entertaining.
To summarize – if you use effective methods of memorization, you will be able to memorize and then meditate on Scripture.
“I don’t think it’s beneficial because it seems legalistic and unhelpful.”
Some of you grew up in a church or a family that emphasized lots of Bible memory without a lot of applying the Word of God. If that is true and it has turned you off to Scripture memorization, I hope you’ll reconsider. It isn’t the memorizing that is the problem, it is the hypocrisy of knowing the Word without doing the Word (James 1:22).
It goes without saying that we meditate on the Word in order to apply it. As long as we assume this, the objection loses its force.
Our day has seen a precipitous decline in emphasis on memorization of facts, events, and texts. There seems to be a bias against this form of learning in favor of “critical thinking” or “creative exploration.” But in classical times, memorization was the foundation not only of understanding the text, but the foundation of virtue itself:
[For the ancients], a trained memory wasn’t about easy access to information; it was about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person. A trained memory was the key to cultivating “judgment, citizenship, and piety.” What one memorized helped shape one’s character. Just as the secret to becoming a chess grand master was to learn old games, the secret to becoming a grand master of life was to learn old texts (Moonwalking with Einstein, p.110).
I agree with the old dead people who have gone before us and built the culture we now enjoy, all way back to the Greeks – to memorize is to help shape our character. What better place to start than the Word of God itself?
…to memorize is to help shape our character. What better place to start than the Word of God itself?
Here is a closing exhortation: start somewhere. Parents of young children – memorize John 3:16 together, as a family. Tape it up on your fridge say it out loud a few times a week. Watch this video and learn the hand motions. From there, make it a monthly habit to memorize the NAPC verse. Grandparents of young children – see above. All others, see above. Or, start memorizing 1 Peter with us and see how far you get. Try the memory palace, come up with the weirdest and wildest images to lodge this and other precious passages in your heart.
It really doesn’t take much to start. Memorizing the Word so that you can chew on, digest and absorb it, is an effective and sanctifying way of fattening up our souls.