You’ll never guess where I began learning the scores—hundreds, really—of Bible verses that have filled my mind for about a half century. It was at Eastside Elementary School in Elizabethton, Tennessee. This small redbrick schoolhouse was two blocks from my house, and I spent six happy years of my life there. Thankfully the prohibition against Bible reading in public schools hadn’t yet taken effect in my little town. I remember hearing about the Supreme Court decision in 1963 that outlawed prayer and Bible reading in public classrooms. I was eleven years old, but I recall how shocked everyone seemed at this discrimination against Christians.
But that didn’t stop us from memorizing Bible verses, aided by an intrepid gentleman who came once a week from the Children’s Bible Mission. When I was in the first grade, I memorized John 3:16 and received a lovely little wall plaque as a reward. In the second grade I learned the entire Twenty-third Psalm and was given a small New Testament. In the third grade I learned twenty-five more verses, and I’ve forgotten what the reward was for that; it might have been a Bible containing both Old and New Testaments. In the fourth grade it was fifty verses, and in the fifth and sixth grades we were presented with a challenging 100 verses per year, and if we learned all 100, we were given a free week at summer camp.
The incentives have long since perished, but many of these verses have stayed with me for a lifetime. Through the years I’ve consistently added to their stockpile. These verses have resourced my mentality. They have kept me from making many mistakes, from losing my temper on multiple occasions, and from committing sins that would have marred my soul. They’ve given me encouragement during challenging moments, comfort during grief, peace amid alarm, and joy when the sun was obscured by clouds of confusion.
These verses have also given me something to say to others on many occasions when my own words were uncertain or inadequate. Scripture has power that is supernatural, soothing, convicting, transforming, life-changing, timely, timeless, and eternal. Nothing beats having the Word of God stored away in the chambers of the mind.
I’m finding it harder now to commit new verses to memory—our memorizers slow down as we grow older—but I’m still working on it.
My view is this: If it’s good for an elementary classroom in a mountain school in Tennessee, it’s good enough for a philosophy classroom at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Not long ago I had an interesting chat with Dallas Willard about memorizing Scripture. Dr. Willard is a professor in the School of Philosophy at UCLA and an outstanding thinker and writer. He’s also a keen advocate of Scripture memory. I asked him why he felt so strongly about it, and he told me that his life was shaped, in large part, by growing up in an environment that stressed engraving God’s Word on the furrows of the heart.
“I’ve found that through Scripture memory the incredible treasures of Scripture are not only just available to my mind, but they inform my whole being in a way that is a testimony to the substantial power of the Word of God,” he said.
Dr. Willard suggests memorizing whole passages instead of isolated verses, and I agree.
“Memorizing miscellaneous verses is a good thing, but when I talk about memorizing Scripture, I’m really talking about memorizing passages, whole Psalms, or long parts of the Letters or the Gospels,” said Willard. “That does something to not only your mind but to your outlook. For me, anything that is going to be effective in spiritual formation or growth in grace has got to be holistic. It can’t be a little side thing that you have a few Scriptures memorized. A simple illustration is the Twenty-third Psalm. Many people have that memorized, but they don’t allow it to inform their thinking and their acting by meditating on it as they should. Having it stored in your mind is a powerful resource for inner development.”
He added, “It’s also important for (sharing with others) because it’s strange how having long passages of the Word of God inscribed in your mind just brings outlines, insights, and ways of putting things that will inform your speaking, your conversation, and your preaching. That’s the main thing I have found out by use, that there’s power in long passages of the Word being committed to memory.”3
Dr. Willard is right. When we layer one verse upon another, working our way through passages and memorizing Scripture contextually, we’re more likely to interpret it accurately through the process of meditation. So consider the book you’re holding in your hands a tool for locating 100 different passages to delve into, not just 100 miscellaneous verses.
But the great thing about Scripture memory is you can learn long passages in small steps—one word at a time, one verse after another. You don’t have to start with a long passage or even with a long verse. Just start with one word—the first word of the verse, then add the next, and the next.
As Isaiah put it, “Precept upon precept; . . . line upon line; here a little, and there a little (Isa. 28:13 KJV). It’s like painting the inside of your mind with God’s colors, one brushstroke at a time.
Lay up his words in your heart. (Job 22:22 NIV)