Why We Should Memorize Scripture.
A couple of weeks ago during a youth Sunday School class one of the youth said, “I don’t know why people memorize scripture. It seems like its good enough, just to know what it says and means.” My interaction with the student led me to think about the reasons why we should memorize scripture.
I must first challenge the assumption of the student that people know what the Bible says and means.
Biblical literacy is at an all-time low in American culture. Barna Research Group released some statistics in 2016. For those who attend church and consider themselves “evangelical,” 27% never read the Bible outside of church events. Another 24% read the Bible less than four times a year. So that leaves 49% of self-labeled “evangelical” Christians that read the bible at least once a month. (https://www.barna.com/research/the-bible-in-america-6-year-trends/)
I’ve been to Bible College, Seminary, attended thousands of church services literally and I would venture to say that there are very few verses of scripture that I have mastered. I think of verses of scripture like Matthew 7:1. When I hear this verse, it usually comes from a person who hasn’t darkened the door of a church in years, and they usually begin it by saying, “somewhere the Bible it says…” As if they know verse 2 or the other scriptures concerning church discipline or the concept of repentance. So I venture to guess that someone who is not drenched in scripture will not necessarily know what it says or what it means.
To Know By Heart
Deuteronomy 11:18-22 (NRSV)
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.
If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him
The great Reformer Martin Luther epitomized the above verse. He memorized vast portions of scripture. He once wrote, ” I read the Bible diligently. Sometimes one statement occupied all my thoughts for a whole day.” (LW 54:14). Martin Luther’s love of scripture and his diligence in memorizing scripture was the power behind the Reformation.
The dictionary definition of memorizing is: to commit to memory; to learn by heart. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/memorize)
To memorize God’s Word is to become active participants in a divine conversation. When we say it is just as good to know what God’s Word means is to be passive as someone else tells you what Scripture means. When you memorize scripture, you can instantly have access to God’s word. At any moment you can, like Martin Luther, occupy your thoughts with the Word of God.
Renewing Your Mind
Romans 12:1-2 (NRSV)
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Part of the problem with Biblical Illiteracy is the loss of Christian vocabulary. A part of working with youth I absolutely love is hearing the evolution of the use of words. Growing up I said phrases like “Dude, that’s cool.” Now I hear something like, “that’s lit.” I also like to observe the different groups or the kids in the church and hear how they talk to one another. Each group has their own vocabulary they use to interact. Use of particular vocabulary is a way that groups both form and maintain their group culture.
Depending on how you group certain items a culture has essentially 7 parts. Different sociologist say anywhere from 5 to 8, again, depending on how you categorize, but there are seven essential elements of a culture. A culture will not survive, no matter how big or small without these seven elements:
1. People (1Peter 2–once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God)
2. Shared Language (Language of faith, Psalm 119, Colossians 3:16)
3. Shared Organization (Upon this Rock I will build my Church, Christ is the Head of the body)
4. Shared Values (Matthew 5- 7–Sermon on the Mount)
5. Shared Beliefs (Creeds from Scripture 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Philippians 2:6-11, Apostle’s Creed)
6. Shared Space (Hebrews 11, Heaven)
7. Symbols and Rituals (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, worship/liturgy)
The purpose of Scripture and the church is to form the Body of Christ. It is to teach a new way of speaking and thinking. Through scripture memorization, we begin to familiarize ourselves with the vocabulary of faith, and it forms our thinking. By memorizing scripture, it starts to form and maintain the culture of the Kingdom of God in our individual thoughts and practices.
When we memorize scripture, we begin to learn new words and concepts, and those words and ideas work themselves into our everyday speaking. When we memorize large portions of God’s Word, we start to speak in those words and think in those concepts. We can then participate in a more profound, more meaningful way with the culture established by Christ in the Church.
We Christians should understand that words are powerful. God spoke creation into existence, by words God formed all that we see. As human beings, created in the image of God, we also have derivative power in the use of our words. We memorize Scripture so that we can speak transformative words of power into a world that needs transformation. God’s Word helps to bind us together in a common language and vocabulary. The danger of Biblical illiteracy is that God’s people are losing the shared language of the Church. A focus on memorization will help us to overcome this loss of language.
Furnishing Your Mind with Beauty
Colossians 3:16 (NRSV)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
About a year ago I was doing some research, and I was searching for old Christopher Hitchens speeches. You might know the name Christopher Hitchens because of his books like “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” and “The Missionary Position” a book critical of Mother Theresa. While searching, I found a video of a speech by his brother, Peter Hitchens.
Peter Hitchens is the exact opposite of Christopher, and I enjoyed listening to many of his speeches. Peter was on a panel for a BBC television show called “Q&A.” The subject was the reform of the British Education system. There has been a push to make their education system more utilitarian and vocational in its approach and deemphasizing the humanities. Each of the panelists said that skills were more important than useless knowledge like history or poetry. There were questions from the audience, and one man asked, “Can any of the panelist recite from memory a poem they learned in school and in what way did it help them in their profession?” Then a lady who introduced herself as a kindergarten teacher said it is extremely difficult to sit five years old children down to teach memorization of poetry. Again, the panelist echoed the audience saying education must be more relevant. Peter jumped in and said; I will recite a poem. He did, and his recitation of “Into My Heart an Air That Kills,” by A.E. Houseman was mesmerizing to the audience, and it was a beautiful poem.
When he finished there was applause from the audience, and he said, “I am very pleased my head is filled with things like that and lots of Hymns that I remember. I feel very sorry for anybody that hasn’t had the chance to learn them. And I think it is a great condemnation of our school system that so few people, in particular, only the ones whose parents are rich can actually afford to have their children taught things like that and have their minds furnished with beauty for the remainder of their lives.”
I do not think I have ever heard something so compelling when it comes to why we memorize scripture or anything worthy of memorizing. I listen to the kids of the church while they have their headphones in and the lyrics that are coming out of their mouths while they sing along. I ask them if they read, no. Do they know any poetry, no. Do they know any art, no.
On the whole, their reading is twitter and instagram; their poetry is Pop, Country, or Hip Hop lyrics, and their art is bling (jewerly). It is not just the children but adults as well. For adults it preoccupation with sports, finances, relationships, and profession that keep us from dwelling on beautiful things in our minds. We live in a culture that has set their minds on things below and not on things above. Everything we do is for the sake of “making it,” or “trying to survive.”
During my last years at Margaret Hank, we did a remodel of the 2nd floor education wing. It is the “hub” of the church where the secretary and pastor have an office, and it’s the first impression for people when they come to the church to go to worship. It needed an update. It was cinderblock, so we put up drywall. The ceiling tiles were the old 1970’s type that just looked old and worn out so we bought a ceiling tile that was designed and when we put it in it looked beautiful.
As we went along with the renovation, we began to see other things that had to change as well. These other items still worked and served their purpose, but they no longer fit in with the environment that was created by the renovation.
I believe scripture memorization is a renovation of the mind; it can add beauty in thoughts. When you fill your mind with beauty, that beauty will expose thoughts and words that no longer fit beside that which is beautiful. Memorization of scripture will cause us to move those common or vulgar things out of our mind. Beauty exposes ugliness and commonness. Memorizing and meditation is a method of letting the word of Christ dwell richly in us. I believe memorization is the source of our gratitude and how we can admonish one another in wisdom.
If you want to see the Peter Hitchens video:
or search on youtube.com for “Peter Hitchens Poetry.”