A More Painless Way to Memorize Scripture
By Jesse Jost
A red neck hillbilly went to the hardware store frustrated with how dull his handsaw was getting. The store clerk convinced him to try the brand new Husqvarna chain saw, saying it would revolutionize his ability to cut wood. The hillbilly brought it back a few days later and complained, “This thing can’t even cut what my old rusty hand saw could handle.”
The hardware clerk looked over the chain saw, primed it and pulled the starter cord. The engine roared to life. The hillbilly jumped back, startled, and shouted, “What’s that noise!?”
A chainsaw is a powerful tool when you know how to use it. Trying to use it like a handsaw with the engine off and cutting wood will be a terribly painful exercise in futility.
Our brain is a powerful memorizing tool that has incredible potential, but use the memorizing feature incorrectly and memorizing will be more painful than a trip to the dentist.
When the printing press first came out, philosophers worried that our memories would deteriorate now that external memories, books, were more readily available.
Before the printing press, a simple book cost one year’s wages because that is how long it would take for a scribe to write it out by hand. Scrolls were bulky and cumbersome, making it difficult to find certain sections.
With books so scarce and hard to access, people were forced to develop their memories. They knew how to harness the brain’s natural ability to memorize so that they could commit whole books to memory.
Today with smart phones in our pocket and Google, there is practically no need to memorize anything. People no longer even need to remember phone numbers or multiplication tables because it’s quicker to whip out the phone. Because of this, we have almost completely lost the art of how to memorize.
There is much information that is better stored in an accessible external memory, but I believe the case is different with the words of God. It is great that we can load up the YouVersion app and access any passage of scripture with a couple of clicks. But keeping scripture external to our minds and hearts changes our experience of the Word. It keeps it distant and minimizes its transforming effects on our hearts and minds.
Man Shall Not Live on Bread Alone
God designed His words to be digested and mediated on throughout the day. Jesus declared to Satan that God’s word is more important to us than even food itself, that we live by God’s every word. Today with supermarkets and new ways to keep food fresh, all varieties of meats, fruits, and vegetables are more accessible than ever before. But that doesn’t change the fact that you still need to eat and digest the food if you want to benefit from it. You must make the food a literal part of you if you want to grow from it.
I believe it is the same with God’s word. We must implant it into our souls, and meditate on it throughout the day. God instructed Joshua, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” This is not the only place Scripture talks about the need to have God’s word “abide” in us.
The daily habit of reading God’s word is wonderful. Yet, when our experience of God’s word is only a few minutes of ritual that is combined with a heavy dose of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, most of our reading is forgotten in the digital slush pile.
I see more clearly than ever that we are influenced not so much by what we know but by what we focus on – what we keep in our attention span. What we pay attention to grows in importance to us; what is not in kept before our mind’s eye is quickly forgotten about: “Out of sight, out of mind.”
If we want to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, we must find a way to keep God’s word in our attention span beyond the few minutes a day that we give to reading.
I believe the most effective way to do this meditate on it throughout the day. In order to meditate on God’s word and not just on our impressions and opinions, we have to memorize it at some level.
But It’s Too Painful!
God’s word has a rich ability to delight our soul. Jeremiah discovered that “Your words were found, and I ate them, And Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.” (Jeremiah 15:16)
Because we have lost the art of memorizing and the time-tested methods our ancestors used, memorizing is incredibly painful. So painful, in fact, that we get bogged down or give up all together. The process of recall is so tortuous that we never reach the point of experiencing the delight of getting to see “through” the words to the joyous reality they reveal.
I used to do a lot of memorizing as a teen, but since I got married I had completely fallen out of the habit. I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit so many times over the last 13 years, but I often let the prompting be forgotten before I made a change. When I did try to memorize the process was so painful and difficult that I feared my brain had been ruined by our modern obsession with distraction and small bits of information.
Just before Christmas I rediscovered some memorizing tools and methods that absolutely revolutionized my ability to memorize, including a method called “the memory palace” or “the journey method.” I tried it out with Romans 8. I was so excited by how quickly and easily the memorizing process was taking place and vivid my recall was. I went on to try it with Colossians. Same results only the process was getting easier.
I have since memorized 1 and 2 Peter, Ephesians, Philippians, 1,2, and 3 John, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy. And to test the process I recently was able to memorize the entire epistle to Titus in one morning.
I have become obsessed with God’s word. It is truly the delight of my soul. I review 5-12 chapters a day (I have a job with a lot of driving). I look forward to quiet times when I can “pop in” an epistle into my mind and commune with God.
I would have never thought this possible last year. I feel like Kurt Russell in the old Disney movie, “The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes.” (A freak accident links his brain with a computer and gives him an incredible ability to retain information.) I’m a little nervous I’ll wake up one morning and this ability will be gone. I would be devastated.
As the ability to memorize has gotten easier, I’ve been able to focus more on what the text is saying and let the Holy Spirit reveal Himself through the words. My prayer life has gotten richer, and His Word has brought peace to my anxious mind.
None of this is to brag or draw attention to me. I simply want to show you what is possible with the right tools and methods. The brain can grow and adapt to new skills and enable us to implant God’s word in ways we never would have thought possible.
The Tools and Methods
In the remainder of this article I would like to introduce you to some methods that have been around for thousands of years but will greatly empower your brain’s ability to memorize.
Our brains processes an insane of amount of information each moment as it receives data from our five senses. To survive, we must forget the vast majority of what comes into our minds. Yet God has made it so that certain types of information are easier to remember.
- We remember pictures better than text.
- We remember the ridiculous and unusual better the common and mundane.
- We remember what involves our emotions and senses.
- We remember what we pay attention to repeatedly.
- All memory recall is based on association – something that a fact is linked to that reminds us of the information.
There are some tasks and functions where the brain’s ability to memorize and recall is phenomenal and some tasks where it really struggles. For example, try mentally walking through your home. You will be able to effortlessly go through each room and see great detail, even conjure sounds and smells. If this information was to be encoded onto a computer, it would take up gigabytes of memory, yet your brain processes it effortlessly. Conversely, open your Bible and try to memorize a couple verses of text by rote, a mere handful of kilobytes of information, yet you will struggle greatly to recall it.
Our brain has a powerful ability to process images and spatial location, yet starts to overheat when it comes to processing dry words of text.
The basic idea of mnemonics (the art of memorizing) is to convert the tasks the brain struggles with into types of information the brain excels at recalling. For instance, turning text into a type of mental code that feeds into the brain’s strength is a type of mental hieroglyphics that the brain finds memorable.
The Memory Palace
One of the most powerful tools of mnemonics is called “The Memory Palace.” God gave our minds an incredible ability to quickly form spatial awareness and visualize the houses and journeys we have taken.
The brilliant idea, developed thousands of years ago and used by philosophers and theologians throughout history, was to take the easily recalled mental “footage” of houses and buildings we have been in and use them as “file folders” where you can store information and ideas that would be difficult to recall otherwise.
Here’s how it works. You take your mental journey through your house, or park or wherever you decide, and break it up into stops. Each room could be a stop, etc. This stop or area becomes an easily retrievable file folder as you walk through your mind.
Now you just link the list of information in bite-sized pieces to each file folder. Once the link is made you just re-walk through your memory palace and what you want to remember will be right there.
I wanted to have Romans 8 engrafted into my mind long-term, so I walked through our home church and made 21 mental stops. 1. Outside on the ramp. 2. The entryway. 3. The pastor’s office. 4. By the mail box, etc. Then I mentally attached 2 verses to each spot. I did this by visualizing key words from the text and, using my amazing augmented virtual reality app (that, it turns out, was already downloaded), I created a picture from the verse in that spot. Then I moved on to the next area and created two more mental pictures.
What is amazing about this system is that I only need to store 2 verses per file folder. The brain goes “only two verses! That’s a piece of cake!” It’s just like when you see 10 numbers in a row, such as – 14078324398 – and your brain says, “Not a chance! I can’t memorize that.” But when you simply add dashes, 1-407-832-4398, it becomes more manageable.
We have several encyclopaedias’ worth of information in our head, all in multiple folders, but we can only retrieve so much at a time. For instance, you’ve heard hundreds of jokes, but when you are asked on the spot for a joke, you can maybe think of 2 or 3. But something will come up in conversation later that will remind you of another joke.
The journey you take through your mental palace provides an easily accessible retrieval system that allows you to store the chapter in well-organized bites of information, rather then overloading the brain with a whole chapter. Once you have recited the verse in that stop, you just mentally meander to the next stop and it will bring up the file with the next 2 verses.
The challenge is learning how to convert the words and ideas of the text into memorable images that stick to the file folder. To help you with this process I have included instructions for ideas to memorize 1 Corinthians 13 at the end of this article. But I must warn you that the pictures might strike you as silly, or stupid, or unnecessary.
At this point someone may object that turning Bible verses into silly pictures is dishonouring God’s word or making light of a sacred subject. I want to be clear that I have a deep reverence for God’s word. Sometimes when I describe the pictures I come up with they make people laugh and giggle. I fear this gives an inaccurate impression of what the process is like for me.
As I form mental pictures, I make them unusual so that they are more memorable, but they just become a mental code that helps me store the verse. As my mind reviews the images it quickly and reverently translates the mental pictures back into the words of life. It is not a silly exercise; it is just information code that is more retrievable. It’s a process that truly works and will unlock your powers of retention.
Some wonder if the unusual images distract from my ability to meditate on the text. There is always the tendency to just go though the motions of saying the words and not stopping to think about what the words are saying. It is the same thing with scripture that has been set to music. I actually find when a passage has been set to music such as 1 John 4:7and 8, “Beloved, Let us love one another,” it takes more effort to slow down and focus on each word rather than let the music carry it away, than it does with the memory palace.
It is important that you come up with pictures that work for you. Also don’t be discouraged if this doesn’t work for you right away. It takes time for your brain to develop new abilities. Using the images to help recall does not change your need to still repeat the words. The repetition of saying the words while seeing the mental pictures helps cement the information and makes it easier to recall.
In It for the Long Term
Finally, to get scripture into the long-term memory bank is a lengthy process that has no short cuts. Expect to begin forgetting a passage within a couple of days. That’s okay. The key to embedding scripture in the long-term memory is to review and relearn it at intervals of time.
You can likely recite the Lord’s Prayer effortlessly. This is an example of what having something in the long-term memory looks like. This is the goal with every scripture memory project I have. I try to review a passage daily for the first week after, then weekly, then monthly. At times the passage is fuzzy and I have to reread the trouble spots. After a couple of months though, I am so pleased with how much is retained.
I really pray that somehow the Spirit inspires you to make memorizing a habit – that you can struggle though the initial challenges until you start to see results. I can’t get over how the brain can keep getting stronger in its ability to memorize the more you keep at it. You will be too if you can persevere.
One of the challenges of life is moving from intentions to execution: Wanting to do something is one thing, actually doing it is another.
One of the simplest ways to add healthy habits is the “if/when=then” strategy. Basically you take something that is already part of your routine, something you know will happen for sure. And you commit to using that as your trigger to prompt you to do the new healthy thing.
For example you could purpose, “Before I eat breakfast, I will memorize one new verse.” Or “when I go to pick up my phone to check social media, I will review my verse for the day.” Or “When I drive to work I will use this time to meditate on my passage that I am memorizing.” It’s critical that you make a concrete plan to make memorizing a part of your life. If you just desire to do it “sometime” I can guarantee it won’t happen as much as you’d like. Satan will see to that.
I just want to encourage you if you are struggling to memorize, that it does get so much easier if you persevere. Great delight awaits! Keep it up!
For more motivation to memorize and tips check out:
The Most Valuable Exercise You Can Get
Memorizing 1 Corinthians 13 Using the Memory Palace
Have 13 stops on a familiar mental journey, such bedrooms in a home, or places on a familiar walking or driving route. Picture one verse at each stop. Try to simplify the images into one picture. It is vital that you imagine each of the pictures below at your chosen mental stop. You must attach each image to the familiar place so the brain is not overwhelmed. If you try to imagine all these pictures free floating (not spatially connected to anything), your brain will crash.
Note that my descriptions of these pictures are more complicated than the image needs to be. A picture is worth a thousand words… After reading: close your eyes and really see the image, use your senses, add detail. Walk through your mental palace while saying the words. The images and journey will be fuzzy at first, but after some repetition (a few mental journeys) they suddenly will become clear and alive. Don’t be surprised if during the early stages of memorizing you come to a mental stop and draw a complete blank. That’s okay. Don’t stress trying to recall it. Just look back at the passage and find ways to make the picture more vivid and memorable using these tips.
Tips to make these images more memorable:
- Use actions, imagine that your pictures are alive.
- Use extremes, large or small, the more dramatic the better.
- Invoke your senses and emotions.
- Use real people in roles in your pictures as much as possible.
- Try swapping roles (i.e. a steak eating a man) making the picture more unexpected.
- Try puns, or words that rhyme, or sound alike, if a word is too abstract.
- Try to combine the ideas and images into as few pictures as possible.
- If you draw a blank in reviewing, turn up the “volume” of the picture or try a new picture that might better grab the mind.
The most challenging part of this system is training the brain to form an image and coming up with pictures for different words. Don’t lose heart! It does get easier. Now after doing this for months I have a picture formed almost by the time I’ve read the new verse. It helps that I try to use the same picture idea each time a word is used. Now I have a data base of pictures for hundreds of words, so I don’t have to struggle for a new picture each time. For instance, God is always a throne, Jesus, a cross, The Holy Spirit a ghost, Life is box of LIFE cereal. Peace is a piece of pie. The more I associate each image with the word the stronger the link becomes. For you there may be no link between Peace and a slice of pie, but the link will forge the more you use it.
This method really does work if you give it a chance. Don’t give up on it too easily!
So here you go:
v.1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
Picture in your first mental stop or room: Paul (or your pastor) with tongue sticking out, and he has angel wings in the back. He takes a rope with a knot in it and whips a heart (have NOT love) as soon as he does this he gets clanged with giant cymbals from someone standing behind him. Picture each element of the picture as you recite the verse.
v.2 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Picture in second stop: Paul holding a gift box, and out jumps an Old Testament prophet in middle eastern garb (gift of prophesy). Then Paul takes a shoe (understanding) and hits his head (knowledge) where a Sherlock Holmes hat is sitting (mysteries). Right beside Paul a giant shield (Faith) starts pushing a mountain. Optional picture: the mountain popping a heart and making it disappear for “But have not love, I am nothing”
V.3 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body [a]to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Picture in third room/stop: Paul stuffing wooden blocks (wood is my picture for “good”) into poor peasants’ mouths, then Paul straps himself to a stake and starts it on fire. An OT prophet then whips a heart with a knotted rope and disappears. (for have not love, it prophet/“profits” me nothing.)
v.4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not [b]puffed up;
At fourth stop: A heart (or someone you know who is loving, again real people make these images more concrete and memorable) crashes through the wall on a long surfboard (suffers long) and then crashes into a watermelon rind (kind=rind). The heart rides a little European car (an Envy, not a real car…) in a parade, and the car starts to expand (puff up)
5 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, [c]thinks no evil;
In fifth room: Picture an angry beehive (Behaves rudely) with a magnifying glass (seek its own) looking at a chunk of provolone cheese (provoked). Beside the cheese is a brain with weevils crawling all over it (thinks no evil).
v.6 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
Sixth stop picture: A large perfume bottle (named Iniquity) with a knotted rope dancing inside the bottle (does not rejoice) Beside the bottle is a man dancing (rejoicing), wearing a belt (truth) with a giant belt buckle.
7 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Next stop picture a bear holding a giant bee that is holding a maple leaf (believes/bee leaf all things). Beside the bear is a witch of Endor (endures) tied up in a rope (Hopes).8
8 Love never fails. But whether there areprophecies, they will fail; whether there aretongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
Next room picture: A heart trips and falls (Love never fails-falls). OT Prophet trips over the heart (Prophesies, they will fail). A giant tongue is folded like an origami fan (tongues will cease-crease). Beside that is a giant brain (knowledge) receiving a coat of varnish (vanish) that makes it disappear.
9 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
Next stop picture: A half of a brain (know in part) on top of half an OT prophet (prophesy in part).
10 10 But when that which is [d]perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
Next mental stop: Huge, purring white cat (Perfect) walks in room and devours the half brain/half prophet (In part will be done away).
11 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Next room: picture a child sticking out his tongue (spoke as a child) holding a large clown shoe (understood) and hitting his head with it (thought as a child). An adult walks in the room and sticks the kid into a box (put away childish things).
V12. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
Next mental stop picture: A large old-fashioned mirror that is dirty, but gradually the reflection of a face appears. The man in front of the mirror holds half a brain (know in part) then attaches the half a brain to the side of his head (Then I shall know just as I am known.)
13 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these islove.
Final stop: picture Joe Biden (abide) with a shield (faith) on his left shoulder, a rope (hope) (Or picture Bob Hope) around his forehead, and a heart (Love) on his right shoulder. The heart grows huge and fills the room (the greatest is love).