As a child, two of my favorite novels, ones in fact which I still enjoy to this day, were Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and J. Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet. These classic Victorian-Era boys’ adventure stories both feature as a central plot element the search for a hidden treasure. And in both novels, for all of their light-hearted sense adventure, we also sense a darker strain, in narratives which recount the extent to which men will descend into cruel and ruthless behavior in the search of such treasure. Yet there is still something in such stories that intrigues and excites us as readers. I think in part it is the idea not merely of finding wealth, but wealth that it is hidden and inaccessible to others. Only those who are willing to go on a quest for adventure, to risk life and limb, and unravel clues from a treasure map, or a riddle-like poem, will be able to uncover the secret riches.
With this idea in mind, let’s turn our reflections to spiritual riches. These too are often hidden, not because God doesn’t want us to find them, or even because we don’t know where to look, but simply because we lack the diligence to search for and to value such blessings. The Bible in fact often uses a treasure metaphor to describe many spiritual concepts. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus famously shares this parable concerning the Kingdom of God: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Then in Proverbs 2:1-5, we find Solomon admonishing us to seek after Divine wisdom just as we would a buried treasure: “My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding. Yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures. Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.” Perhaps the greatest spiritual treasure of all is the wealth of instruction, guidance, and wisdom we can find contained within Scripture itself. The New American Standard translation of Psalm 119:11 says “Your Word I have treasured in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Thus we can know clearly from its own testimony that Scripture is the source of all of the spiritual wealth we could ever seek. And yet so many people who would consider themselves to be faithful Christians do not make the time in their lives to prioritize the reading and study of God’s Word. I have certainly found myself in such seasons of life before too.
However many of us may indeed have a regular quiet time, and that is a wonderful way to get into God’s Word, and meditate on its truth, and application to our lives. But another aspect of really valuing the Bible and acknowledging its absolute centrality to our faith and practice as believers is to begin to memorize portions of Scripture. Now I must confess that for many years I have heard different teachers extol the virtues of Scripture memory, but it is only recently that I have been making a more concerted effort to consistently and faithfully pursue Scripture memory as part of my devotional life. And already the results have been so fulfilling that I wanted to share in this space a little more about the value of Scripture memory, as well as talk about some verses which I’ve learned recently, and their personal significance for me. I also want to address some of the objections that people may raise to Scripture memory, or obstacles they may face, and how these can be overcome.
Scripture memory mentors
First though I want to mention three people in particular who helped inspire me to pursue the process of learning and storing away of God’s Word in my heart. Jay Wolf, longtime pastor at my home church back in Alabama, First Baptist Montgomery, has long been an advocate of Scripture memory. Growing up and hearing him preach, I was always impressed with how effortlessly he could utilize additional verses and cross references that connected to whatever passage he was preaching from. I could tell he didn’t need notes to recall many of these verses, but had obviously learned them by heart. It all goes to prove an old ministerial adage—it’s not so much about having a prepared message as being a prepared man! Jay also was frequently able to take just one or two verses he had learned and utilize them to give a mini-devotional, even in the midst of an otherwise-busy staff meeting. This further proves that Scripture memory for him was not just some mental or intellectual feat, but always served a practical purpose as well—to enhance his ability to easily share the truths of God’s Word with others. I’ve seen a similar devotion to learning God’s Word from Bobby Pruett, the director of Christian Challenge here at CU-Boulder. When I meet with him for mentoring, or in staff planning meetings, and when he addresses our students as a large group, Bobby is constantly drawing upon the rich stockpile of verses he has learned over the years. He’s done a great job too of encouraging our students to begin memorizing Scripture, and has given them a number of tools to aid in that endeavor. Bobby’s emphasis on the importance of Scripture memory can in part be traced back to Max Barnett, who for many years led the Baptist Student Union at the University of Oklahoma. Max discipled Bobby in ministry, as well as many others who went on to lead campus ministries around the country. I’ve had the privilege of attending several different retreats and conferences where Max was a featured speaker, and so I’ve heard him repeatedly extol the virtues of Scripture memory as one of the most crucial foundations for his own Christian growth, and a vital spiritual discipline to pass on to students in our ministries. In fact, Max believes so strongly in this pursuit that he recently self-published a short tract entitled The Value of Memorizing Scripture: treasuring the Word of God. With Jay, Bobby, and Max, despite their devotion to internalizing the truths of God’s Word, they have never taken a legalistic or performance-driven approach. They never criticize others for not learning Scripture, nor do they demonstrate their Scriptural knowledge in anything other than a very humble manner. These ministry leaders use their Biblical acumen in such a way as to make even the most neophyte of Christians feel comfortable, and this is so important. There are some ministries and churches where one’s intellectual gifting and knowledge of the Bible can take on a prideful tone, and such attitudes can be very damaging, undermining the very truths that have been so carefully learned and absorbed from the Word of God!
Reasons for Scripture memory
Now while it might seem to be a self-apparent truth, I still think it’s important to examine some of the reasons for Scripture memory, and mention the many benefits that can result from intentionally pursuing such a spiritual path. Of course this list could be literally endless, so I’ll share just a few reasons that have been impressed on my heart, as well as some insights offered in the aforementioned Max Barnett tract, The Value of Memorizing Scripture. For me, one pretty basic reason that I wanted to pursue Scripture memory more intentionally is that several of the students who I mentor individually each week are also engaged in this spiritual discipline. And so for me to be able to best encourage my students who are memorizing Scripture, I want to be doing the same thing myself! It also is helpful for the process of mentoring. As I’ve shared in an earlier blog post, mentoring and offering one-on-one discipleship to students has been one of my favorite aspects of campus ministry. But fairly early on I realized that I would not always be able to follow a set “agenda” with each student. I needed to leave some space in our meetings for them to share about what was going on in their lives. Thus my preparation had to be flexible enough to accommodate whatever unexpected twists or turns the conversation might take when someone began to honestly open up about their spiritual struggles, growth, and questions. Having verses memorized can be a great aid in mentoring though because often a student will bring up a scenario or situation that is covered perfectly by a particular verse or passage.
Scripture memory has also been enhancing my quiet times. For a while now I’ve been reading all the way through books in the Bible, rather than moving around to different sections in a topical fashion, and this has been really helpful. But I’ve also found that by focusing on particular verses, I have that much more of an understanding and appreciation for the passages they are rooted in when I come across these in my quiet time. And sometimes one just one particularly rich verse may provide plenty of material for thought and reflection. I’ve heard people complain before that they don’t feel like they retain that much from their quiet times, and so Scripture memory can address this concern by allowing you to key in on certain verses that then hopefully will stay in the mind long after you might otherwise have forgotten what passage or book you read a few weeks ago for your devotional. Finally, I have been inspired and humbled by hearing and reading the testimonies of many brave men and women of God who served in the mission field in locations which could be considered “closed.” As we all know, there are sadly many places even in our world today where the Bible is not welcomed, and may even be officially prohibited. In such places, both for missions workers, but even moreso for native believers, they only have as much of God’s Word available as they have been able to store away in their hearts. And so out of respect for the challenges that our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith are facing around the world, I never want to take for granted the privilege I have of an open Bible in a free society, where I can study and share the truths of Scripture as freely as I please! To memorize God’s Word is another way then of cherishing and valuing the gift of Scripture.
In his tract, The Value of Memorizing Scripture, Max Barnett actually provides a list of thirty different reasons for why this practice can be spiritually beneficial for you. I want to share just a few of the ones that really impacted me. Learning portions of Scripture by heart can of course help us to avoid sin, which is not a surprising conclusion, but Max develops this concept a little further, noting how “what dominates our minds will dominate us”, and then mentioning later that “verses we have well learned provide a great reservoir for meditation.” On this topic of Scriptural meditation, Max then perceptively adds: “Some cults especially promote the idea that meditation is emptying the mind. That is not meditation according to the Scriptures. Biblical meditation is thinking on the character, truths, and ways of God. You cannot meditate on what you do not know.” Well said!! Or to phrase it another way, if your mind is not being filled with the enriching truth of Scripture, there is a good risk that it is instead being filled with other sources of input, perhaps neutral in nature, but also perhaps harmful. We can memorize Scripture to give ourselves this opportunity though to meditate upon, in the words of Paul in Philippians 4:8—“whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report.” Max’s tract also mentions another side benefit of Scripture memory—it can help to keep us mentally sharp and strengthen our overall intellectual life. Far too many people associate any kind of memorization, study, or serious reading with “school work” and maybe even try to consciously avoid these practices once they graduate. But it would totally defeat the purpose of a hard-earned education to let oneself completely stagnate mentally post-graduation, and so even small exercises like Scripture memory can help prevent this. Finally Max discusses how the verses we memorize may have a specific and special memory attached to them. As I will share a bit later in this post, I have several verses which I’ve been motivated to learn based on the unique memories that are attached to them for me.
Overcoming obstacles and objections
Now, I’m certainly familiar with the fact that there may be some obstacles in place for the typical Christian that would lead them to think that Scripture memory is something they are not capable of. I say I’m familiar with this because I have raised some of these objections myself in the past (haha). But I want to address a few of them, not only to maybe show how they can be overcome, but just in general to also encourage people who are thinking about starting to learn Scripture, but feel a slight bit daunted by the task in front of them. I’ve already discussed the question of legalism briefly, and shared how people such as Jay Wolf, Bobby Pruett, and Max Barnett, while steeped in Scriptural knowledge from years of verse memorization, have nonetheless never come across as legalistic in their teaching or encouragement of this spiritual practice. The key lies in the heart attitudes. If you are doing anything in the Christian life, from memorizing Scripture to going on a mission trip, to tithing, out a sense of pride, then you are at great risk of losing the very value and spiritual benefit you might gain from these actions. So as long as Scriptural memorization is approached with a humble spirit, there is no reason for anyone to view this practice as legalistic. And to further help in this regard, I personally do no set “quotas” for myself. At any given time I have several different verses that I’m working on, but these just happen to be the ones that I’ve come across in my quiet time, or that God has put on my heart. I don’t have a set goal or amount in mind, although if that system works for others (which I’ve heard that it can) then fine. I do try to review both my new and old verses on a relatively regular basis—that is several times a week. But not having a specific goal in terms of the number I’m going to learn in any given time frame helps it to feel like something more for my own spiritual nourishment, and less like an assignment or spiritual “discipline” that must be endured. In The Value of Memorizing Scripture, Max mentions the fear of some that learning specific verses here and there could lead to taking the meaning of the verse out of context. This is always a danger we must strive to avoid in Scriptural interpretation, and exegesis. However, Max makes a convincing argument that by learning a single verse we are much more likely to remember the contents and context of a particular passage or chapter in Scripture: “You do not have to take a verse out of context. In fact, the exact opposite can be true. You can recall the context and location by a single verse. A verse can be like the handle on a suitcase. You can pick up a large suitcase by a small handle. In many books of the Bible, you can recall the content of a chapter by a single verse.”
Another objection may be that people feel like they just don’t have the time to engage in memory work, or don’t wish to always have to carry a Bible around with them for that purpose. But thanks to the modern technology that most of us have access to, Scripture memory is easier than ever to pursue. With the very popular, and free Bible App you can easily highlight and copy a verse or passage of Scripture and then quickly transfer and paste the comments to your phone’s memo section, or wherever else you’d like to store the information. Then, since most of us almost always have our phones with us, whenever you have a free minute or two during the day, you can use your device to review your verses. Of course if you don’t wish to use your phone, I know others who have made small index cards with the verse written on one side and the scripture reference on the other. These cards can then be transported in a verse pack which can easily fit into your pocket. You can keep not only the verses you’re learning, but also a list of the references for the other Scriptures that you’ve already memorized, in order to be able to review those periodically. I’ve found that with 5-10 minutes of review 3-4 times a week, you can both recall old verses and start to learn new ones. And if you’ve had a fairly regular quiet time over the years, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that you already know a decent number of verses without even realizing it, while others will be generally familiar enough that you can learn them in their entirety relatively quickly. While as I mentioned previously, I try not to think in terms of goals or quotas, even if you had managed to just learn one new verse per month, think of the value of putting 12 Bible verses permanently into your heart by the end of the year!
Another question that may arise is what verses to memorize. Each person will probably find their own system or method that works here, but for me it helps if the verse I’m learning has some personal significance. This could mean that it was shared with me by a friend, or perhaps I came across it during my quiet time, or simply had always enjoyed the message and meaning of the verse. Some people have used topical systems, for example learning a series of verses under subjects such as prayer, evangelism, resisting temptation, etc. There is nothing wrong with this, but in my experience, and from talking with some other people engaged in Scripture memory, it’s usually easier to remember a verse that has some type of meaning to you, rather than having been assigned. Another practical tip is to try and learn all your verses from the same translation, preferably whatever you read already for your time of personal devotion. I use the New King James version. Finally, it can be good to have verse-learning partner, or partners. These could be people in your small group or Sunday school class, or a trusted friend or mentor. It can be a great spiritual devotion however to share a verse you’ve learned or are learning with another believer, and maybe even talk a little about the meaning and context in which the verse could be applied. This will also be good practice for the general application of Scripture memory. Learning Biblical references is never just an intellectual exercise, nor an act of private devotion. Rather it should always be done with an eye towards the opportunity to potentially share these truths with someone else, particularly in a situation where you might not have the time or ability to read directly from Scripture.
Some favorite pieces of treasure
Now I want to share just a few verses that I’ve learned and why they are particularly significant for me. Some of you reading may even have memories and perspectives on these same verses, which I’d love to hear about! Numbers 6:22-26—“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: “The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” This beautiful blessing from Moses is sometimes used as a benediction by pastors, and so I had certainly heard it on occasion in church growing up. But its particular significance, and the motivation for learning it came more recently. It was August of 2014, and I had just moved out here to Boulder from Alabama to begin serving with Christian Challenge at the University of Colorado. Although I was very excited to begin this new ministry, it was a bittersweet time too because I was now living further away from my family than ever before, and knew that I would really miss them. I was flipping through my Bible one day, and noticed a little post-it note in Numbers 6. There my mother had copied out the prayer in verses 24-26, and had addressed it to me. I was brought to tears by this simple reminder of a mother’s faithful love, and so from now on I’ll never be able to see these beautiful verses without being reminded of my mom. I hope to be able to pass on this same blessing to someone special in my life one day. Another verse from Numbers that I memorized recently is Numbers 11:29—“Then Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” The context here is that Moses has learned that two other men have been prophesying in the camp of the Hebrews. But rather than becoming angry or in any way feeling threatened by this news, Moses gladly embraces the fact that God might be working through others. Too often in ministry and in churches, we become territorial, wanting to jealousy guard our little circle of influence, as though we somehow had a monopoly on spiritual truth! We should follow Moses’ example here, and rejoice when God blesses other ministries, and at the same time trust the Lord to provide and help us keep those people whom He wishes our ministry to influence.
1 Samuel 16:7 has long been one of my “life verses.” “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” This was the verse I preached on the first time I ever spoke at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery, and a verse that carries a lot of significance for me as I think back on my spiritual journey up until this point. God’s reminder to Samuel to look to the interior, rather than exterior qualities of someone leads him to eventually anoint the young David as the future king. And certainly, one of my goals, from my first experiences in community ministry with the homeless, up until now and my work with college students, is to try and see the best in others, and help them to discover their God-given potential. John 14:1-4, 6— “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.”… Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” This beautiful passage from my favorite Gospel, John, was a personal favorite of my grandmother’s. I can remember her quoting from it, and this same passage was later shared at her funeral. My grandmother was a remarkable person who demonstrated an active and vibrant faith, and also consistently encouraged and believed in me, long before I had the confidence or vision to know exactly what I planned to do with my life. These words from John offer great spiritual comfort, especially in the face of death, and they are doubly special because they can help me recall the memory of a dear friend who I still miss, and who had such a positive influence on my young life.
Sometimes memory verses just have such a clear practical application that we can call them to mind any time certain situations arise. One such reference is 1 Corinthians 10:13—“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” Dealing with temptation is a universal Christian struggle, and so remembering this verse can help us to understand that no matter how strong our desire towards a particular temptation might be, God has faithfully provided for us a way to overcome these feelings, and sin never need be an inevitable occurrence. In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul offers to us a succinct summary of the whole nature of our salvation experience. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” In so many other world religions, human effort, through good deeds and acts of charity is how someone gains Divine favor. Christianity uniquely says that we can never do enough good works to please God, and thus our salvation is experienced solely through faith in the forgiving grace of God as expressed in the death of Jesus on the Cross. Hebrews 12:1-2 is a wonderfully inspiring passage—“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” These verses have added significance for me though because they represent the favorite Scriptural reference of one of the great spiritual mentors in my life, Pastor Jay Wolf from First Baptist Montgomery. Jay often concludes emails, notes, and text messages with a reference to Hebrews 12:1-2, and I also remember him sharing the personal significance of this passage to me when he performed my ordination service several years ago. Thus the energy of this Biblical exhortation and the example of one of my true role models in the ministry both combine to make Hebrews 12:1-2 an awe-inspiring section of Scripture for me! Sometimes, verses can be important because they seem to perfectly capture a situation or circumstance that we often find ourselves experiencing. In my particular ministry on a college campus, I am frequently engaging in some form of apologetics, as I respond to questions or skepticism regarding the truth and claims of the Gospel. Thus I love the message of 1 Peter 3:15—“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear;” This verse reminds me not only to always be ready to defend my beliefs, but to also be careful to do so in a way which is not argumentative or prideful, but instead reflects a respectful humility in the model of an authentic Christ-follower.
I want to close with a trio of verses from Psalm 119. This longest chapter in all of Scripture is devoted to praising the excellence of God’s Word. So there could hardly be a more fitting portion of the Bible to turn to for Scripture memory. Psalm 119:10-11 states: “With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” The Psalmist here gives us a great reason to memorize Scripture—so that we might not trespass against the Biblical guidelines that God has offered for our lives. Psalm 119:28—“My soul melts from heaviness; strengthen me according to Your word.” My attention was first drawn to this reference actually when I was reading a book about the city of Amsterdam. Psalm 119:28 was chosen as the inscription for one of the city’s memorials to its Jewish victims during the German occupation in World War Two. I thought about how fitting a choice this Scripture is though for any time of sorrow in our lives. Whatever disappointment, trial, struggle, or grief we are dealing with, we can know that even if our very soul seems like it will melt, strength and restoration lie just a page away in the treasury of God’s Word. Nothing else in the world can assuage our sorrows and uphold us in dark times like the Bible! Finally there is Psalm 119:105. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” This oft-cited verse works on two different levels for me. The most basic understanding is to remind ourselves that Scripture can offer guidance like nothing else in a dark, sin-filled world where we can so easily go astray and lose ourselves. But the light imagery is also very reminiscent of the New Testament and Jesus’ description of Himself in John 8:12 as “the light of the world.” I pray that through continued Scripture memory I can reflect a little more of God’s light to others as I strive to internalize and then live out the beautiful truths He has so readily preserved for us in His Word. Each verse of the Bible I learn then is one more piece of buried treasure which none of the vicissitudes of this life can ever tarnish!