A smorgasbord of Bible memorization methods (and one way to learn whole books)

This is the third post in my series on memorizing Bible passages. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here. Next time I’ll conclude with the “why” of Bible memorization, and the impact it’s had on me; but today I want to talk about the “how”.

flickr: chefranden

They say that memory is dead. Socrates sounded its death knell back in the days when books began to replace oral culture – for who needs to remember what’s been written down? Now we’ve gone one better with the outsourcing of memory to electronic devices.1 It’s said that human beings have forgotten how to remember.

I’m sure there’s some truth in that, but I won’t accept it. The human brain is infinitely adaptable, and we can re-learn skills we’ve long forgotten. As we exercise our brains, we lay down new neural pathways, and what was once difficult becomes easy and even enjoyable.2 We might be a little rusty at first, but memorization will come easier with time.

Every Bible memorization method has one or more of the three Rs at its heart: Repeat, Recall, Review. Repeat a passage over and over until you’re familiar with it; practise recalling it until it’s worn a path in your memory; then review it so you don’t lose it. But there are different ways to do these three things,3 and not all of them will suit you.

So what I want to do today is give you a smorgasbord of ways to memorize the Bible: twenty suggestions that cover everything from preparing a passage for memorization to reviewing the passages you’ve already learned. You might like to sample a few of these ideas, separately and in combination, until you develop a method that suits you.

Survey it.

    Before you start memorizing a passage, it’s helpful to familiarise yourself with it: read through it a few times and notice the structure and key themes; draw a diagram or mind-map of the passage; or write it out and circle repeated words and ideas.

Visualise it. As you read the passage, pay attention to how it looks on the page. Notice paragraph breaks, patterns and repeated words. Fix an image of how it looks in your mind so you can “read” it mentally.

See it. Stick the passage over the kitchen sink, on your shower screen or mirror, or on your screen saver. The more often you see it, the better you’ll remember it. In fact, if you see it often enough, you’ll never need to consciously learn it.

Carry it. Print out the passage, write it on index cards, or put it on an electronic device, stick it in your bag or pocket, and take it wherever you go. Revise it when you’re in the doctor’s waiting room, on the train, or have a few spare minutes during your lunch break.

Read it. This is the simplest method of memorization: read the passage over and over, perhaps once a day, until it’s in your head. It’s a great method to use with those you live with: read the passage out loud together daily; as you get to know it, recite it together from memory; and conclude by testing each others’ knowledge and celebrating what you’ve learned.4

Say it. Out loud or under your breath. Whenever you get the chance. When you’re waiting in traffic, going for a walk, or in the shower. Hearing yourself say it will help you remember it.

Write it. Copy a passage from the Bible over and over, perhaps daily, until you’re familiar with it; then write it from memory and check it against the Bible. When kids learn spelling, they call it “Look. Cover. Write. Check.” It works well for Bible memorization too.

Hear it. Listen to the passage in an audio version of the Bible, or record your own voice reading it and play it back to yourself using whatever technology you prefer. Listen to it over and over, while going about your normal life, until it sinks in.5

Walk it. Repeat it out loud as you walk or run – or even dance. It’s said that this engages both hemispheres of the brain. You may find it useful to walk a repeated sequence, either physically or in your head, as you learn each part of the passage.

Sing it. Many mums, Sunday school teachers and kids have learned their Bible verses from Colin Buchanan.6 Listening to Sons of Korah or other sung versions of the psalms is a great way to learn them.7 Lots of Bible passages have been set to music; ask a musician from church, or source them online.

Read. Recall. Check. Read the first phrase, sentence or verse of your passage out loud a few times, then cover it and repeat it, saying or writing it from memory. Check it. If you got it wrong, repeat it again, then check it again. Once you get it right, repeat it three times without looking. Learn the next verse in the same way. Join the two verses together, repeat from memory, and check. Practise any phrases you got wrong three times, then say it all together again. Continue, adding a verse at a time until you can say a whole paragraph correctly. Come back to it the next day and repeat the process, adding a few more verses.

Reflect and pray. Once you’ve lodged the Bible passage in your brain, take time to meditate on it. Say it, out loud or in your mind, one phrase or verse at a time. Stop and think about the meaning of each phrase. Turn each verse into prayer or praise. Suck every drop of goodness from God’s word.

Use it. Lying awake at night? Repeat a Bible passage (don’t worry about getting it word-perfect, just let it run through your mind and check it in the morning). Chatting with a friend? Share an insight from a passage you’re learning. Discouraged? Pray through a passage, driving it deep into your emotions. The more you recall it, the better you’ll know it.

Trace word patterns. If you’re stuck on a verse, you’ll remember it more easily if you make a mental note of the word patterns: for example, it might include three words starting with “s”. Lists are tricky to learn, but easier once you see the patterns: when I say “T(hrones), P(owers), R(ulers), A(uthorities)”, it traces a curve down and up and down the alphabet in my mind (see Colossians 1:16 NIV).

Know the “why”. It’s easier to be motivated if you know why you’re learning. When I memorize a book of the Bible, I know I’ll remember the passages I have a reason for learning, so I assign a meaning to each paragraph as I come to it. Will I pray it for my children? Will it help me not to worry? Will it teach me a new truth about God?

Learn it with others. Agree to memorize Bible passages at the same time as your friends, family or small group, then get together and test each other. Many of us are more motivated when learning with others. And you’ll be encouraging them too!

Study it. The more time you spend in a passage, the better you’ll remember it. Ask questions of each verse. Note down the main themes and observe the flow of the argument. Read a commentary or listen to a sermon on the passage. Do whatever you can to make it yours.

Teach it. It’s often said that we recall 90% of what we teach. It worked for me with the gospel outline Two Ways to Live, and that includes a series of solitary verses, which I find harder to learn than passages. Once I taught the course a few times, the outline was fixed in my mind forever.

Forget it. John Piper says he forgets 90% of the verses he learns.8 I’d say this is pretty accurate for me too! Far from finding this discouraging, I’m glad God’s word has become familiar and worked in me as I’ve memorized it. But there are some passages I’ve made my own. It’s worth selecting a few passages to remember forever, and making the effort to review them.

Review it. You will gradually lose passages you don’t review, and the ones you remember will develop blank spots and mistakes. So take time to review what you learn. Perhaps every time you memorize something new, you could stop to review a few passages learned previously. Or use a pattern like this: once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year, once a year for a lifetime, and it’s yours forever.

What if you want to learn whole books of the Bible? This is surprisingly achievable. It’s a fantastic exercise, because it helps you put verses in context, absorb every part of a book, and see how it fits together. Start with a single chapter like Isaiah 53, or learn a book of 4 to 8 chapters like Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians or Romans 1-8. Here’s the method I use:9

    I print out the chapters I want to learn in two columns on A4 paper, which I fold lengthwise and then a couple more times until it’s pocket-sized. (An electronic version would do just as well for the technologically endowed.)
    I put it in my pocket and go for a walk. I find that the rhythm of walking perfectly accompanies the rhythm of memorization.
    I pull the printed passage out of my pocket, and memorize the first few verses using the “Read. Recall. Check.” method, glancing at the words and saying them under my breath.
    On the next day’s walk, I revise the verses I’ve already learned and add a few more. To revise a section, I cover it with another folded piece of paper, and move it gradually down the page to check each line after I’ve said it.
    Once I’ve memorized a whole chapter, I put it to one side and learn the next; at the end of each chapter, I go back and revise earlier chapters.
    I memorize as much as I can during the first ten minutes of my walk, then stop for the day. This segues beautifully into prayer during the rest of my walk, as I reflect on and pray through what I’ve learned.

You may love or hate the sound of this method, and that’s fine! Learning Bible passages is a bit like exercising: until you find a method you enjoy, you probably won’t stick at it.

Your preferred method will depend on your circumstances (what times and places are available?), your personality (for example, do you like to learn alone or with others?) and your learning style (aural learners may need to hear and say; kinaesthetic learners may need to walk and learn with others; visual learners may need to see and write). The more ways you interact with a Bible passage, the better it will stick in your memory.

If your memory is sluggish, don’t be dismayed: you can train your brain, and it will get stronger with use. And even a single verse imperfectly learned will be used by God’s Spirit to transform you and others (Isa 55:11; Eph 6:17; Col 3:16; Heb 4:12). Just make a start, and you’ll soon have a whole treasury of passages tucked away in your head and heart.

What other memorization methods can you recommend? What methods do you find work well for you, or would you like to try? Any resources that you can suggest to others?

  1. See Tony Reinke, Lit!, Page 140.
  2. See Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself.
  3. Just google a bunch of words like “Bible” and “memorization” and “system”, and you’ll see what I mean.
  4. We’ve used this method with our children; see my post Bible and breakfast.
  5. There are apps that will help you do this like Memorize Anything HT Ian Carmichael.
  6. Especially from Baa baa doo baa baa, a collection of memory verses set to music.
  7. The advantage of Sons of Korah is that they stick very closely to the words of the Bible; another good collection is Sovereign Grace’s Psalms.
  8. See Nothing will help you more than Scripture memory.
  9. Another useful method, far more thorough than mine, is Andrew Davis’ An approach to extended memorization of Scripture.