Scripture Memory: Memoirs of a Successful Failure

-Guest post by Small Group Coach, Catlan Sardina

I once tried to memorize the Book of Romans. I learned a few things from that effort.

1) Scripture memory is hard.

2) Actually storing the Word of God in your heart is even harder.

But, I think what I learned in my journey could be helpful and encouraging to you. Let me paint the picture of how I got to where I am in pursuit of memorization, so I can help you memorize scripture more effectively.

Last year I led our group through Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald Whitney. This was the second time I went through the book in a Small Group setting, and I knew what I was in for. If you are not familiar, Whitney challenges Christians to practice ten disciplines (including memorization) for the purpose of godliness. I didn’t want the semester to be just another book study, so I really buckled down and prepared to make some lifestyle changes to be a more disciplined Christian (and leader) for the purpose of godliness.

In regards to the  discipline of Scripture memorization, I set the goal to memorize the entire book of Romans. At first it was without a prescribed due date. I did some research to find effective tools and techniques, then decided my tool of choice would be “Scripture Typer,” an iPhone app. The premise is that you plug verses into the app, and then memorize the verses through a three step process that increased in difficulty. You just type the first letter of each word, and boom! You’ve memorized Scripture.

The app is more useful than I just made it sound, and I was hooked. I’m a bit of a nerd, so I built a spreadsheet to accompany my memorization progress. I found that in the first 21 days I had memorized the entire first chapter of Romans, an average pace of 1.52 verses per day. (Please don’t judge my analytics too harshly.)

I knew that was an unsustainable pace, so I made the adjustment to memorize at .71 verses per day like this:

  • Monday – 1 new verse
  • Tuesday – 1 new verse
  • Wednesday – review new verses and eventually 1 whole chapter
  • Thursday – 1 new verse
  • Friday – 1 new verse
  • Saturday – 1 new verse
  • Sunday – Review every verse I’ve ever memorized

It all seemed really impressive, and I had convinced myself that I was crushing it. About four months in I was working on Romans 4:21, and couldn’t be any more proud of myself. (Warning, pride comes before a fall!)

Every once in a while I could convince my wife to listen to me recite my memory verses, God bless her, and for the most part I could recite Romans 1:1-4:21 with very few “helps”. Better yet, I had a really high score in the Scripture Typer app, and was en route to Christian greatness. Everything was gravy until the day the bubble popped (not the housing bubble).

One day I was talking to a friend at work about Romans’ claim that everyone really knows God exists. I knew that this truth was stored in Romans 1, right around verse 20. I got super excited and started wagging my tail because I was about to throw verses of Scripture right in his face!

I only had one little problem. In the fiery furnace of workplace (self-inflicted) persecution I couldn’t for the life of me remember a single word from my verses. Forget about the obvious problem of failure to perform my dream recital from way up high on my holier-than-though soap box. It occurred to me that I hadn’t written a single verse on my heart! It was time to spend some significant time in prayer, reconsider my motives and methods, and possibly reconsider my .71 verses per day.

I’d like to say that this is when I stumbled across some insightful C.S. Lewis or C.H. Spurgeon quote that kicked me into hyper-Spirit mode. But, alas, my flesh prevailed, and I gave up Scripture memorization outright. Months went by. My Scripture Typer app would occasionally look at me like a child depraved of attention. Sometimes I would even open it and see how many “stale” verses needed review… Then I’d close the app, pretend like I never opened it, and read some ESPN. I was officially defeated by my prideful flesh, the lies of the Enemy (“You are too dim and prideful to memorize God’s Word”) and the pressures of the world (“You have more important things to do, anyway!”)

But, praise God for His sovereign persistence in pursuing my heart. Praise God for the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Praise God for passages like Matthew 4:1-11, where Jesus conquered Satan, not by supernatural power and lightning bolts, but by speaking memorized Scripture at the stinky beast. Praise God for Paul declaring the Bible as our offensive weapon in Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians 6:17. And Praise God for Ephesians 6:1, because I have four kids and I love that verse.

So, what did I do that worked? I decided to start a humbler adventure, at a humbler pace, aware of my memorization limits, and just enjoy the ride. (So humble of an adventure that I am writing a blog post about it.) I read more about memorization techniques. I looked into stories of people memorizing Scripture successfully. I sought out different tools and methods.

I accepted failure in my new adventures, and continued because I wasn’t under the gun of my past failures. I found joy in memorizing in a way that works for me, and asking God to daily write the words on my heart. He receives the glory from my previous failure, because He showed me how incapable I am on my own.

Organization doesn’t write Scripture on your heart, neither does discipline, only Spirit empowerment with the right heart and mind will give you the joy of a scriptural sword that is ready for battle.

Here are a few successful tips I’ve picked up on this iteration of the journey.

1) I am still memorizing a large passage, but not just because I can. Romans 1 started with an introduction, and it is valuable because it is the Word of God. But is Paul’s introduction to a letter really a necessary place to start? No. So, this time I started working on the Sermon on the Mount. It starts with the Beatitudes, so even if I fail to get all of Matthew 5-7, I at least have those gems with me.

2) I’m memorizing verses that align with our Church’s focus in that season. I have no idea what my pastor was preaching on when I was memorizing Romans. But while I’m memorizing the Sermon on the Mount our Pastor is doing a series on the Sermon on the Mount. I feel more aligned in my personal discipline with my communal worship.

3) I am engaging as many senses as possible in my memorization techniques. The only resources I used consistently in my pursuit of Romans were my Scripture Typer app and my Bible. Now, I write my verses on note cards; I draw a picture to help me remember the verse (and the reference!!!!); I listen to verse-in-song (thank you Fighter Verses app!!), and I read them in my Bible. It is important to read them out of your Bible so that you can see in your brain’s eye exactly where that passage is in YOUR Bible. (Thanks small group sister Jennessa for that tip.)

For your enjoyment, here are some examples of my ridiculous drawings.

Matthew 5-5Matthew 5-6Matthew 5-8

4) I’m slowing down. 0.71 verses per day was so useless to my natural limitations. D.A. Carson can memorize whole chapters in multiple languages (supposedly), but I will happily crawl through an enjoyable season of Beatitudes before running too quickly and never writing a word on my heart.

5) Most important, I am worshipping God in my memorization. Every success is to His glory. Every verse comes with deeper meaning of the text or I do not consider myself ready to move on. For example, I don’t think I ever internalized or meditated on meekness properly until I memorized Matthew 5:5.

Friends, will you join me on the God glorifying, highly personalized, transforming, empowering, and equipping journey of memorizing God’s Word?

Catlan Sardina