As someone who has spent her whole life in church, I knew it was important to memorize the Bible. Several reasons are given: it helps keep you on the path of righteousness, it helps guide you when you reach difficult situations, and it draws you closer to God. I knew all of this in my head, but I always sort of assumed you could gain the same benefits just by knowing Scripture thoroughly and reading it and understanding it. I knew Scripture memory was supposed to be important but deep down it wasn't important enough to me to warrant spending large amounts of time memorizing the Bible word-for-word when I could gain the same benefit by reading and studying it, especially since reading and studying are much more comfortable for me than memorization. :)
So, through programs such as AWANA and church camp, I memorized various bits and pieces of Scripture - almost always individual verses, with an important nugget of truth buried inside. But it didn't affect me that much, so subconsciously it confirmed my warped view of what Bible memorization was all about.
For the last two years, memorization has been a big part of my school curriculum, but my memorization skills and habits are not very good. For practice, I decided to try memorizing something that I had chosen, sort of as a hobby. At school, I memorized passages of books - Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, etc. - so my immediate thought was to search through my favorite books and find a neat passage to memorize and perform. As I was going about this process, I noted my Bible lying off to the side. Out of guilt more than anything else, I decided it was probably the right thing to do to memorize some of Scripture instead of whatever work of fiction I might have chosen otherwise.
The next big decision was what passage I wanted to start with. I decided I wanted to memorize an entire book, because how neat would that be? Unfortunately, I knew I only had a semester of school left, and didn't want to get caught midway through a very long book of the Bible. That eliminated my first two choices, Romans and Hebrews. I skimmed through Ephesians, Galatians, and Colossians before finally landing on James. Though all Scripture is God-breathed and valuable, James seemed like a good choice to me because of all of the practical knowledge contained inside. I still want to memorize Romans, which is very theology-heavy, so I thought a practical, day-to-day book would be a good companion. Not to mention, James' dissertation on faith and works helps give a more rounded perspective of salvation.
Even though the whole endeavor started as a slightly begrudging obligation, it very quickly turned into a passion project as I realized how wrong my assumptions about Bible memorization were. I discovered three main benefits to memorizing an entire book of the Bible.
1. Reading and studying do not give the same perspective and understanding as knowing the book yourself.
To my knowledge, there are two main ways to look at a book of the Bible to understand it. The close-up method looks at each individual verse and parses it in great detail to learn everything possible. The overview method looks at the book as a whole, trying to find the big-picture meaning that unites all of the individual verses. Most good Bible studies integrate the two, and use both to good effect.
While memorizing the entire book of James, I had a built-in Bible study. As I memorized each verse word-for-word, said them over and over again, and recalled them to mind consistently, the meanings and nuances of the words sank in much more deeply than I have ever gotten from a word-by-word Bible study. I cannot explain adequately how eye-opening it was to go over James with such a fine-toothed comb, but I will say again how much of a blessing it has been.
And that is only half of the benefit. Usually, an in-depth study has the unfortunate side effect of taking a lot of time, so it is easy to lose the fine points of the early part of the book once you reach the end. Memorizing the whole book alleviated this problem naturally, because when I reached chapter four of James and it referenced back to the first chapter, I still had the first chapter fresh in my mind. I didn't even have to go back, because I had it with me. Memorization gave me an especially precise understanding and combined it perfectly with a great perspective on the book as a whole. The complete understanding of a book that comes from memorization is unsurpassed, and something I have come to love.
2. Scattered memorization does not give you as deep and thorough understanding.
Memorizing is better than reading, but memorizing coherent chunks is better than individual verses. While it is very useful to know many verses on different topics, I was blown away by how much deeper it went when I focused on longer passages.
For example, two popular verses in James are,
"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him." (James 1:5)
"...Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God." (James 4:4)
But what is easy to miss is the connection drawn between the two. In the first verses of chapter four, James references the first verse by saying the people do not receive anything from God because they do not ask, and when they do ask, they ask only for selfish gain. James then accuses the people of allying with the world and against God, and the next few verses call the people to repentance. There are so many instances throughout the book where James references his earlier arguments, and builds on his own points.
For another example, one verse in James says, "You see, then, that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only." (James 2:24) This verse, taken out of context, could easily lead someone away from the point James is truly making. A spot-check memorization always holds this danger, because without the surrounding verses to develop his point, James could seem to be advocating works-based salvation. Thanks to the context, it becomes clear that James is saying that "faith" that doesn't produce good works is not true faith at all ("...show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works." 2:18), and fruitless faith is not sufficient for salvation.
Memorizing longer passages gives a much deeper understanding of what the Bible is saying, and it also prevents misunderstandings when context is important (and it usually is).
3. Understanding the Bible does not have the same life-saturating effect as burying it deep in your heart and mind.
I can honestly say that despite all of the Bible-studying and verse-memorization I have done, I have never had it saturate my life like it has the last few months. Even though I understand and know a great deal about the Bible, and could explain it and relate it to a great deal of situations, it didn't color the majority of thoughts that passed through my mind as it does now. You might be surprised how many things seem unrelated to James, but still manage to bring some of those verses to mind.
This constant Bible immersion is worth all of the effort it took to memorize James. When I was told I should memorize the Bible to have it always on my mind, I had no idea how true that would be. It's like an obsession - perhaps you know how easy it is to relate nearly anything to your favorite book, movie, activity, song, etc? Just imagine it is the Word of God flowing through your mind like that, and you have a taste of what it is like for the Bible to really sink into your heart and color your perception of the world. I think that is exactly what God intended when He commanded His people to meditate on His Word day and night. I wondered how that was possible - how can you spend all day and night reading the Bible? You don't. Once the Bible is buried in your heart, you don't have to read it to meditate on it. It happens naturally.
In conclusion, I wholeheartedly wish I had listened earlier when people spoke of the benefits of Scripture memorization. I cannot express enough how much it has affected me, and I strongly encourage you to try memorizing - if not a book, then a chapter.
Have you ever tried to memorize a large chunk of the Bible? Have you noticed it making a difference in your life? What book or chapter would you be interested in memorizing?
Thanks for reading!