Christian Life & Discipleship

Memorising the Bible – Why it’s Hard and How to Change That

Last year I lead a school in YWAM Perth called Word by Heart. In a nutshell, this school is about learning one of the Gospels by heart and presenting it. Memorising the Bible. A whole Gospel. 90 minutes. If I tell people what this school is about in a nutshell, they run away. And before they disappear over the horizon, I hear them muttering, “Gadzooks! Not me! I could never do that. My memory is terrible.”

Everyone who grew up in Church knows what I’m talking about. You know you should be memorising Bible verses because that’s what you were taught to do at Sunday School, and because that’s what good Christians do. But you also know that you would rather have your eyes gouged out with a hot spoon than memorise Bible verses. And you would not be alone in that feeling. But can I give you some good news? It doesn’t have to be like that!

There is one simple reason you dread trying to memorise the Bible:

You’re trying to memorise the Bible.

There is one simple reason you dread trying to memorise the Bible: You’re trying to memorise the Bible.

Or more specifically, you’re trying to rote memorise the Bible. Rote learning is memorisation by repetition – saying or reading something over and over again until it’s chiselled into your brain and stays there. It works, to some extent. It’s most likely what you learned in school as well as church. But its biggest failing is that it strips what you are learning of significance – you learn the sound of the words, not the meaning. And that’s where it becomes a poor tool to use with scripture.

Think of the song ‘Circle of Life’ from The Lion King. I love that song! If you’re anything like me, you know all the words. Well, all the English words. Nobody knows the words to the intro, right? That’s because, unless you speak Zulu, you’re really not hearing words, you’re just hearing sounds. Words have meanings that string them together, but sounds are just sounds, and there’s no reason that one should follow another. We remember the words to the song because we remember the meaning that they communicate – lose the meaning and we’ll quickly forget whatever we heard.

Our memories work by experience. We remember what has happened to us far better than we remember things we heard or read about.

But what you’re doing when you try to rote memorise the Bible is stripping the meaning away – taking words and reducing them to sounds. Instead of imagining all of what was happening when God created the world out of nothing, you’re trying to memorise the sound of ‘in the beginning’. This makes things extremely difficult to remember even when they’re fresh in your mind, let alone when you try to recall them a year later. It also means that when you recite what you’ve learned, the words are lifeless, because you remembered them without their meaning. Which seems rather pointless, because the meaning is probably the reason you wanted to memorise the Bible in the first place! All in all, a pretty poor result.

So what’s the alternative? It’s quite simple. Use your memory the way it was designed to be used! When people say they have a bad memory, 9 times out of 10 they’re thinking about rote memory. But there aren’t many people who don’t have memories of their first home, or their friend’s pets, or their favourite childhood birthday party. Why? Because our memories work by experience. We remember what has happened to us far better than we remember things we heard or read about, precisely because they happened to us.

That’s what we have today – some stories that were written down. So it stands to reason we should be able to un-write-them-down.

“But how does that help?”, I hear you ask, “The Bible didn’t happen to me.” That’s the fun part. You’ve got to make it happen to you.

Instead of looking at the words, you’ve got to look at the story. Because actually, that’s how the Gospels were originally passed on, even before they were written down. First, the apostles just told stories about things they witnessed Jesus doing. Eventually they wrote them down, and that’s what we have today – some stories that were written down. So it stands to reason we should be able to un-write-them-down; that is, tell them as stories again.

When you go from looking at a Bible story as words on a page to looking at it as an event that actually happened, it becomes surprisingly easy to slip yourself into the story. As you explore the dynamics of what is happening, as you see the expressions, hear the voices and smell the smells, you make the story happen to you. We call this familiarisation. You experience it to such a degree that you actually simulate memories – and because it’s a memory, not a meaningless sound, it naturally stays with you. Once you know the story, it’s a fairly simple process to remember the words, even the exact words of scripture. And you go from struggling to memorise a bumper sticker to being able to tell story after story from the Bible as if you were there when it happened. Because, in a way, you were.

There are so many people who value the Bible, who want to know it better, and who would be over the moon if God suddenly answered their prayer and they woke up with it all perfectly memorised. The reason they run from trying to memorise it is that they have been taught to use a process that is mind-numbing, for a result which is… also mind-numbing. Forget rote learning. Insert yourself into the story, and soon you’ll be recalling it and retelling it like you were there when it happened.