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LEARNING BY HEART

LEARNING BY HEART

This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.
Joshua 1:8-9

She was my mother, and by no means a schooled Christian educator or expert in spiritual formation.  But now, years later, I cherish her wisdom in leading me in the memorization of Scripture.  It began at a time when I was just learning to read about ‘Dick and Jane’.  My mother suggested I memorize Psalm 23, about the Lord being my shepherd.  As a little child I loved repetition and my agile young brain cells readily took to memorization.  In just a few days I memorized Psalm 23; so my mother took me on to Psalm 100, about praising God and being thankful.  

My mother didn’t stop there, but took me on to some Edgar Guest poetry and even Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.  She later graduated me to The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.  Being just a child I loved it and thought it lots of fun.   I didn’t understand all the words I was storing away, but kept turning them over and over within.  Maybe that’s why my mother never asked me to “memorize” anything; rather she called it “learning by heart”.  I internalized words and ideas so that they made their way from my head to my heart.  

Then somewhere along the way I got the crazy notion that memorizing was just for kids.  Of course I still had to memorize the Periodic Table and French verb forms and vocabulary, and stuff like that.  But professors told me that “rote memory” stifled creative thought and development of the self.  Sadly, I believed them, and stopped memorizing Scripture, poetry, and other exalted speech.  

Recently in a coffee house I overheard a young person say with relief that he didn’t need to memorize anything, because he could always look it up on his smart phone.  I fear that in today’s nanotechnology culture we place more emphasis on the memory capacity of our phones and computers than on our own, on what we have stored within.  Yes, I can always look up Scripture on my smart phone, but it will not be percolating within to emerge in my conscious thought and action when I need it.  

The ancient philosopher Plato was suspicious of what the new technology of writing would do in his day.    He feared that writing would “produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it” (“Phaedrus”, The Collected Dialogues of Plato).  They would no longer memorize it because they could always look it up.  Plato believed that only what we memorize will become a part of our self.  

In fact, Scriptures we learn by heart affect us far beyond our consciousness.  God’s words take charge of our thoughts and actions.  We begin to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  That must be why the Bible emphasizes the need to memorize Scripture and make it a part of us:  

  • Psalm 119:11—I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you. 
  • Colossians 3:16—Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
  • John 15:7—If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, writes about the priority of our memorizing Scripture:

Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation.  If I had to – and of course I don’t have to – choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life and take only one, I would choose Bible memorization.  I would not be a pastor of a church that did not have a program of Bible memorization in it, because Bible memorization is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what they need.  ‘This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth’ (Joshua 1:8).  That’s where we need it!  In our mouth.  Now how did it get in your mouth?  Memorization! (“Spiritual Formation in Christ for the Whole Life and Whole Person” in Vocatio, Vol. 12., no. 2, Spring, 2001).  

I have not done a lot of memorizing since I was young, but I am finding that my memory muscle grows stronger with each use, as I am wiring new circuits in my brain.  In fact, study after study shows that memorizing Scripture can enlarge our brains’ memory in all areas of life.   An old dog like me can learn new tricks after all!

So I figure if I can memorize the words of a song and the box scores of my favorite team, then I can get back to memorizing chunks of Scripture.  If I give just 5 to 10 minutes a day to memorizing then I can get a lot accomplished; memorizing just 1 verse a week will mean 52 verses in a year! Think of that!  Here are some suggestions for getting started:

  1. Take a verse(s), read it 10 times; then close your eyes and see how much of the verse(s) you can say.  That’s it for the day
  2. Come back the next day and read the verse(s) again 10 times.  Close your eyes and see how much of the verse(s) you can say.  That’s it for another day.  Basically, it’s just repetition and review.  
  3. Write the verse(s) down on a index card or post-it-note; keep it handy on your computer, in your car, mirror, etc.  Repetition and review.  

If you’re wondering what verse to start with, how about this one:

Philippians 4:6—Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Billy Graham once said:  “I am convinced that one of the greatest things we can do is memorize Scripture.”  My mother would have agreed!  Thank you mom for teaching me to learn by heart!

Grace and peace,
Tim

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