When I was in college, my medievalist literature professor requires us to memorize and recite the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.
To this very day, and at the most random moments imaginable, the text burbles up to my consciousness:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…
Same with the two Shakespeare soliloquies I had to memorize and nearly the entirety of Tolkien’s Eärendil poem.
I am not telling you this because I want you to be impressed by my literary acumen. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I am a person who can memorize. I have a knack for recalling texts. I have even wondered, from time to time, if I have a photographic memory—because from some books I can recall not only a particular passage or quote, but can remember where it was and how it looked like on the page.
But I have trouble memorizing Scripture.
I’ve memorized bunches of verses, of course. When I was little, in Vacation Bible School, we memorized a verse every night and I could always remember all of mine. I have a bunch of favorite verses from the New Testament memorized and I have some heavy-hitters from the Old Testament memorized, too.
Still, it’s scattershot and uneven. Even when I have memorized something, it sometimes disappears from memory years later—only for me to recall it with an audible “oh!” when I stumble over it again. And I used to feel guilty whenever I encountered Beth Moore, whose Scripture memorization practices and advocacy for them are legendary, because I simply couldn’t manage it.
I suppose some people might say it’s because I’m lazy and lack the dedication. I certainly don’t devote hours and hours of time to memorizing God’s word. I suppose it’s also as possible that there’s Satanic attack at play, because I do find it harder to memorize God’s word than literally almost everything else I read. I mean, I can remember the entirety of We Don’t Talk About Bruno after two listens, but somehow I struggle to memorize one verse of Scripture for longer than a week, so I won’t be shocked if spiritual warfare is involved, is all I’m saying.
But I also don’t want people to think memorizing Scripture is the only or even best way to know the word of God.
Let me explain.
I don’t doubt that some people—Beth Moore!—can memorize giant chunks of Scripture and small chunks of Scripture and rattle them off chapter and verse decades after the fact. And if you can do that, you should. That’s an amazing gift. Indeed, I’ll go further and say that you should attempt to memorize some particular verses and passages that are meaningful to you and that you feel compelled to commit to memory.
But don’t fret if all your study and attempts doesn’t help you memorize something you want to memorize. Don’t feel like a failure if you can’t. Because here is what I know: as long as you are repeatedly, consistently living in God’s word, and as long as you are an attentive, careful reader of it, God will do the work of bringing it to you when it is needed.
Case in point: about a month ago, I was having a rough night. And it was one of those nights where I wished Jesus was, you know, around. I mean, He’s always around, but I was specifically wishing he could be around in a corporeal way. Because sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re headed in the right direction and sometimes you need some reassurance to tough things out and what you really want is to physically look into the eyes of Christ and have him pat you on the shoulder and say, “Keep on keeping on, kid.”
And I was telling God how much I just wished for some little, tiny, piece of reassurance, some tangible something, and wouldn’t it be nice if I could just have a real hug or a pat on the head or anything really, because sometimes I wonder what’s me and what is my selfishness and what I should be doing and this is difficult and also I will never cast out and things are really hard and—
What? What was that?
The words popped into my head unbidden and out of nowhere, smack in the middle of my stream of thought, like a radio channel crackling to life in a quiet car. I will never cast out.
That’s a Bible verse, I realized. But which? From where? I knew enough to know it was Scripture, but it was also past midnight and my husband was sleeping and I needed to sleep too. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table, typed the words into my notes. I knew God had been saying something, and that was enough for me to feel reassured. I immediately dozed off.
The next morning I discovered the midnight verse was John 6:37:
All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.
Are you noticing what I noticed? Yeah—the words I will never cast out aren’t actually in that translation, which is NIV, and the one I primarily use. They’re from another translation.
So not only was God bringing Scripture to my mind to provide a reminder of his unfailing love at a frustrating time, he was also doing it from a translation I literally hadn’t read recently.
My point is this: if you fill your mind up with Scripture, God will parcel to you the pieces needed at the appointed time. You can’t memorize the whole Bible at a go, but if you are intimate with Scripture, the Holy Spirit will work through it and summon up verses that will astonish and amaze you. Verses you probably forgot you read.
Memorize Scripture if you can and as much as you can, by all means. I don’t want to discourage anyone. But if you are someone who struggles with doing so, then don’t feel like you’ve failed and don’t fear that you are missing out on the treasury of what God has for you. I think it’s important, sometimes, to remember that our own effort alone can’t bring us closer to God.
We can memorize the whole Bible and wield it as we please, after all, but it’s the Spirit who heals and pierces, who can apply the word to us in the way it is most needed and at the proper time. The Word of God will never return void, but that’s because of God, not because of us.
So memorize it, if you can.
And if you can’t, just be in Scripture regularly and with an eager heart, and read and re-read, and ask God to do what He does. In the moment, you won’t notice anything. But months—years!—down the road, you’ll be surprised by the intervention of the Spirit in this area.
Count on it.