How I memorize scripture

In my previous post, I wrote about the reasons I memorize scripture. Most people have had some experience with memorization, but it is often a frustrating process. I’d like to share a method with you that I’ve found produces much more effective results to help you memorize more in less time and with less frustration.

What most people get wrong

What most people do when they try to memorize something is that they read it over and over again. They figure that if they read it enough then eventually they’ll have it memorized. The problem with this is that reading something is quite a different activity from recalling it from memory. Reading and recalling are like two different muscle groups in your body. If you only worked out your arms for a month, you wouldn’t expect to have strong legs. In the same way, if you only read a scripture when you’re trying to memorize it, you’ll find that your ability to recall it later from memory is only marginally improved.

The solution to this is to use a method that helps you practice recall from the very beginning. Whether you want to memorize one verse or an entire book of the Bible, the method is basically the same.

My memorization method

Here is my method in five steps:

  1. Write the first letter of every word on a piece of paper. Include punctuation and, ideally, any line breaks that are in the text. Let’s call this document your “cheat sheet”. When you’re done, your cheat sheet will look something like this. Here, I wrote out Psalm 19, using two columns to fit it on my little page:
    Example of the one-letter strategy
  2. Recall: looking at your cheat sheet, try to recite 2-3 sentences of the scripture from memory. You probably won’t be able to perfectly - that’s OK! You are practicing recall. Allow yourself to get stuck and give yourself a few seconds to try to remember. When you know you won’t remember, then go back to the passage and check where you had trouble. Repeat this process until you can confidently and perfectly recite the scripture using only your cheat sheet and without checking the actual passage.
  3. Meditate: Using your cheat sheet, meditate on the scripture. In this case, meditating means thinking deeply about the scripture. You can think about the meaning of the passage, about its structure, and on how the different parts of the passage build upon each other and work together. If you’re not sure where to start on this, I gave an example in my previous post of some questions I asked myself while meditating on 2 Peter 1:3-4.
  4. Rest: If you’ve done all of the previous steps in one sitting, I strongly recommend sleeping for a night before proceeding to the next step. You’ve done a lot and trying to go farther will likely only be frustrating.
  5. Recall again: Start trying to recite the passage from memory, without using your cheat sheet. It will be hard. That’s OK! Do as much as you can, and then once you get stuck, quickly review your cheat sheet to see where you went wrong. To make it easier, try doing only one to two sentences at a time until you know the scripture better.

And that’s it!

Why does this method work?

I’ve found that this method succeeds for a few reasons.

  • Creating the first-letter cheat sheet gives me a simple way to transition from reading a passage to recalling it. It provides an intermediate step between these two very different activities.
  • Reciting the scripture using only the cheat sheet is rewarding and gives me the motivation to keep on trying. This is important because memorization can often be frustrating, and anything we can do to make it more enjoyable is a big win.
  • The cheat sheet allows me to practice recall throughout the entire memorization process - including while I meditate on the passage.
  • Meditating on the meaning and structure of a passage makes it much more “sticky” in my memory than it would be if I just focused on rote memorization of the words. It also gets to the core of why I’m trying to memorize scripture anyway: to know the word of God better and to have it closer to my heart.

How much scripture can I memorize if I use this method?

I’ve found that if I use this method, I can memorize a 6 verse psalm like Psalm 126 in 2-3 days by spending 10-15 minutes a day. By spending about 15 minutes a day, I can consistently memorize an average of 1 verse per day, while simultaneously meditating deeply on the Word of God. I would expect that with a little practice, these results can be achieved by anyone who is willing to invest the time to learn.

I’m not sure if this pace sounds fast to you. However, if you are consistent with it, you could have 30 verses memorized in a month. That would be a huge win! If you focus your energy on a larger passage, then you could, for instance, memorize the entire book of Colossians in about 3 months.

How do I make sure that I don’t forget the scripture later?

Once you’ve successfully memorized a scripture, you’ll need some way to regularly review it so that you don’t forget it in the future. You could do this manually by having a list of your memorized scriptures that you review. For the first week or so, you’ll need to review it fairly frequently, say every day or two. After that, you can allow the distance between your reviews to gradually increase. After a few weeks, you may only be reviewing the scripture once a week. After a few months, you could review it once a month or even less.

Rather than trying to remember all of these intervals myself, I use a tool called Anki to make flashcards that automatically come back for review at gradually larger intervals the better I know them. I’ve found Anki to be the most effective way to remember a large volume of scripture over time, but it does take some set up to use. If you are interested in learning how to use Anki, let me know at tbadams45@gmail.com.

Try it!

I highly encourage you to try out this method on a short scripture and see how it works for you. I think that you will find that it makes memorizing much more enjoyable and rewarding. If you have any questions about this method, please send me an email at tbadams45@gmail.com and I will do my best to answer them. You can also read a guest post by my friend Rachael Hardy which she wrote after trying this method for three weeks. Memorizing scripture has been a huge blessing in my life and the more people that do it, the better!