Not only hearing but also doing
Alright, the title of this article is meant to get your attention. I am not going to say that we should never try to memorize Scripture but only that it should have its proper priority in our walk with God. Some ministers endorse Scripture memorization as one of, if not the most fundamental and important of the spiritual disciplines. I humbly and respectfully disagree. I contend that memorizing Scripture should be regarded as one of the least important endeavors in which we should occupy our time.
Suppose, for example, that you work an office job where your boss emailed you instructions for a special project. A couple of days later he follows up with you for an update on the progress of the project but instead of having worked on it you spent all of your time memorizing the email he sent! Do you suppose he will be happy that you can quote back to him verbatim everything he wrote? Most likely he could not care less that you can quote any of it and was not even expecting you to do that. The only thing that matters to him is that you should have been doing what he told you to do. Why would it be any different with God? Do we think He is pleased that we are not doing what He said yet we can quote it?
Probably the most common verse cited to teach Scripture memorization is: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success” (Jos 1:8). But notice that the entire objective is that we do it! Granted, if speaking it, meditating in it, and even memorizing it helps us to obey then by all means we should do these things. But as James said “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (Jas 1:22). We are deceived if we think that hearing and even memorizing God’s word without doing it is accomplishing anything in God’s sight.
I know some ministers that start new converts to the Christian faith with a regiment of Scripture memorization. They purchase for them a verse packet or have them write verses on index cards to carry around with them and read throughout the day. I have even heard them claim that “make disciples” in Christ’s statement, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.” (Mat 28:19-20 NKJV), means that new Christians are to discipline themselves in memorizing Scripture. However, Christ Himself stated here that it actually means “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” True discipleship is not teaching them to memorize but to obey.
Understanding the Scriptures
Now, in case you might be thinking that I have not memorized much Scripture and that this article is just my excuse, I assure you that I can quote my fair share. In fact, I not only can quote many verses but even many entire chapters. But this retention did not come from trying to memorize but simply from disciplined reading and studying in order to understand the Scriptures. I have found that the more I understand what God is saying, the more it stays with me.
Paul prayed for the Christians in Ephesus: “The eyes of your understanding being enlightened” (Eph 1:18). He did not pray for them to memorize it but to understand it. God’s word is the message He intended to convey through the Scriptures. If we do not have the correct understanding God meant to communicate then we do not have the word of God. What good is it to be able to quote something that we do not understand correctly and are not applying correctly?
Also, what about languages? Am I quoting God’s word when I quote it in English? If so, which English Bible translation? Would it not be better to memorize and quote it in the original language it was written? It is instructive that Paul usually quoted from the Septuagint which is a translation of the original. This indicates that he esteemed the intended message to be what matters. In other words, what is important is that the message God intended to communicate is conveyed correctly whether it be through Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, English, Chinese, Spanish, or some other language. God’s word is His message to us.
Furthermore, what about people in false religions? Many Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses can quote a lot of verses as well. Does it really do them any good? What about Jews that reject Jesus as their Messiah? Many of them can put us to shame with their Scripture memorization yet they are not saved.
Even when I can quote particular verses or passages when around other people I almost never do. For example, if I am in a Sunday school class or a Bible study and a certain passage or reference is mentioned that I can quote, I look it up in my Bible and read it instead. I do not want anyone knowing that I could have quoted it. God’s word is just as effective whether I read it from my Bible or quote it from memory. I am not trying to impress anyone so there is no need for me to quote it.
I used to have an elementary school teacher who would have each student read out loud a paragraph from a book then explain back in our own words what we just read. This was to test our reading comprehension. This same principle is applicable to Scripture. It is more important that we can correctly paraphrase what the Scriptures are saying in our own words rather than quoting them word for word.
Hypothetically, what if we memorized the entire Bible and could literally quote it all verse by verse? Paul said that without love “I am nothing” (1Co 13:2). If we are not obeying Christ’s commandment to love others then it means absolutely nothing that we could even quote the entire Bible. Some Christians are deceived that they are really doing well because they can quote some verses yet they are not treating others right.
“Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deu 11:18); “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psa 119:11); “Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” (Jer 20:9); “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (Jhn 15:7); “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom 12:2); “And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17); “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16); “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
These verses are a few of the most common used to tout Scripture memorization yet actually say nothing of the sort. Having His word in our hearts, for example, is not about memorizing but living. Our hearts are where we treasure the true motives for our actions. Some people do and say the right things but with the wrong motives—it is ultimately about benefitting themselves in this life which includes receiving the praise of other people. As believers, on the other hand, we should be doing and saying what is right with the intent of pleasing God even when it displeases people and even when we must suffer for it. This is what it means to have His word in our hearts.
Furthermore, renewing our minds is not about memorizing Scripture but about ceasing to be conformed to the ways of the world which involves a renewed mindset. Earlier Paul had urged the Christians in Rome, “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:11). It is in our minds that we reckon ourselves to be dead to sin and therefore live righteously in obedience to Christ as Lord. This is what he meant later by “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Rom 8:6). A renewed mind is a spiritual mind. It is having the mindset and attitude of a servant like Christ, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phl 2:5). Those who are of the world are carnally minded—they ultimately live for what they can have in this life.
Reasons given to memorize
People come up with various reasons to push Scripture memorization on others. One reason is that it supposedly sharpens our witnessing and makes it more effective. Actually, what is far more important is that we are sharing the true saving gospel message. What good is it to quote a lot of Scripture to someone yet ultimately communicate to them a faulty message? Besides, sometimes one of the best things we can tell someone is our own testimony of how God changed our lives. We do not need to be able to quote verses to do this.
Another reason given is that memorization allegedly strengthens our prayer life. But prayer is simply talking to God as our normal selves, being sincere and transparent before Him. What He really wants when we approach Him in prayer is a broken spirit and a contrite heart not quoting verses to Him. Living a life of obedience to Him in striving to always please Him is what truly makes for a strong prayer life.
I heard one Christian talk about having memorized the first three chapters of Ephesians and what an unspeakable blessing that has been to him. But my question to him would be how much of those three chapters does he really understand. I can quote much of Ephesians yet I do not really find that to be a great blessing. My retention of it has not come by trying to memorize it but from many years of studying the letter intently in order to understand it. For me, the true blessing comes with the more I understand the message from God that Paul revealed in Ephesians.
Finally, one last popular reason given for memorizing Scripture is that it supposedly helps us resist temptation, and of course the main example of this is when Jesus quoted verses to the devil. But wait a minute; all Jewish men could quote at least the Torah—the first five books that are the writings of Moses—and this did not give any of them victory over temptation. Everyone except Jesus has sinned. Just memorizing and quoting Scripture does not give us victory over temptation.
The trial of our faith
Some think of discipleship as “connecting” with a new convert over coffee and helping them memorize Bible verses. But when suffering, persecution, and the tragedies of life occur, being able to quote a few verses is superficial and does little good. What we really need is spiritual maturity and strong faith in the fear of God.
James began his letter “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience” (Jas 1:3), then said toward the end, “Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (Jas 5:11). Job’s faith was sorely and severely tested far beyond anything any of us will ever endure. He had 10 children and lost all 10 in one day! I cannot even fathom having to go through something like that. He was a real person with real feelings and emotions who loved his children dearly just like we do. He had also been ruined financially and of course later came down with a terrible disease that almost took his own life. How did he patiently endure these trials? Did he quote Bible verses he had memorized? Actually, none of the Bible had even been written at that time in history. He was strong through it all because he lived righteously in the fear of God and avoided all appearance of evil, “And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?” (Job 1:8). Notice that this was God Himself praising Job. What gets us through the trials of our faith is having God on our side defending us against the attacks of the enemy. This only comes by living in faithful service to Him striving to always please Him, not by just quoting “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phl 4:13).