By Ken Sande, Founder of Peacemaker Ministries and Relational Wisdom 360
When I was in law school, I witnessed one of the most dramatic spiritual battles I have ever seen. Two members of a religious cult were handing out tracts in the student union building and trying to tell people about their beliefs. Most people ignored them, but one student was drawn in.
From my table I could hear enough of their conversation to realize that they were slowly convincing the student that their religion was consistent with the Bible. My stomach started to tighten up. Seeing that they were leading him away from God, I knew that I should say something to counter their misleading arguments.
But I was immobilized by fear. Aside from a few general statements about my faith, I could not think of anything to say. I knew that the Bible contradicted their views, but I could not remember any specific passages I could use in confronting them.
As my guilt and fear battled within me, I noticed a bystander who was also listening carefully to their conversation. Finally he stepped up and asked if he could join them. The cult members welcomed him.
The bystander soon questioned their statement about the need to do certain works to gain God’s favor. When they quoted a Bible verse (out of context) to defend their position, he countered by quoting a more relevant passage. When they responded by paraphrasing another passage, he quoted it back to them precisely, including the words that weakened their argument.
As the two sides exchanged volley for volley, I realized that a spiritual tug-of-war was taking place before me. I could feel the tension growing as they battled for the student’s mind. The cult members had a frightening knowledge of Scripture, but the bystander knew it even better. I was astonished at his ability to quote exactly the right Bible passage to counter their arguments.
The cult members became noticeably frustrated and tried to get the student’s attention focused on them again. The student cut them off in mid-sentence, however, saying, “Forget it!” He then turned to the bystander and said, “Thanks for jumping in. Can I buy you a Coke?”
As the parties separated, I picked up my books and walked back to my apartment, still amazed by what I had witnessed. I was convicted by the realization that I was utterly unprepared to defend my faith in such a situation. I was also haunted by the feeling that I had seen or heard of such a battle before.
Suddenly it came to me. The drama I had witnessed reminded me of the wilderness debate between Jesus and Satan. The devil repeatedly quoted Scripture out of context in his temptations. And our Lord, who could easily have responded with original words, instead defeated his adversary by quoting the written Word of God.
By the time I arrived at my apartment, I had resolved to begin memorizing Scripture so that I would be better prepared to wage spiritual battles in the future. I made good progress for a while and committed several verses to memory.
Within a few months, however, I lost my momentum. My initial enthusiasm had worn off, and I was faced with the challenge of doing something as a matter of will rather than emotion. My approach to memorizing—trying to cram a verse into my memory word-perfect by saying it twenty times a day—had become tedious and burdensome.
To make matters worse, I lacked an effective method to review what I had memorized. Within a few weeks, most verses faded from my memory. What was the use of all this work, I wondered, if I soon lost everything I had memorized? Before long Scripture memory was only a sporadic activity in my life.
God shook me out of my lethargy a couple of years later when I began serving him as a peacemaker. During conciliation I stumbled and faltered as I tried to help people understand how God would have them deal with a conflict. I knew many general peacemaking concepts, but I was often unable to open the Bible to relevant Scriptures. As a result, my advice was usually only that: my advice. I failed to help people discover and apply the specific counsel of God.
I also became aware of how poorly I lived out the peacemaking concepts I daily urged others to follow. Since I had hidden little of God’s Word in my heart, I was unable to fall back on it in times of conflict. Thus, my personal life often fell far short of the ideals I professed in my ministry.
A System that Worked
I knew I should recommit myself to Scripture memory, but I was reluctant because of my previous failures. Seeing my struggles, God gave me a tremendous gift. A friend sent me a copy of an article on Scripture memory, which was written by Dr. Garry Friesen and published in the October 1981 issue of Moody Monthly. (This is not the Gary Friesen who served with me at Peacemaker Ministries.)
Dr. Friesen’s article radically changed my approach to Scripture memory. It provided a simple and painless method of memorizing and retaining hundreds of Bible verses. (I will share the details below.) I have practiced this discipline with surprising consistency since 1982. While it is not a secret formula or guarantee of spiritual success, it has had a profound impact on my personal walk with Christ. Time after time when I was tempted to follow worldly counsel or my own sinful desires, God has spoken to me by bringing memorized Bible passages to mind.
When I was offended by someone and plotting how to trap him in an argument, God said to me, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
When I was consumed with the desire to force others to admit their sins, he reminded me of Matthew 7:5, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
And when I refused to forgive someone, the Lord said to me, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
I cannot count the number of times God has used these memory verses to lovingly shake me, lead me to repentance, and get me back on the right path. I have discovered what the psalmist meant when he wrote, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).
In addition to blessing me personally, Scripture memory has proven to be invaluable training for my ministry as a peacemaker. By committing key peacemaking passages to memory, I am able to direct disputing parties to specific passages in Scripture, where they can read for themselves how God wants them to resolve their differences. As promised in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the more I draw on God’s Word rather than my own thoughts, the better I am at teaching and counseling those in need.
Three Steps to Success
Thanks to Dr. Friesen’s article, I found that there are three steps to successful Scripture memory.
Step 1: Set time goals rather than number goals
One of the best ways to set yourself up for failure is to resolve to memorize a large number of verses in a certain period of time. Number goals may be easy to reach at first, but eventually they become burdensome or unattainable.
In the long run, it is easier to meet time goals than number goals. I initially set a goal of spending just five minutes a day on Scripture memory. That may not sound like much, but by consistently pursuing it, I accumulated over thirty hours of Scripture memory in one year.
I later expanded my time commitment to about twelve minutes per day. Since I enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from making measurable progress on new verses, this twelve minutes is one of the most enjoyable parts of my daily devotions.
Step 2: Read, don’t cram.
Another way to defeat yourself is to try to force verses into your memory all at once by saying them twenty or more times in one sitting. I found that it is much easier to read a new verse carefully and thoughtfully three times and then put it aside until the next day. I do not have the verse memorized the first day or the second, but by the end of a week I can usually say it word-perfect. As Dr. Friesen says, this approach is “like cars on an assembly line—steadily being built rather than thrown together in a hurry.”
Step 3: Use a dependable review system
Through Dr. Friesen, I found an effective and simple way to regularly review every verse I memorized. Using this system I have been able to memorize and retain hundreds of verses.
I bought a small filing box for 3×5 cards along with a couple of sets of index cards with tabs numbered 1 to 31 (available through most office supply stores). I took ten cards out of the first set, turned them over and wrote a word on the back of each tab. On the first tab I wrote “Daily,” on the second “Odd,” and on the third “Even.” Then, on each of the other seven card tabs I wrote one day of the week, “Sunday” through “Saturday.” I then placed these cards in the box in this order: “Daily,” “Odd” and “Even,” and “Sunday” through “Saturday.” I then took the second set of cards, numbering “1” through “30,” and placed them in the back of the box.
Each Bible verse I memorize makes its way through these four sections: daily, every other day (“Odd” and “Even”), weekly (“Sunday,” etc.), and monthly (“1” through “30”).
Each week I put two to four new cards behind the “Daily” tab (or carry them in a plastic pocket holder). Every day I read each card three times carefully and thoughtfully, and then I put them away.
In about a week I am able to recall each verse word-perfect. At that point, I divide the cards and insert them behind the “Odd” and “Even” tabs. I then read each of the cards every other day, depending on whether it’s an odd or even day of the month. (Meanwhile I have added a couple of new verses to the “Daily” section.)
After reading the review verses every other day for a week or two, I move those cards into the weekly section, distributing them among the days of the week. Now I review each of the original cards once a week.
Finally, after two to four weeks, I move those cards into the monthly section, again distributing them. I review the cards in this section every month.
I usually add two to four new cards per week. As I progressively memorize more cards and move them through the four sections, my daily Scripture memory might go like this. On Sunday the 15th, I review the cards behind the tabs marked Daily, Odd, Sunday, and 15. The next day I review the cards behind the tabs marked Daily, Even, Monday, and 16.
If you use this approach, you should be able to memorize 100-200 passages in a year! It will take some perseverance as you initially develop this habit, but if you are like me, you will soon find that it is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of your daily devotions.
I would like to offer a few additional suggestions to help you get the most out of Scripture memory. First, as my pastor wisely counseled me years ago, Scripture memory should be done for your own edification, not to impress those around you. Unless there is a pressing need (such as in the situation described above), quoting Bible passages from memory can appear to be boastful and arrogant, especially when you are trying to give others advice. Therefore, instead of quoting Scripture to people, I usually ask them to open their Bibles to a specific passage and read it out loud, at which point we can discuss its meaning and application.
Second, to receive the maximum benefit from your memory work, take time to meditate on these verses. Bring a verse to mind, say it slowly to yourself, and spend time thinking carefully about it, asking God to help you understand its meaning and application in your life. As God told Joshua, “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8).
Third, remember that Scripture speaks most clearly and powerfully when it is considered in its full context. Therefore, instead of relying on these few verses in isolation, use them as “connectors” to entire passages of Scripture. For example, memorizing Psalm 37:5-6 gives you a small insight into trusting God in the midst of adversity. Opening your Bible and reading the entire Psalm will give you even greater encouragement and guidance.
To easily find relevant sections of Scripture, you will need to memorize verse citations along with the text. Because the citation is usually the hardest part to memorize, saying it twice for each text is helpful. The best way to do this is to say the citation (e.g., “Matthew 5:16”) both before and after the verse each time you read it.
Fifth, if you need help understanding how a verse relates to conflict resolution in general or to a dispute you are experiencing, you will often be able find some helpful discussion in The Peacemaker (Baker Books, Updated ed. 2003) by using the Scripture index found in the back of the book.
Finally, you can keep adding verses to your personal memory system for the rest of your life. As you come across Bible passages in your devotions that are especially helpful or encouraging, simply write them on 3×5 index cards and move them through your system.
Another way to expand your system is to buy The Navigators’ Topical Memory System. This system includes an excellent 70-page booklet on Scripture memory along with an introductory set of sixty cards containing Bible passages that are foundational for Christian life and witness.
Interestingly, The Navigators’ memory system played a major role in the spiritual battle I described at the beginning of this article. A few years after I witnessed the incident with the cult members, I met the “bystander” again. I asked him how he had memorized so much Scripture.
He explained that he was part of The Navigators, an international discipleship organization that emphasizes Bible study and Scripture memory. Using their Topical Memory System, he had memorized hundreds of Bible verses, which were an essential part of his campus discipling ministry. I explained how I had been impacted that day when he wrestled with the two cult members, and expressed my gratitude to him. He encouraged me to continue with my efforts to hide God’s Word in my heart.
I am glad to pass his encouragement on to you through this memory system. May the Lord bless and empower you as you commit these Scriptures to memory and use them to help others discover the love and peace of Christ.
** We are currently exploring the development of a Smartphone App to take the place of the 3×5 file cards. Please pray for our progress, and if you would like to be notified when this becomes available, be sure you’re subscribed to our weekly blog.