I bolted from the car towards the church door jostling my Bible, workbooks, and a small vest covered in patches. It was AWANA night. I would get to zoom through workbook pages of verses, earn points for my team, and inch my way closer to the next jewel to adorn my clothing. Word perfect, Bible quizzes, ribbons—they all came easily to me in those elementary days.
I’m immensely grateful for the foundation of those years filling my mind with God’s Word. Yet I can find myself feeling dejected at how some of the verses of my youth are not as clear in my memory. Twenty plus years later, I find my brain overworked by the new soundtrack of my life: three playful children, grocery lists, deadlines, and ministry tasks. Memorization is more difficult. The same drive that drove me years ago to succeed now brings me guilt. I say, “I have to get it!”, but most of the time I fail.
We all might know that familiar rut. Somewhere along the way, our self-reliant spirits turn meditating on the words of our God into an opportunity to prove our abilities. We either rush through verses, checking them off, or we find ourselves caught in shame when our attempts to tackle our own memory verses fail. We may even put it off altogether.
But what is the purpose of memorization? Perhaps we need a brief reminder. If you look back through history, you’ll find that scholars like Thomas Aquinas or the monks known for scrolls of text they could memorize didn’t do it merely to impress others with their word-perfect recitation. These men found virtue in the texts. They saw a mind full of Scripture or prose as an opportunity to be formed and changed by their recalled words. The words stored in their memory were meaningful to the present.
These ideas from the medieval scholastics are only mirroring a truth we find reiterated again and again in God’s Word. God’s people are called to remember. We are called to remember his great deeds and his perfect law (Ps. 77:12; 119:11). We are summoned to meditate on his law day and night (Psalm 1:2). The longest psalm—chapter 119—portrays the beauty and the riches of the Word of God through stanza after stanza. It shows how it matters to the present. The psalmist writes that his soul longs for the Word of God (Ps. 119:20). God’s laws are his delight (Ps. 119:16, 24, 35). They make him wise (Ps. 119:97). They are a great comfort to his soul (Ps. 119:52). Jesus showed us how purposeful the Word of God is when he used it against Satan’s twisted lies in the wilderness (Luke 4:1–13). We would indeed be foolish to not desire to fill our minds with the life-giving words of the Scriptures.
Yet in those descriptions of the beauty of the Word of God, what exactly are we to delight in? Do we love the law of the Lord because we can recite each word faithfully? No, we love the law of the Lord because, along with the psalmist, we see it is our hope for whatever present circumstances come our way.
We don’t have the Word of God on our lips day and night so we can mark off a checklist of completion to earn our status as God’s children. Our memory verses are not magic; they don’t prove our allegiance, nor are they our own personal insurance plan against difficulty and sin. Instead, the words of the Lord are life to us because they are a chance to dwell in the goodness of the Lord. They remind us of His nature, they point us to His salvation, they lead us to walk the paths that honor Him. This is what the psalmist loves and what we should love.
When we become too focused on the particulars, we can easily forget the main reason we are hiding these words in our heart. It’s not to make sure every “if,” “an,” or “the” gets in the right place. It’s to ruminate over the idea that “we are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11) while we wash our hair or we sweep the floor. It’s so that we can tumble the words, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” while we dig in the soil, or grab another diaper for our child (Rom. 11:36).
The twenty-first century has given most of us a seemingly unhindered access to the Bible, through books, apps, and countless decorations to adorn our wall. We can and should use these great resources. But don’t forget that we are called to the same exact thing that Christians in the second century, without any Bibles to call their own, were called to do. We are simply called to remember the deeds of the Lord (Ps. 77:11) and meditate on His precepts (Ps. 119:15). This can be done in so many ways.
Don’t let shame from a word-perfect attitude or even zeal for growing your reserves of verses keep you from dwelling on Scripture’s richness. Is there a chapter you are studying? Grab a tiny phrase and mull it over in your head for the day. It’s okay if you don’t memorize the entire verse. If there’s a verse, a chapter, or even a book you want to work on, give it a try and don’t beat yourself up over each time you mess up the order of a phrase. Savor the meaning.
Ultimately we must remind ourselves that even in our memorization, it’s the Holy Spirit who will work to bring forth fruit from these words in our lives. It is He who works in us, taking these words to draw us nearer and nearer to Christ. It’s never about our performance.
I may not be able to remember every single AWANA verse I memorized, but the phrases and portions of verses that have stuck with me have encouraged me throughout my whole life. I’ve recited them to my friends and children and brought them out of the recesses of my mind when I needed their comfort. They bring me delight and hope, and they cut through the path of darkness ahead of me when I need it. They sparkle like jewels because they are words of hope from the Lord—even if I can’t quite remember the references that come with them.