How Andy Davis Taught Me to Memorize Scripture

Spiritual Lighter Fluid

In the struggle to follow after Jesus, there are lots of ways you can put kindling around your heart and trust that the Spirit will spark a flame deep within. We call them spiritual disciplines or the ordinary means of grace. If prayer and the intake of Scripture are the primary fuel for the Christian soul, the memorization of Scripture is like the lighter fluid.

Why not add a little lighter fluid?

Dallas Willard puts it like this: 

“Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization.”1 

Coming from a different tradition, Chuck Swindoll says, 

“I know of no other single practice in the Christian life more rewarding, practically speaking, than memorizing Scripture. . . . No other single exercise pays greater spiritual dividends! Your prayer life will be strengthened. Your witnessing will be sharper and much more effective. Your attitudes and outlook will begin to change. Your mind will become alert and observant. Your confidence and assurance will be enhanced. Your faith will be solidified.”2 

And I think the Scriptures bear witness to the value of memorization.

Well Versed

Psalm 51:6 

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. 

After his sin with Bathsheba, David acknowledged that such inward truth is antithetical to outward sin and would’ve helped in his temptation. 

Psalm 119:11 

Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You. 

The crucial word there is “treasure.” This is more than memorization. The devil has Scripture memorized. This is treasuring. This is to have it and to love it. And if you love it, you will abide by it. 

The Jews who did not believe in Jesus did not believe in him because they did not have the Father’s word abiding in them (John 5:38).  

John 5:37-40 

37 And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. 38 You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. 

John 15:1-7:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

What does it mean to abide? The translated Greek word shows up in some form eleven times here. We get the English word “permanent” from it. It means to continue to believe in Jesus but it goes much deeper than that. It describes a continual union with Jesus. Jesus is saying “step into union with me”, “be apart of me and stay that way”. 

Why is memorization important? If you don’t you can’t do anything. You can’t bear fruit. And if you can’t bear fruit, what happens? You prove yourself to have never been a Christian and you get tossed like firewood. 

So, according to John 15, how do you abide in Christ? 

“If my word abides in you…” 

Now, at the outset, let’s be clear. I’m not merely talking about memorizing the Bible as the secret key to greater intimacy with God. Why not? 

  1. Satan memorizes Scripture. I assume he didn’t pull out his English Standard Version in the wilderness when he tempted Jesus (Matt.4). 
  1. The word of God abiding in a person is linked to that person’s belief in Jesus. John 5:38- Jesus is talking to Jews (people who had memorized the whole Pentateuch (in some cases the whole OT). And he says to them, “God’s word doesn’t abide in you because you don’t believe in me”. So belief in Jesus is unavoidably linked having the word of Christ dwell in you richly. 

Scripture memorization is a means to a person. It’s more than just retaining information. It is a way to keep yourself abiding in Christ. And it’s linked to prayer in John 15. “Ask whatever you wish” is not a magic formula. It’s a logical outcome from having Christ’s word abide in your heart. 

Jesus is not saying, “have my word dwelling in you with permanence and let it continually take root in you so that you can ask God for a sweet car or good grades or a nice marriage or a good job”. He’s not a genie. And besides, if Christ’s word abides in you, pretty toys won’t be your main desire anyway. 

Having His Word in you shapes your wishes and changes your desires and influences what you really want at the core level. And when his word abides, it takes root. After it takes root, it produces fruit. Scripture needs to be internalized. 

The Method 

So, how is this best accomplished? 

Andy Davis has written an excellent little booklet available online about how you actually memorize Scripture. His principles are as follows: 

  • Memorize big portions- minimize tendency to proof text (context is king). Shoot for an entire book. Not too long and not too short. Start with one around 90-160 verses long. Make it something that will minister to you. 
  • Survey the terrain:  
  • Count the number of verses in the entire book.  
  • Divide that number by the number of verses you will memorize per week. This is how many weeks the book should take you.  
  • Look at a calendar and determine a tentative finish date.  
  • Add a couple weeks so you don’t feel too much pressure.  
  • Repetition is the key. Memorize with your eyes. Read each new verse ten times, covering each word as though photographing it with your eyes.  
  • Say it out loud, emphasizing different words as you go. Memorize with your ears. 
  • Memorize with the verse numbers! This will help keep you from getting lost and missing verses after reciting large portions. 

Davis’ example: 

Day one: Read Ephesians 1:1 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.  

Day two: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:1 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:2 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.  

Day three: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:2 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-2 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:3 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.  

After you’ve finished the entire book, recite the entire book for 100 consecutive days. Ephesians takes 15 minutes to recite out loud. You can do this wherever. It won’t affect your busy schedule. Then recite it every Monday for the rest of your life. If you start to make little mistakes, take a Monday and read the book through by sight to correct those.  

Give it a try.

This is something I’m trying to implement this month. I’m preaching on Psalm 113 on the first day of Advent at our church and would love to have that psalm memorized. And if I fail, I certainly haven’t wasted my time. And I’ll at least have little bits of the psalm lodged into my mind and heart like holy shrapnel. What are you going to memorize?

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The Exorcist

I remember when I finally saw the classic horror film, The Exorcist. It’s reputation preceded it. I’d seen clips and references for years. But at some point in college, it was on TV and I committed.

I remember laughing a lot. Maybe it was too late at night and I was tired, but I definitely smirked more than the director intended. It just seemed- what’s the word? Campy? Outdated? Hammy? Pea soup and levitating beds.

I was underwhelmed and moved on. But if the themes of that movie is true (the reality of aggressive evil, the vulnerability of humanity, and victory of good), perhaps the shtick of that movie does more than just fail to hold up. There’s a trivialization that comes with it. If all it costs to see a portrayal of spiritual realities is a movie ticket, they’re just another commodity to be consumed or ignored at my convenience.

The ancient Christian Church had an approach to exorcism that I find fascinating and instructive (if we can curb our “chronological snobbery”). The brilliant 2nd century theologian Origen tells a story of what happened once when he was preaching on the call of Hannah (1 Sam.2). A demon-possessed person in the congregation stands up and starts screaming. Origen calmly lead the church in repeating Hannah’s phrase, “My heart exults in the Lord,” until the spirit left this person. As a result, many of the people who had been skeptics were converted. (See Origen, Homilies on Samuel, 1.10.)

What?

What do I make of that in 2019? Is it campy and outdated? Well, certainly, the 2nd century didn’t seem to see spiritual realities as commodities to be bought for the price of admission. Origen knew that this sort of thing just happened. And when the power of God squashed the enemy so visibly, a lot of people were moved to conversion. Origen called them the “traces of that Holy Spirit who appeared in the form of a dove [that] are still preserved among Christians” (Origen, Contra Celsus, 1.46).

In 2nd century Gaul (modern France area), Irenaeus tells us that Christians “in Jesus’ name…drive out devils, so that those who have been thus cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe and join themselves to the Church.” Tertullian knew this. When demons are exorcised through prayer, it “regularly makes Christians” (Apologies, 23.18). In the early 4th century, Lactantius, writing from the imperial capital of Trier, reported that when people struggling with demonic forces experience or taste the power of Christ, they discover that is more powerful than the evil that oppresses them. As a result, the church was able to “bring a great many people to God, in wonderful fashion” (Divine Institutes, 5.22.24).

I recently began reading Justin Martyr’s first and second apologies from the early 2nd century. He points out four specific sins that he thought he could trace directly to demonic oppression and enslavement: sexual compulsions, the magic arts, the desire to increase wealth/property, and hateful violence. But when Christians prayed for grace, Christ freed those who were enslaved. The pattern seems to hold. When evil was exorcised and the person was freed, they were able to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ alone.

Exorcism took on an almost formal role in discipleship later on in the 4th and 5th centuries. Before a catechumen (a person who had been learning the faith) was baptized, the exorcist would come alongside this baby believer as the last step before getting triply dunked. And yes, churches had exorcists. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian- these fathers all just assumed that any Christian could exorcise demons. By the middle third century (like most things), exorcism had become a specialized skill set in the Church.

On the day of baptism, the bishop himself would come and exorcise the baptismal candidate. This was important for Christians to know who they were renouncing, not just to whom they were pledging allegiance. The Apostolic Tradition (an Egyptian 3rd century book of church order) tells us that the weeks preceding baptism were this constant process of fighting through enslavement to sin and confessing sins in which Christ dominated the “stranger” in the Christian’s life (the Enemy) and the Christian went through a “detox” from the dominant culture (Apostolic Tradition, 20.4).

All that to say, I think we could benefit from seeing the Christian life as something of an exorcism. I’m not saying we fill up our SuperSoakers with holy water and run riot through the streets. But as our struggle is against spiritual wickedness (Eph. 6:12), we need to withhold all opportunities from the devil (Eph. 4:27). I’m suggesting that Christian sanctification could be seen as a gradual and lifelong form of exorcism.

The more we are filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and resist the devil (James 4:7), the more we draw closer to God in obedience and faith. As we detoxify our souls from the surrounding world (Rom.12:1-2), the Spirit is transforming us more and more into Christ’s likeness. This need not be as visibly dramatic as it was in the early church (and still is in many parts of the Global South). But the daily grind of fighting your sin and mocking the devil is just as dramatic and awful.

It’s part of the greatest story ever told. I bought that ticket. And Christ will see me through past the end credits.