Updated: Sep 7, 2020
In college I memorized the first chapter of Philippians and part of chapter two. The idea had occurred to me to commit the entire epistle to memory. I then planned to dress up as the Apostle Paul and dramatically recite Philippians in front of one of the Christian groups on the Kansas State University campus. The thought was persistent in my mind, and though I never heard a divine, audible voice, I felt a tug on my heart to do the deed. I had no real understanding of why God would want me to do the deed, but I committed to doing the hard work of memorization all the same.
I plowed through the first chapter with gusto. I committed Paul's words to long-term memory using simple rote repetition, long before I had any inkling of the power of grammar in the classical model. However, when I started into the second chapter I slowed down, becoming inconsistent in my nightly recitations. I was an undisciplined college student and I'd encountered my first minor emotional roadblock in the project. Instead of committing to more hard work and pushing past my lack of motivation, I allowed my idea to flicker… then die. Though I had the nagging feeling that I ought to have memorized all of it, I took the easier course of inaction.
It was perhaps a month or two later when I realized what I’d given up. One of my friends came to me, thrilled. My comrade gushed about the presentation that evening at one of the Christian groups on campus. Apparently, a college student had memorized Philippians then dressed up as Paul to recite it to the group. I immediately sensed the bitter irony. I had squandered the opportunity that I had been given, but someone else had been offered it in my stead, and they had been all the more faithful.
It was a lesson for me to pursue immediate obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading. I wanted to be the kind of man that would join God in His plans, and I realized that I’d abdicated the opportunity this time. Thankfully, God's grace allows us to benefit from such small life lessons, but years later another aspect of this story became apparent; I realized that the benefits of my hard work and memorization did not end in college.
The pastor at our church began a sermon series on Philippians a few months ago. I still remember the bits of Philippians I'd memorized in college, but wasn't prepared for what happened: I experienced a nearly effortless time keeping my attention on the message. The surrounding text was alive to me, informing my growing understanding with nuances of meaning faster than our pastor was able to give his message. I was struck and pleasantly surprised when I realized how much my enjoyment of the sermon came because of my investment in memorization.
Because of the number of verses I’ve committed to memory over the years, I’ve had this experience with cross-referencing on a small scale. However, I’ve spent precious little time putting larger passages into my brain and no full books of the Bible. As a result this was an unusually intense experience for me.
This event reiterated powerfully the reality of how memorization contributes to lasting understanding; the investment of memorization provides context for great understanding and greater conversations. Great conversations based on real knowledge help us to learn and grow, but they are also genuinely enjoyable, driving even further motivation to study God's Word! So, if you are discouraged in your task of memorizing God's Word... take heart! Keep going, even when it's hard! You may find unsought-for blessings on the other side of your obedience.