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The Downside of Bible Memorization

Coming from a Christian, that statement seems oxymoronic, if not completely heretical, doesn’t it? I mean, if the Bible is God’s holy, inspired Word, how can memorizing it possibly have a downside? Well, as I inferred in my last post, I think it can. One need only reflect upon the many people with advanced knowledge of Scripture who, for whatever reason, do not embrace its promises, to affirm that knowing what the Bible says is no guarantee of faith or orthodoxy.

First, several disclaimers: By suggesting that memorizing the Bible may have a downside, I am not (at least, intentionally) minimizing Scripture. God’s Word is “living and powerful” (Heb. 4:12-13), just like it says. It provides spiritual sustenance, wisdom, direction, and revelation. Furthermore, memorizing Scripture and learning to handle it appropriately is essential to Christian health and growth. We are taught to meditate on it day and night, and to hide it in our hearts. These are all gimmes.

So how can knowing something so powerful and life-giving have a downside? Glad you asked. The downside of Bible memorization is not in the content of Scripture, but in our approach to it.

C.S. Lewis described the Bible as a roadmap. Roadmaps are not meant to be memorized, but to be followed. The same is true of Scripture. The Bible is not our destination, it is our means to get there. Problem is, for many believers, knowing what the Bible says has become their primary destination.

While Bible memorization can potentially be a powerful tool, it can inadvertently misplace a more important discipline: the application of Scripture. Knowing the Bible is not a substitute for practicing it. Jesus said as much in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7). He described two men, one who built his house on the sand, the other on a rock. Only the man who built his house on the rock survived the storm. Most people view “the rock” in this parable as illustrating Christ. In context, however, that’s a misinterpretation.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. Matt. 7:24 NASB (emphasis mine)

The difference between these two builders was not in the materials they used, but how they used them. A life that is built on the practice of Scripture is infinitely better (and more stable) than a life devoted  simply to the knowledge of Scripture. In other words, it is far better to practice two Bible verses than to have memorized 200.

The Pharisees and Sadducees of Christ’s day are a case in point. They were meticulously studied in the Scriptures. Nevertheless, Jesus said they were woefully ignorant of both the Scripture and the power of God (Matt. 22:29).  They worshiped the Law and missed the Lawgiver. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (Jn. 5:39 NASB). They missed God for His Word. And therein lies the downside to Bible memorization.

As parents, I believe we should exercise caution in how we teach the Scripture. The Bible is not like the alphabet or multiplication table, a sequence of numbers or letters that I must grasp before I can graduate. Behind the verses and stories are spiritual truths that can grip and transform our children’s lives.  The truth transcends the letter. When training our kids to study and memorize the Bible, we must approach it in that spirit.

Of course, we cannot follow the Bible until we know what it says. However, if we’re not careful, we can mistake a knowledge of Scripture for a godly life. The devil is a good example of this fallacy.

Bible memorization is a tool,  not so much for knowing Scripture, as much as  for applying it. Therefore, if memorizing God’s Word does have a downside it is in the fact that people see memorization as the destination, rather than part of the journey.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Heather May 4, 2009, 5:44 PM

    A couple of recommended books in line with this:
    Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson
    The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight
    Rethinking Worldview by J. Mark Bertrand

  • Michelle Pendergrass May 6, 2009, 3:04 PM

    Y'know, I always hated the idea of memorizing Scripture (especially KJV.) I hate to say I hated anything in reference to the Bible, God, or Scripture–and I never really came out and said it (until now) but every time someone talked, blogged, or otherwise about memorizing Scripture, I got a rock in my stomach.

    I homeschool my son and his Bible curriculum asks him to memorize (KJV–ugh) and he knows my response is, "Skip it." He asked me why one day and I said, "Because I don't like that version of the Bible and had I known that's all this curriculum worked in, I wouldn't have ordered it and next year we're doing something different."

    But really, what you've said here (I have realized, thank you!) is the REAL reason I'm opposed to it.

    From the beginning of the year, I've been working on an art Scripture journal and have really been contemplating why I've always been so against it. I'd say God's timing was impeccable (once again, as always!)

    I'm wondering, though, why I couldn't come up with this answer myself. LOL

    • cirdog May 7, 2009, 1:54 AM

      Michelle, your Scripture art projects are fantastic! Honestly, challenging the concept of Bible memorization can easily be misunderstood. But after years of pastoring I was beginning see this "magic wand" approach to helping believers grow. You know, "Read your Bible, pray, attend a small group, etc. etc." The problem is that it's much more complex than that. Yes, we should do all those things. But approaching them in a mechanistic way does not cultivate a healthy relationship with God. The real issue is learning how to practice those disciplines without letting them become legalism. Thanks, Michelle!

  • RebeccaLuEllaMiller May 6, 2009, 6:12 PM

    Mike, I don't disagree with your main thoughts here. It's just that, when we're talking about kids, some things shouldn't be options for them. They need to do the right things whether or not they feel like it or understand fully. If we wait until they get it and are properly motivated, well, we will have missed a big part of what training is all about.

    My parents never insisted I memorize Scripture, but I learned key passages because some Sunday school teacher required it. I'm not sorry in the least and actually wish I knew more.

    I think we have to be careful that we don't reason ourselves out of helping young people develop good habits when it comes to Scripture.


    • cirdog May 7, 2009, 2:11 AM

      Becky, I agree that some things shouldn't be options for our kids. I'm not sure that Bible memorization should be one of them. Even so, if it is, parents must, at some point, be careful to emphasize the spirit of the Scripture being memorized, not just the accumulation of verses. May I use an illustration? Young kids should be taught to not go in the street. It's totally legit to draw a line for a young child, for instance, "Do not step foot beyond the curb." But, hopefully, as they mature, they learn that there is deeper importance to that rule. The line gives way to the "spirit of the law." Bible memorization, by itself, keeps Christians standing at the curb.

      Thanks for your comments, Becky!

  • Michelle Pendergrass May 7, 2009, 2:18 AM

    Mike–I totally agree that the "sanctification" part of growing in Christ is MUCH more complex than the magic wand approach. Which is why I'm positive God talked so much about mentoring. People, being human as it is, like to take the cookie cutter approach and act as if what works for one works for all.

    And thanks for the compliment!

    And Becky–while I think it's great that kids memorize Scripture, I don't think forcing it is the right way to go about it. And if it's a teacher who cares about the kids, it will be taught with application. It won't be a follow the curriculum because we have to and if I'm not in class with the kids no one else will, throw God's word out and it won't return void misapplication of memorization.

    Yeah, sorry. I'm still bitter about stuff like this I guess. I want my son to know what the verse means in the context it is written rather than just sending him to Sunday School hoping something happens the way it's supposed to.

  • RebeccaLuElla May 7, 2009, 5:50 PM

    Mike, as I said, I don't disagree with the main thrust of this post. I do think it's telling that you tagged it "legalism" as if requiring kids to memorize Scripture qualifies as legalistic. I'm sorry, but then the parent who says Don't get in the street is also legalistic. There are times when kids need to do what is right so they learn to do what is right.

    We are sinners with sin natures and leaving kids to flounder through life picking and choosing without spiritual guidance is not what God calls parents to do.

    Are there "magic wands" that will lead to magic spiritual health? Of course not. But there are disciplines. That means hard work and doing things you don't always feel like doing. Like eating your vegetables or making your bed. But from what I hear, parents today don't teach their kids to do those things either.

    I think it's ironic, is all, that in this permissive environment, Christian parents are warned about the dangers of legalism.

    From my view, we should be warning about imbalance. Not legalism. That would translate into a post that says, Memorizing Scripture is great as long as you also teach your children what the verses mean and how they matter to life today. As long as you, parent, also love God's Word and live it out in your dealings with your child. How then could Scripture memorization be "wrong"? It's not the activity. It's the attitude.

    And Michelle, I can only say I'm sorry you didn't have someone bring the two in sinc for you when you were growing up. May God be your help as you try to do differently by your children.


  • Dennis Gray June 25, 2009, 1:44 PM

    I realize I'm coming into this discussion a little after the fact but I've had an issue or two with verse memorization myself. I long ago came to the conclusion that Bible memorization that works against proper application of scripture a lot of the time; specifically, the memorization of just one or two verses by themselves. The reason I say this is a problem is because all too often they end up being taken out of context and applied to situations in the same manner. To avoid this we've started following the approach of memorizing the story, not just the verse. The result is the context of the passage is maintained.

    There's an added benefit when sharing our faith as well, in that when we have a point to make instead of just quoting isolated verses we can begin thew discussion with "Let me tell you a story…" The response has been dramatic.

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