‘Why you shouldn’t memorize Bible verses’. That’s how Jean Williams began a short series on learning Bible passages.
Why? Bible verses are hard to remember, because you’re trying to hang a tiny shred of Scripture on the flimsy hook of an arbitrary chapter and verse number. They lack context, which makes them not only harder to remember but less useful for disciple-making ministry, and potentially dangerous.
But surely longer passages are too hard? “My memory’s rubbish”, everyone says.
Firstly, don’t discount your memory, it’s better than you think. (And less accurate, but that’s another story.) Barring serious illness, everyone can remember things with the right tools.
The tool I’ve found most invaluable in memorization is spaced repetition flashcards. The idea is that you store what you want to remember on digital flashcards, Q&A style, front and back, and revise them with an app, grading each card as you study. The app remembers for each card how well (or how poorly!) you know it. Then the app prompts you to study each card on the day before it estimates you would forget it.
It’s like cheating your own forgetful brain, and it’s backed by science.
My favourite app for this is Anki, which is free for PC/Mac/Android (not iPhone/iPad, it's quite expensive for iOS, but in my opinion it’s worth every penny). There are others too, such as the popular Memrise. There are also many flashcard systems that don’t provide spaced repetition, but this is the essential feature you need, so don’t waste your time with those that lack it.
Now, this technique is straightforward to apply to vocabulary or trivia (“What is the capital city of Saint Kitts and Nevis?”), but there’s a simple trick to use it to learn poetry or prose as well. Just set up the ‘question’ on the front of the card to be a few lines from the passage, and the ‘answer’ on the back to be the two lines continuing on. If you make the cards overlap, so each part of the passage appears in the answer on two cards, you’ll have a better chance at remembering the whole flow of passages.
I’ve written a tool to take some of the pain out of this process. AnkiVerse has two jobs. Its main job is to take a block of text that has been broken into lines, and produce a series of overlapping flashcards to help you memorize the passage. Technically, it produces a CSV file or spreadsheet you can import into Anki, Memrise, or other tools. Its other job is to fetch a Bible passage from ESV Online and automatically chop it into lines for you, so you don’t have to do that part manually.
You can check out three of my AnkiVerse flashcard decks by using the ‘download shared deck’ feature in Anki:
Your heart is closer than the pocket where you keep your Bible (or smartphone Bible app). When you’ve learned a chapter, or Jesus’ famous Sermon, or your favourite Psalms, you’ll find they’re ready for the Holy Spirit to use to encourage and challenge you and others. If you prepare your church Bible readings this way, you can deliver it with greater understanding, eye contact and impact, and you get to keep the passage with you afterwards almost for free.
May Jesus build his church through your learning of his Word.
Photo credit: k4dordy