I was desperate for encouragement but couldn’t even open my Bible. As my tears fell, the words I could not read welled up inside instead.

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. . . .” (Ps. 139:13–14). Unbidden, my soul remembered its truest story, the story that my present suffering was threatening to smash and scatter into the wind.

A month after I turned 20, my body suddenly became a place of pain rather than possibility. In a matter of days, I could no longer walk because of severe joint pain and inflammation. I sat on my dorm bed, and for a few minutes I tried to uncoil my swollen hands to turn the pages of my Bible, to no avail.

In that suffering, the Word hidden in my heart started countering my fear. I was confused and craving comfort, but God’s story was alive inside of me, welcoming me into the wonder that I am loved at my weakest.

God’s Word became a living part of my memory long before I most needed it. Many summers during my childhood, my Presbyterian church memorized an entire chapter of Scripture together, including the psalm that bubbled up in me that afternoon in college. Our pastor printed verses on colored paper and posted them on every wall and bathroom stall. Each Sunday evening we would gather in the warmth of the setting sun, sitting in lawn chairs in quiet Michigan backyards, where word by word we repeated passages of Scripture together. It was before our eyes, on our lips, in our hearts, and in our midst.

Scripture memory was also a central part of my education at my conservative Baptist school. But instead of shared joy, there were stars on charts. At church, I learned God’s Word as a story while standing next to 70-year-olds with beaming smiles. But at school, I learned to satisfy teachers, afraid of their frowns. I barely remember the hundreds of verses “memorized” for our weekly quizzes. But the words we said under the summer sun are welded into who I am.

We can better understand the difference between what we remember and what we forget by learning the way God designed our brains and bodies to form lasting memories.

Most of us misunderstand the basic way memory works. In a large-scale 2011 study, researchers found that 63 percent of Americans believe human memory is like a video camera—as though our minds accurately record everything we see and hear so we can review and reflect on it later.

In reality, memory is a complex function of how the brain processes each moment, situation, and relationship and how it directs our response. Memory is shaping the story we live every moment of every day, but most of us are unaware of its steering. Our minds are etched by relationships, and our past relational experiences subconsciously guide how we experience God, ourselves, and others now. Our past shapes our present and our future.

Jessie Cruickshank is a researcher, minister, and Harvard-trained expert in neuroscience and education. She explained that our long-term memory banks are composed of two kinds of memories. “Heart knowledge is that embodied, autobiographical memory,” she told CT, “and head knowledge is semantic.” These two parts of our memory are not easily linked, such that it is incredibly difficult to learn something in our semantic memory and then wire it to our hearts.

According to Cruickshank, who is now a consultant at the leadership support ministry 5Q, the way most Christians in the US approach Scripture, especially memorizing it, involves using semantic memory. But research has shown that semantic memory has an extremely high forgetting rate. In other words, we often try to memorize Scripture in a manner in which it will be easily lost. Autobiographical memory, however, has much more staying power.

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We want the Word of Christ to dwell richly among us (Col. 3:16) so that the stories of God’s love and redemption become so thoroughly etched in our memory that they guide us more than sin or any feelings of abandonment or fear. The Word has to be experienced and embraced as living, active, and relational to become a lasting part of our autobiographical memory. We must approach Scripture with our whole selves, whole stories, and whole bodies as a means by which we can encounter the author of all life, rather than as facts to retain or truth to know.

Cruickshank explained: “Only autobiographical memory can project into the future. Because it’s the memory of your past, it’s the memory of your future. It’s called prospecting. . . . Semantic memory cannot do that. So if you learn something as a data fact, you literally cannot—biologically cannot—apply it to your life. This has profound implications for discipleship. If you memorize—which is semantic memory—‘God is good,’ you literally cannot apply that to your life.”

Memorizing Scripture in ways that do not fully get stored in our autobiographical memory might mean we will know the truth but be incapable of living it. But when the Word, story, and presence of God become part of our autobiographical memory, we can’t help but apply them to our lives because they’ve been encoded into our story. Instead of needing to find a verse to discern right from wrong, we can so thoroughly encounter the person of God in his Word that walking in his way of wisdom becomes the habit of our hearts.

But we’re much more used to looking up information than dwelling with it and meditating on it. We live with nearly constant access to search engines, and research is showing that when we interact with the internet as an assistive memory partner, we do not remember as much information.

Researchers call this dynamic cognitive offloading. Perhaps without realizing it, we’re also offloading Scripture’s place in our hearts by searching for words or phrases on Bible Gateway instead of taking the time to search the Bible for ourselves. As psychologists Daniel M. Wegner and Adrian F. Ward wrote in Scientific American in 2013, our tendency toward cognitive offloading may “undermine the impulse to ensure that some important, just learned facts get inscribed into our biological memory banks.”

They also noted that the relational richness of our shared knowledge is diminishing, even as our access to knowledge has never been more expansive. Researchers in France and the UK have shown that “digital natives,” those who have grown up with internet-
connected technologies, tend to gravitate toward shallow information processing. According to Ward, our tendency to reach for Google to tell us what’s true may be impairing how we encode new memories, keeping us from developing metamemory—our knowledge of learning processes and our capacity to be aware of and regulate how we form memories.

Our habits of disconnection and distraction with a wealth of devices at our fingertips keep us from being shaped to feel the wealth and wonder of the story of God as our own. Both our tendency toward cognitive offloading and our general bias toward treating Scripture like a collection of facts rather than encountering the person of God keep us stuck in a mode of shallow information processing, where the Word and presence of God cannot become rooted in our autobiographical memory.

Image: Illustration by Cornelia Li

Rafael Rodriguez, a professor of New Testament at Johnson University in Knoxville, Tennessee, shared in an interview how the early church’s oral culture interacted with the Word of God. Though the earliest Christians had much lower rates of literacy, they were driven to turn to the words not simply to remember facts but to encounter Jesus. “The texts are important,” Rodriguez said, “because we believe God speaks through them to us and to our world and to our community.”

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Rodriguez encourages his students to learn to listen to Scripture much the way a first-century Christian would. He tells them, “Read this out loud so that the muscles of your chest and throat and mouth have to form these words, so that your ears register them, so that your eyes see them on the page. You want to engage your whole body. Write out the Word, not just type out the Word. When you’re writing with a pen and paper, it interiorizes the Word in a way that’s much more real. Being a scribe of the Word is important for us as individual Christians and as the community of the church.”

Cruickshank agrees. She says that when we engage the Bible first and foremost as a relationship with the living God, it activates the parts of our brain needed to encode the story of Scripture into our autobiographical memory. Further, as we engage the Word with our whole bodies—writing, speaking, listening, drawing, and imagining—and connect it reflectively to our stories, we are able to absorb it in a way that connects multiple systems of our brains.

Some people in ministry witness these theories at work. Every Sunday, pastor Jon Brown stands before the congregation of Pillar Church in Holland, Michigan, and recites the sermon’s passage of Scripture from memory. In an interview with CT, Brown shared that he calls his approach “interiorization” instead of memorization. He described his process of sermon preparation as indwelling the story of Scripture so thoroughly that it becomes his story, so that when he shares it with his congregation, they can also experience the story as their own.

Brown preaches from texts set by the Narrative Lectionary, a four-year cycle of readings crafted by two professors at Luther Seminary aimed at helping Christians experience the Word as a larger, living story. During the week, Brown sets aside time to commit the text to memory. Like Rodriguez, he seeks to absorb a biblical passage with his whole body, employing hand motions, drawing, speaking the words aloud, writing out the passage, and using mnemonic devices. By the middle of the week, Brown says he has so internalized it that he cannot help but see its patterns and themes come alive in conversation. Rather than being something he can just recite, the Word animates his thoughts and actions. It becomes part of his autobiographical memory and sense of self. And he’s been doing this for 17 years.

Gary Cantwell, chief communications officer for the Navigators, shared similar experiences of being holistically formed by Scripture. Like Brown and Rodriguez, Cantwell has used embodied practices to absorb the Word over the past year while working through the Navigators’ Topical Memory System—drawing pictures and even recording himself reading verses to listen to later. He described noticing a shift from outside to in: “I have it [the Word] in my heart.” He said Bible memory was more of a duty or expectation in the early days of the Navigators, but leaders today are encouraged to pass on verses “from disciple to disciple” in a conversational way.

Yet there’s still potential for ministries that stress Bible memory to unwittingly shape Christians to turn to Scripture to accumulate facts rather than become part of God’s story. When our focus is on head knowledge, our encounters with the Word can become void of eagerness to be shaped by its author.

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What helps us move from being mere observers of Scripture to participants in God’s story? Cruickshank says it’s suffering. When we suffer and experience the cognitive dissonance of realizing some things we thought were true are not, our brains release a hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Research done by the University of Arizona has shown that learning is optimized when we fail 15 percent of the time. When we come up against the limits of our knowledge of God and life, when we realize we are not in control and sometimes are wrong—a place that suffering brings us to again and again—God has wired us so that our bodies release the very hormone we need to form new neural connections. And as we learn to pause there, to reflect rather than anxiously seek answers or quick relief, our brains stay in the state needed for the presence and Word of God to become rooted in our autobiographical memory.

Living as an at-risk person during the COVID-19 era, I’m again finding that suffering can recall the Word within me. Right before the pandemic started, I looked forward to speaking opportunities all over the country. Now, my doctors anticipate I may not be medically safe to fly or even go to church until there is a vaccine. In a corner of my small apartment, I speak aloud the words of Psalm 18: “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me” (v. 19, ESV). Day by day, I mouth the words from behind my mask as I slowly make a loop around our neighborhood park. In my smallness, engaging all my senses, I start to see a spaciousness within me and feel a growing hope that I will again live farther than the confines of my apartment and park. It’s in the contrast between where I am, where I’d like to be, and what David expressed as true that I find my story in this season becoming bigger than what I can see.

In Jesus, we are offered the relationship that will change our stories by renewing our minds (Rom. 12:1–2), down to the very firing of our neural networks. Because Christ came, because he suffered, because he lives in us now by his Spirit, he is always meeting us in our smallness and sorrow. As we move from merely memorizing Scripture to encountering God with all our senses and emotions—especially when we are most anxious, confused, and in need of comfort—Christ’s story becomes our own. That is a broad place.

K. J. Ramsey is a licensed professional counselor and writer who lives in Colorado. Sections of this article are taken from her first book, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers.

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