Memorizing the Word

Here’s a question: if the Son of God deemed it necessary to memorize the Scripture to defend himself against temptation, why would we think we’re exempt?

Memorize Phrase by Phrase

The Scripture provides the method for memorizing its rich truth. Isaiah recorded, “To whom will he teach knowledge . . . For it is precept upon precept . . . line upon line . . . here a little, there a little.”  The best way I have found to retain biblical passages is to learn a phrase, repeat it until I’ve mastered it, then move on to the next phrase. Once I have the phrases mastered, I begin to link them together. Sometimes I will alter my emphasis on certain words in the phrase; other times I will alter the location where I’m memorizing (my office, the car, my home), but always I am working the phrases and adding the subsequent phrase. As the Scripture says, line upon line, here a little, there a little.

Memorize Day by Day

When it comes to memorizing, I have found it to be more effective to spend a few minutes several times a day, as opposed to a lot of time one day during the week. Simply put, for your mind to permanently retain a truth, you will need to learn it more than once. For me the pattern works like this: Learn it once. Forget it. Relearn it. Forget it again. Relearn it again. Forget less. Relearn it again. Retain it.

While it may sound odd, forgetting is actually a significant part of memory retention. Remembering my need to forget keeps me from growing discouraged. Scripture memory is more of a process than a single event. Having worked on a verse for several days doesn’t mean I will remember it tomorrow morning. I now see the process of forgetting as an essential part of learning the verse.

 Taken from Just Like Jesus: biblical strategies for growing well byPhil Moser, pages 35-36. Available though www.biblicalstrategies.com

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Top 10 promises to memorize

Memorizing verses about the character of God and the nature of the gospel is an effective means to hold temptation at arm’s length. Temptation occurs at the “desire” level (James 1:14) so loving God more changes our desires. I have found the best way to do this is to get to know him better and to grow in appreciating the benefits of the gospel. The following 10 promises and accompanying verses have helped me to do both.

#1 God is good, loving and faithful.

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 100:5).

# 2 God loves me and enjoys acting on my behalf.

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing (Zephaniah 3:17 NIV).

 #3 God sacrificed his Son to show his love for me.

 8…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:8,10).

#4 Nothing can separate me from the love of God.

 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:35, 37)

#5 God is purposefully at work in my life and circumstances.

 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. . .  13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek   me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11, 13)

#6 God will never stop loving me.

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him” (Lamentations 3:23-24).

#7 God will always be with me.

 . . . for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6).

 #8 God is with me when I’m in trouble.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.             Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea . . . (Psalm 46:1-2)

#9 Having been forgiven I need not fear God’s condemnation.

 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

#10 God saved me, because of who he is, not because of who I am.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-6).

How the character of God holds self-pity at bay. . .

Living with suffering is hard work; it’s easy to lose your focus. Once your focus is disoriented it becomes difficult to hold self-pity at bay.  Suffering can come in many forms; not all of them physical. Our mind struggles with harsh and critical statements that seem unjustified. Our emotions vacillate between confusion, anger and grief when circumstances in our life seem to contradict the hand of loving God.

When the apostle Peter heard Jesus speak of suffering that was needful for him to endure, he tried to protect Jesus. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus’ answer was quick and to the point: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). 

Jesus focused on a specific aspect of the character of God—his wisdom. God thinks differently than man thinks. The wisdom of man is short-sighted and pragmatic (1 Cor. 2:8, 13). God’ wisdom is eternal and directed purposefully. The ability to focus on the character of God (not the wisdom of the man) is a quality Jesus develops (Heb. 5:8). He exercises this ability most fully in the garden of Gethsemane.

When confronted with the suffering (separation from God) he will experience on the cross Jesus asked if there might be another way. Mark recounts it this way: “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36).

Abba is a family term. It might be best rendered in the language of our day as “Daddy.” When my kids want the quickest access to my heart this is how they address me. It’s the term that every dad knows—like they’re saying, “Dad, I know you love me. . .” Jesus is clinging to this aspect of his Father’s character: his love. Then he adds, “. . . all things are possible for you.” He is acknowledging that the Father has the power to act if he would so choose.

Both with Peter and with his Father Jesus embraces suffering without questioning the character of God. In fact, it’s fair to say that he affirms and focuses on the character of God in the midst of his suffering. This is the means through which we avoid self-pity when times are hard. We trust the character of God not the wisdom of man.

One of my seminary professors who left a profound impact on my life was Dr. Fred Barshaw. Prior to becoming a pastor, Fred served as a public school teacher. Gifted in understanding the learning process, he received the esteemed “Teacher of the Year” award for the state of California. Fred’s strength was his application of the Word to real life situations, and I was drawn to the unique ways he found to communicate. During my final year of seminary, Fred began his battle with cancer. I graduated and headed into ministry on the other side continent. Several years later, I was developing material for a class, when I realized my lay out and presentation looked strikingly familiar. I went to my filing cabinet, pulled out my notes from one of Fred’s classes, placed them next to my own and immediately recognized the similarity. Having not intended to so, I realized I was teaching just like my teacher. I picked up the phone and called Fred, wanting to communicate my deep sense of gratitude for his investment in my life. Cancer had taken its toll. He was short of breath, and spoke with a hoarse whisper. Because he was so weak I expressed my appreciation quickly. Then I asked him how I could pray for him. There was a long pause, and then the words: pray that I would be faithful to the end. I did. Thirty days later, Fred Barshaw met Jesus.

Our response to suffering will take one of two roads. We can focus on the character of God and pray for faithfulness; or focus on the difficulty of our circumstances and indulge self-pity. Your focus will determine your ultimate outcome.

Trade in pride for humility

Millicent Fenwick understood loss. Born in 1910, she lost her mother five years later when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Fenwick went on to serve as the editor for Vogue magazine and as a New Jersey congresswoman. She gives the most colorful statement about self-pity you’ll ever read:

Self-pity . . . the most destructive emotion there is. How awful to be caught up in the terrible squirrel cage of self.

If you’ve seen a squirrel cage you understand the analogy. I remember seeing one at my aunt’s homestead years ago. It had a small box for sleeping and a large rotatable cylinder for exercising (kind of like a treadmill for squirrels). If the squirrel accelerated, the cylinder would spin faster. The squirrel would burn up energy, but never get ahead. This makes the cage a great analogy for trying to overcome self-pity on your own. You feel like you’re running in place; lots of energy expended, but when you stop there’s no progress.

If you could take a spiritual MRI of someone who is struggling with self-pity you would find pride as the stimulus. Pride whispers “you’re entitled.” When you don’t get what you think is deserved you feel sorry for yourself.

The solution is to change your way of thinking; then connect your thinking to your actions. This might sound simple enough, but it’s not. Feelings keep getting in the way. Our emotions tell us to crawl back in the squirrel cage and run a little faster. It’s just us and the cage, and no way out. With our thoughts consumed with self, we don’t know how to think about others. We just keep running.

Fortunately, we have Jesus as an example. He surrendered his sense of entitlement, and chose a spirit of humility instead. Paul captured it this way,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

The ESV Study Bible helps us understand the meaning,

Prior to the incarnation, Christ was in the form of God . . . “Form” here means the true and exact nature of something, possessing all the characteristics and qualities of something. Therefore having the “form of God” is roughly equivalent to having equality with God . . . and it is directly contrasted with having the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7) . . . Remarkably, Christ did not imagine that having “equality with God” (which he already possessed) should lead him to hold onto his privileges at all costs. It was not something to be grasped, to be kept and exploited for his own benefit or advantage. Instead, he had a mind-set of service. “Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3). In humility, he counted the interests of others as more significant than his own (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (2283). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles).

As God, Jesus had the right to rule. We were his creation, not vice versa. But Jesus didn’t grasp that right, he surrendered it. In so doing he put on humility, thereby finding it possible and preferable to serve others with the best of attitudes. Like Jesus, we can choose the spirit of humility over the sense of entitlement.

Genuine humility shines brightly when pressed into service; self-pity will not endure. The genuine article will always outshine the knock-off.

So today, serve others with a spirit of humility. Stop running in the squirrel cage of your self-centeredness.

How Jesus overcame self-pity

In the gospel record we find a number of instances where Jesus could have chosen to feel sorry for himself. When we examine the surrounding circumstances and his response, we gain a greater understanding for how we should respond in similar situations to avoid self-pity.

Change your role.

Our culture prizes being served. Google “pamper yourself” and expect to find over 7 million hits. You won’t read much about serving the poor and needy there, but one phrase is sure to show up: you deserve it. Search the web for that phrase and you’ll find 133 million people giving advice.

You will always be susceptible to self-pity whenever your starting point is someone serving you because you think you “deserve” it. Not only will others not meet your expectations, but you will desire the wrong thing. You’re looking to be served and not to serve. The disciples had this problem. Mark records they were arguing about who should have the best seats in the kingdom. Jesus response was instructive for them and for us.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).

The lesson we learn from Jesus is to replace a failure to be served with a desire to serve.

Deepen your desire.

You would think that Jesus’ words and actions would have been enough to bring about change in the disciples, but they were not. On the night before his crucifixion the disciples are at it again; this time in the upper room. Perhaps it was Jesus’ triumphal entry earlier in the week that got them thinking it was time to divide up the kingdom.

Imagine the situation from Jesus’ perspective: Three years of selfless ministry, his death only 24 hours away, and still they’re arguing. That’s enough to push anyone into the self-pity chasm. Look at Jesus’ response.

Jesus . . . rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:3-5).

Remarkable. Chances to indulge our self-pity are viewed by Jesus as opportunities to deepen his desire to serve.

Purge your response.

What if you’re not recognized for your service? Is a bad attitude justified? God is purging. He wants you to develop the heart of a servant, not simply the actions.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “The hardest part about being a servant is being treated like one.” Agreed. Most of us can enjoy doing a kind deed for someone, but when the deed is taken for granted or we fail to be appreciated it’s easy to have a self-pity attack.

Even when his acts of kindness were rebuffed, Jesus didn’t succumb to self-pity. He kept serving. This response inoculated him against potential bitterness. It’s hard to have a complaining spirit when your ultimate goal is to serve others.

Self-Pity: Thinking too highly of oneself

Self-pity causes us to see ourselves as better than we really are. We tend to think of self-pity as thinking too poorly of ourselves, but the opposite is true. We are thinking too highly of ourselves. Self-pity is a preoccupation with self. Because it is birthed from the “pride” family of sins, it comes with a sense of entitlement. This is revealed each time we are denied something we believe we deserve, or when we receive something we don’t believe we deserve.

Jonah’s conversation with God in the 4th chapter of his prophecy reveals this clearly. He had been denied what he really wanted to see – a front row seat to the destruction of Nineveh. He entered the city from the west; courtesy is submarine ride through the Mediterranean Sea. His message was simple: “Forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” A few days later he exited the city through their East gate, climbed a mountain and sat down to watch the destruction. Only one problem: the people of Nineveh repented. And God, being true to his character, showed mercy. The destruction was called off. This angered Jonah; because he thought the people of Nineveh deserved to be destroyed. Check out the conversation,

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:1-4)

 Jonah knew the character of God. He appreciated second chances when they were extended to him; he just didn’t believe the people of Nineveh deserved the same deal. God saw it differently.

In the hot desert winds God showed Jonah grace again. He appointed a plant to grow up and provide shade for Jonah’s aching head. Jonah must have smiled. He liked God’s grace when it was directed towards him. You get the impression he thought he deserved it. But grace is never deserved, so the next day God appointed a hungry worm. The plant could not survive the worm’s appetite. Jonah’s cabana was gone. He was angry again, but God’s grace lesson wasn’t over. God sent a wind from the east. To avoid the sand in his eyes, Jonah would have to turn back to the West, and stare at the city of people he didn’t think deserved God’s grace.

Self-pity pours from this chapter. Jonah was angry at everything and everyone. He complained incessantly. Twice he declared he’d be better off dead than alive. Beneath the surface of Jonah’s self-pity you hear his sense of entitlement.

He deserves grace for his wrong choices.
He deserves shade for his aching head.
He deserves to watch the destruction of his enemies.

He deserves, deserves, deserves. And when he doesn’t get what he deserves he mires down in self-pity. Sadly the book bearing his name ends right there – with Jonah staring at God’s grace, but unwilling to grant it.

His life is a vivid reminder of the suffocating isolation that self-pity brings.

How we become prone to self-pity

If you developed a top 10 list for Bible characters, Moses and Elijah would probably make the cut. Men of strong faith, used mightily by God, and respected by the people they served. Yet, both had moments when they struggled, when self-pity took root, and discouragement followed. The biblical accounts of their struggles are helpful, because God answers them, revealing his perspective on their situations.

What you learn from Moses and Elijah is that we are most prone to self-pity when see ourselves improperly. That improper view of self (and ultimately God) distorts the truth.

Here is the truth: Moses was used by God to lead the people out of their slavery in Egypt, but it was God who would do the delivering. Notice God’s words when he called Moses,

Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . (Ex. 3:7-8).

Moses was on the road to the Promised Land when the unsatisfied desires of the Israelites put him over the edge. It’s not that Moses hadn’t heard their complaining before, but this time was unique; because, Moses assumed the burden to be his that only God could bear.

Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent  . . . Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of the people on me? (Num. 11:11).

God never placed the burden of the people on Moses, Moses assumed it. While his life was typically characterized by humility (Num. 12:3), in this situation he thought to highly of himself. God was not placing a burden on Moses that he was to carry alone. Moses seems to have forgotten that God was the one who had promised to deliver the people.  

For a moment, Moses saw himself in the God position – as if the burdens of the world were his alone to bear. Trying to hand a seemingly impossible situation on his own brought about his bout of self-pity.

Ultimately we embrace self-pity not only because our perspective of self is too large, but because our view of God is too small. Notice the dialogue between God and Moses,

But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (Num. 11:21-23)

God had promised Moses he would not have to walk this road alone, but briefly Moses looked around, felt alone, and lived that way. Ultimately, the burden was too great, and he reverted to self–pity under self–imposed pressure.