My favorite movie of all time is “Chariots of Fire.” It won the Academy Award for best picture in 1981. The movie is based on the true story of two athletes as they prepare for the 1924 Olympic Games.
One of these athletes is a man by the name of Harold Abrahams. He comes from a wealthy family and has everything the world would say is important and should be desired. He is handsome, wealthy, successful, attends the most prestigious college in England, and falls in love with and eventually marries one of the most popular actresses in England. But, he is a Jew and feels the sting of prejudice. When he runs, he runs to overcome that prejudice.
The other main character in the movie is Eric Liddell. Liddell was born to a Missionary family in China and is a humble devout Christian. His driving purpose in life is to love and serve Jesus as a Missionary in China. But, he is fast. One of the most famous lines from the movie is when Liddell proclaims, “God made me fast. And, when I run, I feel His pleasure.” After much resistance, he is finally talked into competing in the Olympic Games. He runs for the Glory of God as an act of worship and an extension of his personal relationship with Jesus.
For this blog, I want to focus on the life of Eric Liddell. Liddell is most famous for backing out of the 100 meter dash, which he was favored to win, because the qualifying heat was on Sunday. After refusing to run in the 100 meter qualifying heat because Sunday is set aside to be the Lord’s Day, the British Olympic Committee worked a plan to have Liddell race in the 400 meter race. Liddell had hardly ever run this 400 meter race and was considered a heavy underdog to the favorite Americans. In an unbelievable athletic feat, Liddell set a world record in the 400 meter race and won the gold medal.
After the Olympic Games, Liddell returned to his life’s passion of serving Christ as a Missionary to the Chinese people. As WWII escalated, Japan invaded China. Because of impending danger, Liddell sent his pregnant wife and two young daughters to Canada for protection. Liddell remained in China and was eventually captured by the Japanese invaders. He was placed in a concentration camp with no running water or bathrooms and ended up serving the prisoners in the camp for years.
In 1944, the Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill, discovered that Liddell was in a concentration camp in China. Churchill arranged for a prisoner exchange to bring the famous athlete home. Right before the exchange occurred, Liddell gave up his spot to a pregnant woman so she could return to England and give her child a life of hope and freedom. Liddell remained in the concentration camp and died a year later, five months before the allied forces freed the prisoners in the camp.
On the surface, it seems like Eric Liddell’s life was a tragedy. Why would God withhold from this great man of faith years of fruitful ministry, the companionship of his beloved wife and the joy of raising his three daughters?
However, there is another way to look at the life of Eric Liddell. That is through the eyes of the survivors of that Japanese concentration camp and through the lense of God’s eternal kingdom perspective.
The children who survived the camp told of a godly man whom they called “Uncle Eric.” He deeply loved and tutored the children of the camp and gave them a sense of hope and purpose in the midst of horrific and terrible circumstances. He also cared for the elderly, the weak and the ill through his daily faithful and cheerful support and encouragement. He taught them all his favorite worship hymns and often spoke on his two favorite passages, 1 Corinthians 13 and Matthew 5. One of the survivors of the camp stated, “The secret of Eric Liddell was that he unreservedly committed his life to Jesus Christ, his Savior and Lord.”
Though he never saw his wife and three daughters in this world again, he became “Uncle Eric” and a father figure to the children in that camp. The final letter he wrote to his wife before he died ended with the statement, “Full Surrender.” He also said, “When you speak of Eric Liddell, give all the glory to my master – Jesus Christ.” On the surface, Liddell’s life, from a human perspective, seems to be a tragedy. But, God used him for His glory as a lifeline to hundreds of children and adults in that prison camp.
Over the years, I have often reflected on the impact this movie had on me personally. I also think about the life of Eric Liddell – a life well lived for Jesus Christ.
When I think of Liddell’s life, I am reminded of Philippians 3:7-20. Liddell was a living example of what Paul wrote about in Philippians 3. He considered everything that he accomplished in life as “a loss compared to the greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.” Liddell gave up everything – his wife and family – fame and success – even his freedom in order to know Christ and His resurrection power. His heart and mind were focused heavenward and he truly considered his “citizenship was in heaven.”
Every time I read Philippians 3, or think about the life of Eric Liddell, I am humbled and convicted. How easily I let the lies, pursuits and sufferings of this world distract me from my greatest goal – to know Christ – to be like Christ – to be all that Christ has in mind for me.
I need to remind myself daily that my “citizenship is in heaven” and my greatest goal in this life is to know Christ. I must have the single-mindedness of an athlete in training and lay aside all that distracts me from knowing Christ and becoming more like Him on a daily basis. I encourage all of us to follow the example of Eric Liddell – a life “fully surrendered” and well lived for Jesus Christ.