Eric Liddell is best known for his stint as an Olympian. He was a runner who once said that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. At the 1924 Olympics, representing Britain, Eric was initially slotted to run the 100m. A problem arose when he discovered that his race was set for Sunday. The ‘Flying Scot’, as he was known, was a man of conviction. He would not race on the Lord’s Day. Needless to say, his delegation was irked. But Eric simply wouldn’t run on Sunday. Through a surprising series of maneuvers he was reassigned to the 400m, set for another day. Moments before this race, a piece of paper was passed to Eric. It had a verse from 1 Samuel 2.30, wherein God says: ‘Those who honour Me, I will honour’. He ran with this paper in his hand. Eric not only won the race and the gold medal, but also broke the existing record.
What followed this momentous event is less well known. Eric, you see, spent the rest of his life decreasing. In a certain sense. This is to say that instead of pursuing a highly-profiled career in sport or coaching, with all the benefits of finance and fame, he opted to leave his native country where such opportunities abounded. The allure of further acclaim did not overpower him. It did not distract from his pre-existing, longstanding plans. He relocated to China, settling in the city of Tianjin as a science teacher and overseas missionary. In this determination, he took up the legacy of his parents, who had given their lives to similar service.
In China, Eric married a Canadian and became the father of several daughters. The years to come, especially as WWII erupted, would prove difficult. But amidst such difficulties, Eric’s character—reverence for God, humility, sacrifice for others, and joy—would be proven all the more. Eric was a man who was not only close to the Lord with his lips, but also in his heart. And his adoration, trust, and commitment to Christ flowed forth in his life and relationships. This had been the case when he was an Olympian—when the world was watching. It was also the case when he was far away and out of public sight. He was the same godly, generous, servant-hearted man that he had been in his younger days as a highly-profiled athlete.
Eric was a man who was not only close to the Lord with his lips, but also in his heart.
As the strife and travesty of WWII ensued, China was invaded by Japan. Being in eastern China, Eric’s city of residence was quick to suffer from the Japanese onslaught. Expatriates and locals alike were either dispersed or rounded up and imprisoned. Having some foresight about these prospects, Eric made prior arrangements for his family to leave the country. He chose to remain behind, and with others, was interned in a Japanese prison camp. The conditions were harsh. Resources were scarce. The temptation to self-preservation and survival – at any cost – was rife. But not for Eric.
Eric was a leader in the camp, but didn’t wield this power for self-advantage. Rather, he used all he had and could do, to serve, comfort, and uplift others. He shared his sparse rations. He volunteered for the most unpleasant jobs. He strove to boost morale in a bleak environment. He did all of this with a resilience of spirit that touched even the most jaded and miserly of inmates. This was how Eric, the Olympian, finished his life. His ethos was the embodiment of St. Paul’s attitude in 2 Corinthians 4: he was afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, struck down but not destroyed, and given over to death while working for life in others.
A few days prior to his death, a terrible headache engulfed him. It could have been the result of dehydration or malnutrition. But it wasn’t. It was a tumour. And with malignant haste, it snuffed the life out of his earthly body.
There’s more to be said about the finish of Eric’s earthly life.
Five years ago, I met a couple, Joe and Joyce, who were with Eric in that camp. They knew him. Watched him. Were inspired by him—and the reality of Christ in him. Joyce sat next to Eric when he died. She heard his last words, whispered with quiet reverence: ‘Surrender…It is surrender’. For Eric, it was. Surrender to God’s will and purposes for his life, setting his sight on a prize far greater than any gold medal. More magnificent and lasting and satisfying than any moment of fame.
In this orientation, Eric exhibits a central pattern of true Christian life. He decreased that Christ might increase. In doing this, the light of Christ brought a glow to his own life. This is a glow that continues to warm and inspire others. This is why Eric should be remembered. Not merely for his legs and speed, but for his example of integrity: a way of life wherein his devotion to Christ is integrated into his entire mode of being. This is the common call of every Christian. Such a life displays an expression of Christian sincerity that can and does move humanity. Such a life blesses those around us. Your life can be like this, too.