Eric Liddell is a man for our time. This not because of his Olympic fame nor the glorification of him in the award winning film, Chariots of Fire. It is because we live in a time that our consciences have been seared and our rationalization has destroyed the faith that fuels holy fires. Fires that in the past have burned bright against tyranny, and have been a light for generations in the future.
Prior to being a 1924 Olympian and Christian hero, Eric Liddell was a scrawny little missionary kid (MK) born to James and Mary Liddell. The Liddells were missionaries to China during the early 1900s, and no one could have guessed that their scrawny, pale skinned, immunocompromised, Eric Liddell would become one the greatest British athletes in world history. Eric had his share of physical setbacks as a child, but what he lacked physically was compensated by his will and love for God. On one occasion, his family had found themselves caught in a terrible storm during one of their hikes through China. Perceiving that the group was going slow on his account, he told his mom that they should leave him to die and go on without him. Of course, his family did not abandon him, and he eventually overcame his health issues. After his time as an MK in China, Eric returned to Scotland where he attended a boarding school for his grade school education, then went on to college where his athletic ability flowered into Olympic glory.
Eric had dominated the shorter distances in track, despite his horrible form. He also was an accomplished rugby player, although as his fame spread his career in rugby took a hit because the opposition doubled their coverage on the “fast guy”. But despite his love of rugby, Eric found himself back on the cinder tracks and in the stadiums. He specialized in the 100- and 220-yrd dashes, earned a spot on the 1924 British Olympic team, and was favored to win Gold in his events. But his hard work and effort were temporarily crushed, not by injury, nor by unruly competition or foul play, but by his own conviction and loyalty to God.
In his day, Eric was one of the fastest men in the world. But when he found out that he would be required to compete in the qualifying heats on Sunday, he dropped out of the events. Why? Eric was a Presbyterian Sabbatarian. In other words, the Sabbath, Sunday was a central piece of his religious expression. It was so central that when he discovered that his qualifying heats for his events would be on Sunday, his holy day, he immediately told his coaches and the Olympic committee that he had to respectfully forfeit for religious reasons.
For Eric, competing on Sunday would be a violation of the Sabbath. Ironically, his rival, Harold Abrahams, a religious Jew, was permitted to compete on Sunday by his religion. Liddell’s sacrifice gave one of God’s chosen persons a gold medal, but Eric was left to sit out the event and watch his friend and rival snatch a victory from Eric’s forfeit.
Eric was ridiculed, shamed, called a traitor to his country, mocked by newspapers, and yet he stood firm. In a world that demanded his submission, Eric resolved to say “No”. In a world that had lost its mind, Eric preserved his. The parallel of our time’s weak consciences to that of Eric’s iron will and faithfulness to God should be obvious.
What would Christians today say about Eric’s conviction? “You’re so legalistic!”, “How pharisaical of you!”, “Don’t you know we are under the New Covenant; that means we don’t have to be religious anymore.”
But what would Eric say to Christians today with our Sunday youth sports leagues, our online services, and rating churches based on their entertainment value, rather than their doctrine? What would he say of the Christian conscience today, the conscience that is so seared that even blatant violations of human rights silence the heart, and extinguish flames of courage? What would he say of Christians who put their pronouns in their bios to keep their job, while atheists refuse and lose theirs? What would he say of Christians justifying surrogacy or In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) instead of adoption, ironically claiming to be pro-life? What would he say of Christians who pour thousands of dollars into Disney products and theme parks, despite the company conspiring openly to promote LGBT+ propaganda to kids at every moment a parent is too tired to pay attention (see Chris Rufo’s leaked Executive meetings about a “not so secret gay agenda”)? Or the Christian leaders who preach a false Gospel that makes repentance optional? Finally, what would he say of those who violated their conscience and got the vaccine, not because they believed it would help them, but because they didn’t want to lose their job or be outcast by their families?
One can only speculate. He may or may not even see some of these as conversations worth having, but his example vs our example of rolling over at every possible opportunity is a stark. However, being the meek man the biographer paints him to be, Eric would probably smile at you and say “God still loves you. Did you know that?”
That said, Eric Liddell is remembered because of his devotion to God, not his fire and brimstone messages, nor his exceptional Olympic accomplishment in the 440-yrd dash; athletes win Gold every four years in the Olympics, but only a handful have reached the notoriety that Liddell did. Regardless, what can we learn from Eric’s example? Are there any lessons to take from his life that apply outside the Olympic stage?
Eric clearly saw that serving God required man to render to God his soul and body. In other words, a man in relationship with God had moral obligations to God: obligations that the world thought absurd and many Christians today would scoff at and mock. But the world and fellow Christians mocking those more faithful than them is nothing new. The world has always been maddened by men of godly conscience, and these men have always been necessary to constrain the insanity. In the madness we find ourselves in, we need a little more Liddell.
For the sake of time, I won’t delve into Eric’s theology or philosophy of missions and evangelism. Eric’s approach to evangelism may appear weak to some, but he was no coward or moral relativist like the Christians today who constantly rationalize whatever they prefer solely for their own selfish desires or to avoid suffering for the moral law. Today, Christians have been retreating from their convictions because they have adopted the lie that there is nothing sacred on earth; there is nothing worth the blood of martyrs except the claim that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Too many Christians today believe the only thing they should bleed for is whether Christ is the Son of God. Of course, they should suffer for this truth, but this is not the only truth worthy of persecution, as demonstrated by the martyrdom of John the Baptist. All truth is God’s truth. Christ is the King and is the rightful ruler of Heaven and Earth. Regardless of which “territory” (i.e., denomination) you find yourself in, God’s laws make suffering obligatory.
Are you a protestant that holds devoutly to the solas, but are ridiculed for your devotion by Catholics? Stand firm, walk humbly, and accept the cross God has asked you to bear. Are you a Catholic mocked by protestants and atheists for your devotion to sacred tradition and holy ritual? Stand firm, carry your cross, and be received at the end of your race. Are brothers and sisters being challenged by our worldly enemies, seeking to change God’s natural laws? Then we must be Simon, and carry each other’s crosses and enable our brothers and sisters to suffer well.
Liddell showed us what it looks like for a Christian to “acknowledge [Christ] publicly here on Earth…” (Mt. 10:32). Christ and his followers show us that to follow Christ is to also follow his moral laws, to give him our conscience and permit him to intensify it via the marriage of love and law. In doing so, we come to recognize that we must suffer not only for the central truth of Christianity, but all the truths that follow from the Truth. Our conscience is the rope that binds our souls to God’s law, but when we sear it, the ropes become frayed and ungodly exceptions are made. Should we sever these cords entirely, then the madness of the world will be unleashed until we bind our consciences to God’s law again.
As a former runner myself, I knew of Eric Liddell’s career and testimony and participated in the tradition of watching the cult classic Chariots of Fire. The movie had such a profound impact on me, that my wife and I on our wedding day entered our reception to the iconic soundtrack, running in slow motion into the reception where we were greeted by laughter from our guests. Any stands I took for my faith during my athletics often reminded me of the stand that Eric Liddell took in his. I never forfeited a race, but I was mocked and ridiculed regularly for the “secondary” moral convictions that stemmed from my loyalty to Christ.
Liddell made a mark on me; he left a mark on a lot of people. But have those marks begun to fade?
Watch Ep. 37 We Need a Little Liddell
Read more: Protect the Conscience: Authoritarianism & the Church
Really good writing, Daniel. Straight and from the heart.
Man, that is powerful stuff. I echo Dr. P’s comment above. Well done.