4 Lessons from the Inspiring Life of Olympian Eric Liddell

Eric_LiddellI just had the privilege of reviewing Duncan Hamilton’s excellent new book on Olympic gold medalist Eric Liddell for Christianity Today. Hamilton’s For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr (Penguin Press) is a must-read. I would commend it to anyone, Christian or non-Christian, history buff or beach-reader, adult or child, for Liddell’s unique story captured the attention of the world both in his own time and later, when the iconic film Chariots of Fire became an Academy-award winner (Best Picture, 1982).

Seriously, buy this book. Here are four life lessons I took away from it.

First, Liddell is an example of dying to self. For the Glory is, simply put, a richly-dramatic story in the vein of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat. But it tells of something yet more powerful: a man who went through terrible hardship not because it was forced upon him, but because he chose it. Liddell gave up riches and fame to become a missionary teacher in China. He died in 1945 in a Japanese prison camp. His dire circumstances, in other words, came about because he intentionally entered into them. His example, common to so many missionaries in the Christian past, is deeply motivating and edifying.

Second, Liddell helps us gain perspective on the fading things of the world. Liddell had everything in front of him that the worldly heart could desire. But he saw these things as chaff, nothing, less than nothing. He reminds us to have the same vision of earthly things. So much of what we labor for comes to nothing in the end: the more impressive job title; the slight raise that really makes no difference to our overall earnings; the extra travel, hard on us and hard on our loved ones, to buttress our already-solid credentials; the praise from men that so quickly fades and is so quickly forgotten.

Here’s how I put it in my review for Christianity Today: “His chosen path involved a race, but there was no slow-motion in it, and there was no soundtrack behind it. There were no hefty medals to win, and no crowds cheering. Early in his life, Liddell saw his Savior walking the Jerusalem way, headed to death. This fleetest of athletes, beloved by his countrymen, left the track and followed his Lord. He moved to a distant, storm-tossed country to spend his days in inglorious toil and continual hardship so that others might know Jesus. It is as simple as this: Liddell gave up the glory of man, and embraced the glory of the cross.”

 

Third, Liddell’s model calls modern men to emulate it. Here’s how I got after this in the review: “Ours is a postmodern age in which gray areas and antiheroes get the product placement; ours is a gender-neutral age in which many young men lack any compass for the passion and restlessness they find surging within. In the example of Eric Liddell handed down to us by Duncan Hamilton, we get a sense for what a man can become when Christ gets ahold of him.

On this vital matter, I’m reminded that biographies can sometimes do what ten instructional books, loaded with advice and exhortation, cannot do. For the Glory does not over-draw the picture; it allows us to eavesdrop on Liddell’s life, and witness his untiring, deeply manly effort to win sinners to Christ. Evangelism does not belong to one sex, of course, but the church of Jesus Christ is to be led by men (Titus 1: 1 Tim. 2, 3), and that means men must step up and lead in taking on the hard tasks of the Christian ministry. The apostles mobilized the whole church, consisting of both men and women united and equal in Christ, to witness unto their Savior. So it is today, with elders leading the way.

Liddell was no isolationist. He worked closely with heroic female missionaries in China, leaving a happy legacy of leadership and cooperation. In our time, when women going to the mission field in SBC circles, for example, apparently outnumber men to a serious degree, we need a Liddellian shot-in-the-arm. We do not need any less women to become missionaries (the reverse is true); we do, however need many more men to go, and lead in the hard work involved in the missionary enterprise. Before this, we need men to be trained in the natural family and certainly the broader church body to be leaders of God’s people. We need men to do hard things. We need men to set aside boyish pursuits and childish hobbies. We need them to take up the most difficult, taxing, scary, and glorious work there is.

Fourth, Liddell walked the narrow way, and did it with a smile. Eric Liddell could have distanced himself from the high cost of front-line Christian ministry by ten thousand miles. He would not have been wrong or even ungodly in doing so, necessarily. Many of us are not in fact called to frontier missions. But some are, and we need many more to go.

Many of us are called to give God glory in smaller, anonymous, ordinary ways. This kind of life is not insignificant or meaningless; it is bursting with doxological potential, and requires many calculations of risk-taking and glory-seeking, as I have been at pains to say in my writing. This is true whether we become a missionary, manage an insanely-profitable hedge fund and give sacrificially to gospel work, train little kids hour by sacrificial hour to reverence the Lord and his cause, or serve God in a thousand other vocations.

We will not face Eric Liddell’s exact choice. That was his, given him by God, and his alone. He walked away from sprinting glory; most of us might sprint only to get craft coffee and a burger. Kidding aside, we face our own choice, and it mirrors his. He gave up the glory of man. He gave up on trying to be popular, cool, accepted by elites, rich, and impressive. He cast all that aside.

He left the path of earthly accomplishment, having spotted the way of Christ. It was not an easy way. It had thorns, and it was overgrown in places, and it took him through very challenging valleys and very steep peaks. But he kept going. He followed Jesus into one of the most dangerous places on earth. He saw his Savior going on ahead of him, and he kept walking. He never stopped.

He gave up the glory of man, and embraced the glory of the cross.

Will we?

***************

Image: Liddell at relays, 1924, used through Wikimedia Commons

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