Heroes for the Books, Part 3: Eric Liddell

By Thursday, April 16, 2015 , ,

It’s the third post in the “Heroes for the Books” series (see the previous ones here), and I have another biography by Eric Metaxas to rave about. It’s called  7 Men: And the Secret of their Greatness. In it, Metaxas emphasizes that we need heroes, and while the seven men he unpacks are not perfect, they are worthy examples. The men he chose are remembered for diverse reasons and came from different time periods and walks of life, but the common thread he identifies in them is sacrifice. George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Charles Colson are the men discussed. I already sang the praises of Wilberforce and Metaxas’ full biography on him, and he also wrote an individual biography on Bonhoeffer. Obviously, I could ramble on about all seven of these men, but to keep things reasonable, I’ll elaborate in two posts on two of them and an admirable characteristic that this biography emphasizes about them. For now, pull up a chair and let’s talk about Eric Liddell – Scottish runner, missionary to China, and one of the most selfless people who ever lived.

If you know anything about Eric Liddell, it’s probably through the movie Chariots of Fire, which highlights his achievements in competitive running. His remarkable speed earned him the catchy nickname of “the Flying Scotsman.” He’s known for withdrawing from his best event, the 100-meter race, in the 1924 Olympics because it was scheduled on Sunday. The British Olympic Committee was outraged and made heroic efforts to change his mind, but he remained steadfast in his decision to use Sunday for rest and worship. He competed instead in the 400-meter race, an endurance event rather than a sprint, which was Liddell’s specialty. Not only did he win the gold medal, but he also set a new world record. I enjoyed reading about this part of his life, as well as the time after his Olympic career that is less recognized. After retiring from competitive running, he became a missionary to China. Selflessness covers every part of this chapter on Eric Liddell. Foregoing the Olympic gold only scratches the surface. Throughout his running career, he was known for his sportsmanlike conduct with competitors and an overall calm dignity in competition. He did not run merely to win or even only for the love of it, though those were factors. More than anything, he ran for the glory of God. His success as a runner gave him a public voice, and he used it to share his faith. The book explains that he had previously struggled with how his athletic ability could be used for the Lord. But when he realized the influence entrusted to him through his gift of speed, he used it fully for God’s glory and sharing his faith. He famously says in Chariots of Fire

“I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

Nothing was about him, as far as Eric Liddell was concerned. Win or lose, he was running for God’s pleasure, and God was always first, made clear through his decision to relinquish his best event at the 1924 Olympics. But I found the chapter’s discussion of his later life in China just as moving as his running career, if not more so. He arrived there as a missionary in 1925, and between his time there and furloughs back in Scotland over the next few years, he married Florence MacKenzie and became an ordained minister. He and Florence had three daughters. Their family’s hardships began in earnest with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and Liddell lived in difficulty for the remaining years of his life. He saw his family for the last time in 1940 when he put them on a ship bound for the safety of Canada, never even seeing his youngest child. He had hoped to follow them soon after, but Japanese tyranny tightened, and he remained in China for the last years of his life. In 1943, he was placed in an internment camp, where he died in 1945. But his resiliency and humble, unselfish attitude during such difficulty is truly touching. In the internment camp, it showed in how he taught Bible studies and was a favorite with everyone. He was known for his ability to befriend everyone and for particularly loving the children around him. I remember I was sitting in a public place and trying unsuccessfully to swipe at tears that came fast as I read about this phase in his life. He died in the internment camp of a brain tumor, and all the camp mourned; when the news spread, all of Scotland mourned as well. I think I was pretty close to that too as I read about it in 7 Men.

Eric Liddell’s legacy is one of selfless love and service to God and others. Even during the most difficult time of his life in that internment camp, he hardly ever seemed to think of himself, and reading about it forces you to ask: Could I love like that? Would I serve like that? How am I serving and loving now? Long after his death, the Chinese government revealed that during his time in the camp, Liddell had been in a prisoner exchange deal between Japan and Britain, but he had given his place to a pregnant woman. I think reading that was when the water works in my eyes opened full force. He would have had so many good reasons to keep his place. That was the thought that ran over and over in my brain after I read that part. No one would have considered him obligated to do such a thing; he had every right to be reunited with his family in safety. But his selfless outlook made such a decision right and normal. His outwardly-focused response to hardship left a legacy worthy of emulation, and it challenges you to think past petty problems that can so easily distract. By all means, watch Chariots of Fire and marvel at his speed, but please also read this book and learn Eric Liddell’s entire story, for there is so much more. He gave up an Olympic gold, but that same attitude left the world with the memory of a man who loved generously till his dying day for the glory of God. If you want to know what true compassion and selfless love look like in action, Eric Liddell is the man to meet. 

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