Eric Liddell is widely known for refusing to compete in the Olympic Games on Sunday and, as a result, achieving gold in an event that was not his own. This was chronicled in the 1984 Best Picture movie, Chariots of Fire. But what happened to Eric after the credits rolled?
In 1924, Eric left the limelight and went to China as a missionary where he ministered alongside his family for two decades.
In 1941, life in China became so dangerous that the British Government advised all British nationals to leave. His wife and children left for Canada, but Eric stayed on and joined a rural mission station in Shaochang, where his brother, Rob, a doctor, was caring for the poorest of the poor.
In 1943, the Japanese military invaded and Eric was sent to an internment camp with members of the China Inland Mission. Food, medicines, and other supplies ran short at the camp but Eric continued to devote himself to caring for others. One of his fellow internees later wrote a book about his experiences in the camp called The Courtyard of the Happy Way, which detailed many of the remarkable characters in the camp. On Liddell, the writer stated that he was “the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet. In all the time in the camp, I never heard him say a bad word about anybody.”
Eric’s daughter, Patricia Russell, spoke with us a few years ago and described what life was like in the camp for her father.
Life was difficult, but Eric used it as an opportunity to share Christ—in word and deed.
In 1944, Winston Churchill approved a prisoner exchange and, since he was a famous athlete, Eric was chosen to leave. But instead of receiving his own granted safety, he gave it up and offered his place to a pregnant woman instead.
Eric would die just one year later of a brain tumor.
I think Eric Liddell’s life teaches us something very profound. It seems that the greatest moments of history aren’t lived out in the limelight, but in the dark places where no one seems to be watching.
Eric’s life was full of those kinds of moments. And he used all of these events to tell people about his savior, Jesus Christ.
So, now we know what Eric did in life. But what was it that drove him? Aside from the events that we know of took place, we can also know two things that Eric knew about himself and the God he served:
1. He knew who he was
Eric knew his identify was in Christ. He didn’t have to make a name for himself. What Paul wrote in Galatians was very much internalized in Eric’s heart:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” – Gal. 3:26-29
Paul wrote those words to people who were insecure about their identity. His answer was passionate – you don’t have to prove anything! Your identity is established in Christ. You are children of God. Paul knew the Galatians needed to internalize and believe their exalted identity in Christ.
Eric Liddell stood out, not because he had a different identity from every other believer. He stood out because he had internalized his identity. He knew who he was – and it set him free. Free to run just because he loved it and because his God had made him to run; free to say “no;” free to step out of the limelight; free to suffer; free to give up his ticket to freedom for a pregnant woman; and ultimately free to die.
2. He knew whom he served
“You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” – 1 Cor. 7:23
Eric was bought by the cross. He was free from serving men because he was in service to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who loved him and gave up his life for him. When he ran a race, no matter how many people were in the stands, Eric had “an audience of one.” When he was pressured to serve another King, he knew whose will to obey.
He knew that when you compared all the gold medals ever won, when you added up all the glory of all the nations on earth–it was all just a drop in the bucket compared to his true King.
As I said, Eric Liddell understood this because of God’s grace. On the Sunday he refused to race in the Olympics, Eric spoke in a local church, proclaiming God’s glory in Isaiah.
“The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” – Is. 40:5
It’s a powerful moment when Eric reads Isaiah 40 toward the end of Chariots of Fire. God’s Word is spoken and contrasted against many of the Olympic racers who win and lose. Eric had no doubt that he was doing the right thing. His identity was in Christ. And Isaiah 40 reminds each of us to stop striving for the world’s empty promises and rest in Christ today.
Chariots of Fire
An inspirational look at the competitive spirit, featuring two runners competing for Olympic glory in their own fashion and for their own separate reasons.
Winner of four Academy Awards including Best Picture! The inspiring true story of British athletes competing in the 1924 Olympics. Ben Cross and Ian Charleson head a sterling cast of newcomers and veterans.
Charles Morris serves as speaker on the radio program HAVEN Today. Most of the thoughts above are taken from related broadcasts of the program. Corum Hughes serves as editor of this blog and helps coordinate digital media for Haven Ministries. A graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Corum lives in Boise, ID with his wife Molly.