I’ve been researching some of Eric Liddell’s life for a new product at FamilyLife (more about that at the end of the post). One of the things that struck me about his life was the surprising number of parallels with Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
- Both wrote a book about discipleship.
- Both focused on the needs of others while in a prison camp.
- Both were in prison camps because of circumstances surrounding World War II.
- Both died in prison just a few months apart.
- Both gave up opportunities to save themselves for the sake of others.
- Both cared more about obedience to Christ than wealth or fame.
Most who have heard the name Eric Liddell only know of his “Chariots of Fire” fame, which highlights his Olympic success, and very public stance not to run on Sunday. But many are less familiar with the fascinating second half of his life. After his Olympic success he went on to serve as a missionary in China, eventually dying in a prison camp. And like Bonhoeffer, he lived an incredibly selfless life, and four stories in particular highlight this reality.
Story #1: The Spirit, not the Letter
Liddell was famous for his stance on keeping the Sabbath holy. He would not run races that were held on Sunday, which was a significant part of the plot of Chariots of Fire, and most probably the reason why his story became so well known. (Can you name any other Olympians from the 1924 games?) But the following story speaks to Liddell’s spiritual maturity and shows how he knew when to hold to the letter of this conviction, and when to hold to the spirit of it.
Throughout these difficult years, Liddell maintained his belief that Sundays should be reserved for God. But when teenagers got into a fight during a hockey match, Eric – to the astonishment of those who knew of his famous stand at the 1924 Olympics – agreed to referee the game on the following Sabbath. Joyce Stranks, who was a seventeen-year-old fellow internee, said that Eric,
“…came to the feeling that a need existed, [and] it was the Christlike thing to do to let them play with the equipment and to be with them … because it was more Christlike to do it than to [follow] the letter of the law and let them run amok by themselves. And for me that was very interesting because it was the one thing, of course, everyone remembers about Eric [that he would not run on Sunday because the Sabbath was the Lord’s Day].” (P82)
Every man, and every young man has to strive to know when to hold to the letter and when to hold to the Spirit of the law. It’s a difficult balance, but one that a mature man strives for through the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
Story #2: Hold on Loosely
Eric’s sincere Christian faith was everywhere on display. Stephen Metcalf, who was seventeen in 1944, remembered one remarkable incident. Metcalf’s shoes had completely worn out. One day Eric came to him with something wrapped up in cloth.
“Steve,” he said, “I see that you have no shoes, and it’s winter. Perhaps you can use these.” Eric pushed the bundle into Steve’s hands. “They were his running shoes,” Metcalf says. We can only imagine that Eric had been saving the historic shoes as a memento of his past triumphs, but in the difficult conditions of the internment camp, their practical value to this young man far outweighed their sentimental value to Eric. (P83)
Possessions are fleeting. We need to hold loosely to things, even the sentimental items to which the world ascribes great wealth. What do you have that others need that you can let go of? Try to identify one thing today you can give away and encourage your kids to do so as well. Bonus points if it’s an old pair of your running shoes from the Olympics.
Story #3: Women and Children First
I mentioned above, that one of the parallels between Liddell’s life and Bonhoeffer’s was that they both turned down opportunities to leave prison in order to protect others. Bonhoeffer stayed in prison, even though he could have escaped, because he knew his family would have suffered if he had escaped. Liddell’s situation was a little different, but he still was thinking of others first:
…63 years after Eric’s death, just before the Beijing Olympic Games, the Chinese government revealed something that even Eric’s family didn’t know: Eric had been included in a prisoner exchange deal between Japan and Britain but had given up his place to a pregnant woman. (P86)
Part of me isn’t sure how to feel about this, knowing he had a wife and children to care for. But of course, the other side of me is inspired and moved to live sacrificially as a result of his example. Either way, there’s no doubt Liddell was an amazing man, firmly committed to Christ, and active in his love of others. How can you put the women and children in your life first?
Story #4: A Life Honoring to God
I love it when there’s so much more to a story than what the popular versions reveal. The things that occurred in Liddell’s life after the Olympics are really some of the most fascinating parts. And the general testimony of his life is a great encouragement. Especially his commitment to the daily discipline of spending time with God. Even while in the prison camp. One of his fellow prisoners observed the following (All quotes come from chapter three of Eric Metaxas’ book 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness):
“No matter how busy he was, Eric never neglected his daily time with God. Each morning, Eric and his friend Joe Cotterill woke early and quietly pursued their devotions together by the light of a peanut-oil lamp for beginning a long day of work.” (P82)
There are many days I find myself tired, frustrated, and scatterbrained. And I often lament having not spent personal time in Bible study and prayer. Sometimes I even blame it on busyness. But it’s a great encouragement to know that even a man in a prison camp kept this a priority. If he can, so can I.
Share With Your Children!
Men need encouragement, and children need examples. The life of the man featured in this post provides both. Read his story, and then take time to read portions to your family. There’re some powerful lessons in here about what it means to be a mature Christ follower, things I hope my kids and I learn. Try answering some of the questions above and see if you can’t apply his life to yours this week.
Final Note: Passport2Identity
As mentioned at the onset, FamilyLife has a new product forthcoming called Passport2Identity™ (due out March of 2016). Designed as a follow up to Passport2Purity®, it equips parents to help their 14-16 year old children navigate the teen years. I mention it here because we have a feature in session two of the version for young men (there’s a separate version for young women) on the life of Eric Liddell.
© 2015 by John Majors. Used with permission.
You just finished reading “Eric Liddell: More than a runner,” by guest writer John Majors on the Stepping Up blog.
To get more details, listen to an extended podcast version of Liddell’s life story on SoundCloud.
Keep your eyes open for the March 2016 release of Passport2Identity. It will be announced on FamilyLife.com.
In the meantime, if you have a pre-teen son, why not plan a Passport2Purity getaway together.