Eric Liddell and Pursuing the limits of personal athleticism: a worthy and achievable goal for a Christian athlete?

“In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best. God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” – Eric Lidell

This often quoted running verse has been the banner waved high above the heads of Christian sports-persons worldwide for the last eight decades-or-so. The infamous words and legacy of this ‘Flying Scotsman’, Eric Liddell, have reverberated through generations of Christian hearts who have felt the similar drive to run and to compete at the highest level of modern-day competitive sport. Eric Liddell is known chiefly for his gold (400m) and bronze (200m) medal at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, after he refused to run his key event (100m) on a Sunday. However, the often untold stories of Liddell’s life help to paint a fuller picture of the depth and richness of Christian character he possessed.

As well as being an Olympian, Liddell was also played for the Scottish international rugby squad, he excelled as student of pure science at Edinburgh University, and later on in his life he returned to his birthplace in Northern China to follow in his parents’ footsteps on the mission field. In 1945, Liddell died of a Brian tumour while being detained in the Japanese Weishien internment camp in Northern China during WWII.

The inspirational events of Liddell’s overcoming performance at the 1924 Paris Olympics is the principle anecdote of Liddell’s life that is treasured as one of the dearest examples of moral decency and virtue in the history of Christians in sport. Even outside of Christian circles, the moral of the story is appreciated, and indeed it should be. Choosing to stick by your Christian morals and convictions when they rub up against worldly demands is a good thing. I am sure Liddell thought it a valuable lesson learned when he arrived on the mission field to undoubtedly face friction and opposition of a far more threatening kind. However, the morsel of wisdom gleaned from the Flying Scotsman in this one tale of his rich and colourful life, does not comprehensively capture how his undying commitment to God transformed the way he navigated his time as a professional sportsman – competing at the highest level.

Liddell’s Olympic memoir is often seen as an ‘Abraham sacrificing Isaac’ moment. We see a man who was willing to sacrifice his hopes and dreams on the alter, as an expression of his love for and faith in God, and, as a reward he was given back what he originally was willing to give up. Sacrifice on behalf of love and faith in God is surely a compelling part of Abraham and Liddell’s testimony. Yet, as Christian athletes we can hastily jump to two different conclusions after hearing these testimonies: that God is most glorified if we give up competing in the sport we hold dear to prove that we love and trust in Him; and/or, if we occasionally forgo the odd Sunday football match and give God what He wants (namely our backsides making contact with a cold church pew on a Sunday morning) He will reward us with the win on Monday.

There is always the chance that God could chose to test us like He did Abraham or Liddell. Perhaps he will ask you or me to trust Him as He presses it on our conscience to give up training in order to focus more on family life; or maybe showing integrity and faithfulness will be coupled with being given success. But I would hasten to say, if you are a high performance athlete looking to glorify God in the pinnacle of competitive sport, you must learn deeper lessons about how to glorify God with sport than merely learning how not to worship it. In studying Liddell’s life, it would be a shame to miss the deep theology that gave him the ability to truly glorify God in the realm of Christin sport.

1. An act of worship

Looking into the true motives behind Liddell’s actions you are able to see he believed that there was a far greater purpose to being a Christian placed in the realm of athleticism than some of us are prone to think. Growing up as a son of missionaries, Liddell was missional minded and infused with the word of God from a young age. He viewed every facet of his life and experience as a God-ordained mission field. He knew that he was sinful and that Jesus Christ had offered His own body on the cross instead of his, a sacrifice that propelled Liddell to offer back his own body to following Christ as an act of worship.

His life was not His own anymore, but Christ claimed Lordship over it all – including high-level sport. Far from sacrificing sporting endeavours for ‘holier’ activities as some may imagine; Liddell knew, and felt keenly, that worshipping God was not reserved for that hour or two before Sunday lunch, but all of life’s daily activities and duties were an opportunity to worship the Christ. Liddell saw sport as a gift from God, and by exercising his God given talent he was worshipping the God who gave him the breath, legs and passion to do it (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

2. Practicing God’s Presence

Liddell believed that God was present and helping him in every situation, even as he performed such a seemingly pointless endeavour, such as running around in a circle as fast as he could. No task was too large and important, nor too small or insignificant for Liddell to warrant calling upon God for help.

He says:

“The secret of my success over the 400 metres is that I run the first 200 metres as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200 metres, with God’s help, I run harder” – Eric Liddell

3. A Catalyst of Christian Character

Having been a keen student of God’s word, Liddell welcomed the agonising process of training at an elite level as a way to etch Christ-like character deep into his inner man. The Biblical principles of hard work, self-control, suffering and discipline (2 Timothy 2:3-6) were as diligently applied to practice sessions on the track as they were in the classroom and on the mission field. He viewed no area of his life as unimportant or unworthy to give one’s best. His passion and drive to do his best was the soil that nourished all of His endeavours. This did not go unnoticed.

As a fellow teammate of his reflects:

“So much has been recorded about Eric’s Athletic achievements but they were in fact, as far as he was concerned, a catalyst in the formation of his character and his perceivable missions in life, which were: “To walk humbly with his God and to fulfil the ‘New Commandment’” – Hon Lt. Col T.M. Riddell

3. A Platform for the Gospel

Liddell’s Christian character was never more widely witnessed than when He was at the peak of His athletic prowess. The means by which He climbed to such lofty heights in both Rugby and running was largely due to this quality of character. He was well aware that his talent was given to him by God and any his success and popularity that came to him could be leveraged as a platform to give God the glory and inspire the younger admirers to follow Christ. Not only was athleticism a means to share the gospel, but it gave many an opportunity to see Christian character lived out before them in a very physical and tangible way.

4. A means to win the real prize

Liddell’s passion and desire to win an Olympic medal took root in something far beyond the superficial desire for praise, money or self-exaltation. The whole of his life was dedicated to one thing: to win the heavenly prize

In one of his lesser known quotes Liddell himself reflects on his olympic success:

“It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals.” 

The desire to succeed for Liddell was not measured against his competitors or even his own self-perceived limitations. The wellspring from which his passion for all of life flowed was sourced in an insatiable hunger to give his all, with excellence, for the glory of God.

This allowed him to say:

“In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best”.

For Liddell, God had turned the meaning of success on its head. He believed that God put him on this earth with talents and opportunities unique to him, and it was his task to maximise all he had been given (control what he could control) and leave the rest to God. He knew that doing one’s best was the means to gain a prize far greater and nobler than a mere earthly wreath (1 Corinthians 9:25; Luke 19:11-27). He literally and spiritually ran to win the prize.

5. Full Surrender

If you are a competitive athlete, you must know the need to fully surrender any desire for comfort and ease when it comes to training and racing at your highest capacity. Those are luxuries that you must sacrifice in order to achieve your best. Lessons that Liddell optimised in his relentless training and gutsy races. A lesson he took with him: even while detained in a Japanese internment camp, a fellow missionary and friend told of his dedication to pour out his life in love for God and others even in his captivity where having gave “totally of his energy and much of his meagre rations to the children in the camp” – Dr. Kenneth McAll.  

His health deteriorated partly due to the energies and responsibilities he took upon himself to care for others despite being malnourished and overworked. His last words summed up his life : “it’s full surrender”.

What does this mean for us?

Liddell’s chief goal was to please God, to run in a way as to win the prize for which God had called Him in Christ Jesus. He also knew that time and opportunity happen to us all – instead of asking why God gave him the opportunity to run at an Olympic Games; he trusted in God’s unique purpose for him and surrendered his whole life to what God gave him. And if you believe in a sovereign God who rules over all of your passions, opportunities, who is the grand designer of your life, you also know that you are not the one who rules your fate, nor can you understand the intricacies of how God will use it for His glory (Ecclesiastics 3:9-15). All we know is that is that we were created to do all for the praise of His glory.

Friends, I don’t know why God has chosen to give you the desire and talent to run to the height of your ability. Choosing to subject your body to pain, discomfort and suffering of training is a passion the majority of the world does not share! It is unique to a few. But I do know he has given you a passion to run for a reason. I hope that looking at Liddell’s life gives you an insight into what some of those reasons could be.

As for as wanting to reach the height of your potential in your sport: as demonstrated by Liddell’s life, any pursuit lived out in the bounds of Biblical parameters, with a thankful heart, seeking to find enjoyment and make the best of the talents and passions that you have been given in worship to God, is a legitimate and praiseworthy endeavour.

Who knows your running potential or where your physical limitations will end? Who knows what opportunities will come your way? Who knows what hindrances may divert your path from pursuing athletics? But we do know that God is in control of it all. We are simply asked to live everyday as it comes trusting God, not assuming on tomorrow, and giving it our best, seeking to win that heavenly prize in all we do, knowing that this day may be our last to live for Him on this earth.

And when that day comes and we are stood face to face with our Creator, our glorious Saviour and infinitely worthy Lord and King, we want to know we used all He had given us for His glory, not our own; that we took every moment, talent and opportunity and ran with it all the way to the finish line to win the eternal prize that will be awarded to us when “God gives out the medals”.

Eric Liddell - Wikipedia

If you have any questions about how to become a Christian, or how to live out your faith in the context of athletics and sport, free to get in touch by commenting or sending me a private email at sophiesoutherden@yahoo.co.uk It would be a privilege to do my best to help you!

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