by John Reiss
CGG Weekly, January 31, 2020
"Precepts instruct us what things are our duty, but examples assure us that they are possible."
In Part One, we considered the examples of two men, Dirk Willems and Desmond Doss, both of whom lived out in public what they believed, the first showing love toward an enemy and the second selflessly caring for the wounded amid a hail of enemy bullets. We will now pass on to the well-known story of Eric Henry Liddell, known as the "Flying Scotsman." The story of his life was portrayed in the 1981 movie, Chariots of Fire.
Liddell was born in China in 1902, the son of Scottish missionaries. He went on to study at Eltham College, a Christian boarding school, where he majored in pure science. While there, he excelled in various sports, including rugby, cricket, and sprinting, eventually becoming captain of both the cricket and rugby union teams. In contrast to many of the sports heroes of our time, the school's headmaster described Liddell as "entirely without vanity."
His most outstanding skill was in running. He said later, "God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." In 1923, he set the British record for the 100-yard sprint, and most observers considered him to be an excellent choice for the 1924 Olympics to be held in Paris, France.
Despite the objections of coaches and fellow athletes, Liddell believed that his priority was to honor God and the Christian Sabbath (as he understood it). Because the 100-meter dash, his best event, was to be held on a Sunday, Liddell refused to participate in it. Instead, he opted to run the 400-meter race, though his past efforts showed that it was not his strongest. He spent several months training for the longer-distance event.
Shortly before the race, one of the American team's masseurs handed him a note that read, "In the old book it says: ‘He that honors me I will honor.' Wishing you the best of success always." The reference to I Samuel 2:30 had a profound effect on Liddell. Inspired, he ran the 400-meter race all-out, setting an Olympic and world record that stood for a dozen years. After the race, he said, "The secret to my success over the 400 meters is that I run the first 200 meters as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200 meters, with God's help, I run faster."
After the Olympics and graduation from the University of Edinburgh, Liddell continued in competitive racing. He won several other awards and even helped to secure a victory in a race against the gold-medal winning Americans. Later, when asked if he had regretted leaving the fame and glory of athletics, he responded, "It's natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I'm glad I'm at the work I'm engaged in now. A fellow's life counts for far more at this than the other," clearly referring to I Corinthians 9:25.
Unmoved by his earthly successes, Liddell followed the example of his missionary parents and returned to Northern China to serve as a missionary, from 1925 to 1945, in an area that had been repeatedly ravaged by civil war and later by the invading Japanese. His first job was teaching wealthy Chinese students at an Anglo-Chinese College (grades 1-12) in Tientsin. He believed that, by educating the wealthy scions, they would become prominent and influential in China and encourage Christian values.
By 1941, however, life in China had become so dangerous due to Japanese aggression that the British government advised British nationals to leave. While Liddell joined his brother, Rob, serving at a rural mission station, his pregnant wife, Florence, returned with their children to her native Canada, where her family still lived. After the invading Japanese took over the mission station, Liddell returned to Tientsin, where, in 1943, he was interned under cramped and unsanitary conditions with other members of the mission and several hundred others.
Liddell rose to a place of leadership among the other prisoners through his efforts in aiding the elderly among them, teaching Bible classes, organizing games, and instructing the children in science. The kids called him "Uncle Eric." However, five months before the camp's liberation in 1945, he died from an undiagnosed brain tumor. He was buried in a simple grave that lay unknown until 1989, when it was rediscovered through the dedicated research of Charles Walker, a Scottish engineer working in Hong Kong.
A fellow internee, Norman Cliff, who later wrote a book about his experiences in the camp, described Liddell as "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."
Langdon Gilkey, an American survivor of the camp who later became a prominent theologian, also had nothing but praise for Liddell. He spoke of his sacrifice, encouragement, and selfless dedication for his fellow internees, especially the "penned-up youths." He summed up his thoughts about Liddell by writing, "It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known."
As much as he was able, Liddell's selfless actions fulfilled John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends."
We may never be featured in a museum, receive a Medal of Honor, or be the subject of a major motion picture, but these models of living one's beliefs should move and encourage us—we who truly are saints—to be outstanding examples with our own lives.
President John F. Kennedy, reflecting John Winthrop's thoughts of more than 300 years earlier, said:
We must always consider, that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us. . . . For we are setting out upon a voyage . . . no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella in 1630. . . .
History will not judge our endeavors . . . merely on the basis of color or creed, or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For to those to whom much is given, much is required. [See Luke 12:48.]
We are God's witnesses, and the eyes of the world are indeed upon us. Every day, we are called to testify of God's character and the glory of His way of life by the way we conduct our own. If we do so, our lives will be eternally successful. Recall the reference to Scripture in the note given to Eric Liddell: "Therefore the LORD God of Israel says, ‘. . . those who honor Me, I will honor'" (I Samuel 2:30).
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).