Finding God's Winning Spirit


September 19, 2014 | Greg Smith | Devotional


One of the best examples of Sports Theology is depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire. This film (best picture of 1981) chronicled and contrasted the lives and viewpoints of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, two great runners, who were selected to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics Games in Paris. For me, the powerful part of this movie is the personification of the perfect Christian athlete – Eric Liddell.

Eric Liddell, often called the "Flying Scotsman" (named for the first steam locomotive in England to reach 100 miles per hour) was born on January 16, 1902 in China.  Eric was the son of Rev. and Mrs. James Dunlop Liddell, who were Scottish missionaries with the London Missionary Society. Eric Liddell went to school in China until the age of five. At the age of six, he and his brother Robert were enrolled in Eltham College, a boarding school in England for the sons of missionaries. 

It was here at Eltham College that Eric began to make his mark in athletics.  At 15 he became the captain of both the cricket and rugby teams. His headmaster described him as a superb athlete "entirely without vanity”. While attending Oxford College newspapers carried stories of Liddell’s feats at track meets and many articles stated that he was a potential Olympic winner.     

Eric was an outstanding runner but also was known as an outspoken Christian.  Due to the combination of his missionary background, strong Christian faith and athletic achievements, Eric was often asked to speak for Glasgow Students' Evangelistic Union in hopes that he would draw large crowds to hear the Gospel. The GSEU would send out a group of eight to ten men to an area where they would stay with the local population. It was Liddell's job to be a lead speaker and to evangelize the men of Scotland. It was not uncommon for Eric to provide a religious homily after track meets to whoever would gather to listen.

Eric was under constant pressure to choose between his athletic endeavors and the mission field. This pressure was depicted in a scene in the movie when his sister tells Eric that, “God has called you to the mission field” to which Eric responded with, “God also made me fast”. This is the crux of Sports theology – God’s gifts are not only “spiritual” they can be athletic and used for the spiritual. This theological truth played out later when Eric Liddell refused to run in his Olympic heat held on Sunday and was forced to withdraw from the 100-metres race, his best event – the world took notice.

Eric Liddell knew from where his athletic gifts came and what they were to be used for – he also was not afraid to tell others. Later in life, after he returned to the mission field in China, he was asked if he ever regretted his decision to leave behind the fame and glory of athletics for the mission field, Liddell responded with, "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."

Eric Liddell died on 21 February, 1945 in that mission field in China. According to a fellow missionary, Liddell's last words were, "It's a complete surrender", in reference to how he had given his life to his God.

We have all heard the negative press that surrounds the poor decisions and bad behavior of famous athletes from time to time, tarnishing the sport they play. Many will be quick to say that famous athletes are merely spoiled, potentially violent, out of control and over paid adolescents.  This is not really a fair assessment of high-profile athletes in general – such behavior is usually the exception not the rule. There is nothing more powerful than a man or women of influence who loves Christ and is not afraid to share it. There are plenty of athletes that fit this bill.  

Two things stand out to me from the extraordinary life of Eric Liddell.  First, it is important that we all understand that any fame or influence we have brings accountability and secondly, it is important that we determine what gifts God has given us and use them to glorify Him. It is great to know that we are fast; it is really important to know why we are fast!

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