For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton.
Wow! Best nonfiction book I’ve read this year, maybe the best book I’ve read this year. Everyone knows about Eric Liddell, Olympic gold medalist, Chariots of Fire, missionary to China. At least, everyone thinks they know the story of his life. I even knew the basic outline, up to to and including his death during World War II in a Japanese internment camp in China.
Nevertheless, the legacy of this one man is hard to appreciate without reading something like Hamilton’s 350 page biography in which every single person interviewed or quoted has nothing but good to say of Eric Liddell, a truly selfless follower of Jesus Christ throughout a servant’s life and to a sacrificial and difficult death in Weihsien Internment Camp in February, 1945. I can only wish that I could leave such memories behind with those who knew me best under hard and trying circumstances, but unfortunately, my legacy, like that of most people, will be mixed at best.
I got the impression that Mr. Hamilton, while researching the life and death of Eric Liddell, tried to find something or some few things that would bring the man down to size and make this biography rather than hagiography. But it’s just not there. Did Liddell come across as preachy or arrogant? Never as far as the author can find. Did he stick to his principles in disregard of human need and frailty? No, he came to the decision that it would be best to allow the teenagers to play sports on Sunday afternoons in spite of Sabbath restrictions, and he even refereed the games so that no one would get hurt or get into fights. Did he hate or at least disdain the Japanese soldiers who first harassed him and his fellow missionaries and then imprisoned them under horrendous conditions? No, he submitted to their searches and seizures and injustices and cruelties and then encouraged his companions in camp to pray for the Japanese guards because “when we hate them we are self-centered.”
I am studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 with my Bible study group, and I was pleased and inspired to read that the Sermon on the Mount was Eric Liddell’s favorite part of the Bible, the blueprint for his Christian life. He read and re-read E. Stanley Jones’ book, The Christ of the Mount, and Liddell wrote his own commentary, influenced by his study of the Sermon on the Mount, entitled Discipleship, or The Disciplines of the Christian Life. I am inspired to read both the Jones book and Liddell’s meditations as I study Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew this fall.
In the meantime, I am inspired by the life and death of Eric Liddell. Yes, he stood fast for what he believed was right and refused to run in competitive races on Sunday. Yes, he won an Olympic gold medal in 1924 in Paris in spite of his principled stance. But so much more. He retired from running even though he could very likely have competed and won another gold medal in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam or even in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. He felt he was called to China, and he was excited and pleased to be able to serve the Lord and the Chinese people.
When he went to China, he followed the instructions of his missionary sending organization, the London Missionary Society, even when those orders conflicted with his own desires. He spent long periods of time away from his beloved wife and children because the LMS wouldn’t let them go with Eric to his missionary post. In the midst of a war zone and later a Japanese-occupied zone, he continued to preach the gospel, minister to Chinese Christians, and help in any way he could, while submitting to the often capricious and vicious Japanese authorities as well as he was able.
In prison camp, Eric Liddell did his own work, then he helped others with their work. He got up an hour early, before the rest of the camp, to pray and read the Bible. He worked, often at menial tasks, without complaining. He mediated arguments, counseled the perplexed and depressed, and encouraged those who were losing hope under the starvation diet and brutal living conditions of the camp. He made himself available for every request, to every need, with every person who asked.
Eric Liddell’s close friend in camp, Joe Cotterill: “He was always so positive—even when there wasn’t much to be positive about and he carried the weight of others’ worries and burdens without hesitation.”
Another fellow prisoner: “He never let anyone see him downcast. Every day to him was still precious.He threw himself into it to make others feel better about the situation all of us were in.”
Another internee: “He was the man we turned to when personal relationships got just too impossible. He had a gentle, humorous way of . . . bringing to one’s mind some bygone happiness or the prospect of some future interest just round the corner.”
A child in camp: “I once saw him unloading supplies from the back of a cart. I said to myself: Why is he doing it? That’s someone else’s responsibility. Later I realized he did everything. It’s said he was worth ten men. I can believe it.”
Langdon Gilkey: “Liddell didn’t look like a famous athlete—or rather he didn’t look as if he thought of himself as one.” He was “surely the most modest man who ever breathed.” This was “one of the secrets of his amazing life.”
Eric Liddell: “The Christian life should be a life of growth. I believe the secret of growth is to develop the devotional life.”
“Every Christian should live a God-guided life. If you are not guided by God, you will be guided by something else. If in the quiet of your heart, you feel something should be done, stop and consider whether it is in line with the character and teaching of Jesus. If so, obey that impulse to do it, and in doing so you will find it was God guiding you.”
I am amazed and humbled by what God was able to do in and through the life of this one man.