“I believe God made me for a purpose. He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
Ever since I can remember, Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic runner and Christian missionary, has been my personal hero. His perseverance, courage, and enduring joyfulness have inspired and guided my life in a multitude of ways. Forever immortalized in the film, Chariots of Fire, Liddell is remembered for refusing to race on the Lord ’s Day, and subsequently for winning a 400 meter race later on in the Olympics games. From the very first time I watched the movie, I was fascinated by Liddell’s joie de vivre. With fervor, I began hunting for and devouring books on Liddell’s real life. The deeper I dug, the more I saw the joy of the Lord reflected in Liddell’s character. Whether or not he really said the above quote, Liddell’s family and friends confirmed that he was a man with a deep, enduring joy that could not be quenched. From his blazing-fast sprinting and passionate preaching for crowds who came to see him run, to his commitment to writing letters to young fans, Liddell exuded the Lord’s pleasure and the Lord’s joy. If you have ever seen actual footage of Eric Liddell running a race, his head is thrown back, gazing at the sky, wind skimming across his face and hair, his arms and legs pumping wildly, furiously. I am reminded of the phrase in Nehemiah, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” As Liddell sped around the race track, exhibiting the strength God gave him, I have no doubt that he and his Lord were united in glorious, joyful communion.
What the film does not emphasize is that Liddell cut short his promising running career, relocating to China to preach the gospel. As much as running filled Liddell with pleasure, he believed the promises of scripture; that following the Lord’s voice would bring about a greater joy for all those who heard the truth and believed (Luke 15:7). Liddell ministered to the people of China for years, until World War II erupted, forcing him into an internment camp. While a captive, Liddell organized sports teams for the interned youth, taught Bible and science classes, and worked to keep morale high. He chose joy amidst fear and struggle. “He was overflowing with good humor and love for life,” said Langdon Gilkey, a prominent American theologian who endured captivity alongside Liddell.
Ultimately, Liddell was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died before being released from the camp. Among his last words to a friend who was at his bedside were, “It’s complete surrender.” Liddell was not announcing his last breath. Instead, he was proclaiming how he had lived his life in complete submission to the Lord. Only through this posture of complete surrender was Liddell able to live a life marked by the Lord’s pleasure and joy, even amidst suffering.
Like Liddell, there are times in my life when I have felt the Lord’s pleasure, or what I call joy. I run the race set before me, with my head thrown back, reveling in the glory and joy of the Lord. Daily obedience, communion with the saints, thankfulness for redemption – these are the acts that usher joy into my life. In these moments, I hear the words from Zephaniah 3:17:
“The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”
Eric Liddell’s faithful, joyful life has forever changed me and inspired me to surrender completely, to be a fountain of joy, no matter the circumstances. As we continue in this season of Advent and joyfulness, consider the race that is before you. Roadblocks on your route might include a poor grade in a class, a denial to your top college, getting cut from the team, or family struggles. The reminder from Eric Liddell is not that you need finish the race in first place, but that a posture of submission and subsequent joy is of utmost importance. “It’s complete surrender.”