This is part 2 of a three part series. You can read part 1 here.
The music accompanying the modern Olympic gold medallist is the bell-ring of the cash till. Sponsors await him. Commercial brands are ready to bear his name, and there is an agent to barter on his behalf.
There were offers galore for Eric Liddell after Paris in 1924. He could have written an instruction book about athletics. He could have put his name to newspaper columns or opinion pieces. Both Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities were willing to accommodate him in teaching sinecures of his choosing. So were banks and insurance companies, who wanted him as a figurehead. He could have earned then what now would be worth $2m per year.
But Liddell wasn’t for sale at any price. He told one congregation that ‘the greatest danger was victory,’ which he further defined as ‘bringing a man up to a level above the strength of his character’. He appealed to another to ‘keep sport free from anything that tends to lower its purity and value’ and to ‘engage in it’ for ‘the sport’s sake alone’. He revealed to a third that no cheering from an athletics crowd had given as much pleasure as his religion.
His used his success at as runner simply as a way of promoting God. For Liddell had a promise to keep.
He was concerned that ‘to many people, Christianity (is) something that came out with the Sunday clothes and did not affect the rest of their daily life and work’. Unlike many other preachers, he was convinced that ‘no amount’ of church-going could turn anyone into a true Christian. ‘Only intimate contact with God through Jesus,’ he said, could achieve that. He described it as a ‘free gift’ from Him – ‘the greatest of all sportsmen’.
Liddell put his thoughts and favourite Biblical readings into a pamphlet, which he titled Discipleship. In it he argued that ‘the Christian life should be a life of growth’ and added: ‘I believe the secret of growth is to develop the devotional life’.
For Liddell, such a devotional life meant being ‘completely dedicated to the service of God and man’. He put this plainly. It was ‘absolute surrender to the will of God’. His close friends heard him use the phrase ‘absolute surrender’ so frequently that one of them insisted: ‘The conception was always in his mind . . . God should have absolute control over every part of his life’. Liddell was emphatic about it: ‘Every Christian should live a God-guided life. If you are not guided by God, you will be guided by something else’. He even outlined how he made this happen. ‘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’.
Liddell believed ‘obedience’ was always ‘the secret’ of that guidance’.
He tried never to be ‘willingly’ rude or ‘irritated’. He distained pride, which he saw as ‘the great enemy of humility’. From the pulpit he told his audiences to ‘go out of (your) way to help’ and to ‘reduce people’s burdens’.
Liddell was determined to do that in China. His father, James, had been a missionary there since the end of the 19th century. Liddell, born in China but schooled in Britain, had resolved to follow him from the age of ‘eight or nine,’ he said.
Those critics who thought it had been folly for Liddell not to run on Sunday in Paris now thought he was equally stupid to abandon his athletics career at the peak of its flight and head for China. Why not live a little first? Why not run in another Olympics? Why not ‘cash-in’ and secure your financial future along the way? To these questions Liddell gave what he saw as the simplest answer of all: ‘Because I believe God made me for China’.
This seemed perfectly logical to him and perfectly illogical to anyone who didn’t understand his faith.