Chariots of Fire : Eric Liddell, a hero of the faith, still inspires today
Thirty years after its first release, Chariots of Fire remains an inspiring film
Published 12 July 2012 | Tony Ward
The re-release of the British film classic “Chariots of Fire”, which won four Academy Awards in 1981, is timely not merely because of the imminent start of the London Olympics, but also as a reminder that the fame, admiration and wealth that accompany success are lesser achievements than the nurturing of godly principles, virtue and faithfulness.
Indeed, there is almost an irony in the simultaneous news that the Government have been seeking to cash in on the economic benefits of the Olympics by the plan to extend Sunday trading hours over the period of the Games, at the same time as we will recall the Scottish athlete who, at the 1924 Paris Olympics, acquired a reputation as “the man who wouldn’t run on Sunday”.
Eric Liddell famously withdrew from running the 100 metres race because the preliminary heats were to be run on a Sunday. As a Christian, he made the decision on principle because of his commitment to give God the priority in every aspect of his life. “Chariots of Fire” depicts Liddell struggling and agonising over the decision, which is not strictly accurate, as he was adamant on the issue from the outset. Nevertheless, thirty years after its first release it remains an inspiring film.
Today, rightly or wrongly, there are comparatively few Christians who hold such views on Sunday sport (or Sunday trading, for that matter). The interpretation of the commandment regarding the Sabbath tends to be less stringent. For some, this is indicative of a regrettable laxity and creeping relativity in the Christian Church today; for others it is a corrective to an old-fashioned legalism which failed to see the significance and implications of the resurrection under the New Covenant.
But notwithstanding the theological niceties, Eric Liddell remains an outstanding “hero of the faith” and role model for his unwavering principles and willingness to sacrifice for his faith and convictions. At the time, he courted criticism and accusations of lacking true patriotism, with some arguing that his duty to his country was a higher responsibility than his personal faith.
Yet quite apart from religious considerations, Liddell believed that one day in seven, spent in a different way from the others, gave significance and value to the remaining six. That’s an insight and piece of profound wisdom that the Government, obsessed as it is with the economy and stimulating growth, would do well to reflect on, particularly in the light of its oft-touted agenda of promoting family-friendly policies.
But lest we be guilty of hypocrisy ourselves, Eric Liddell’s example is one that Christians also should think deeply on. The willingness to sacrifice is a dimension that has largely disappeared from Christian discipleship today. The Gospel is proclaimed more in terms of the personal fulfilment it brings, the emotional and material benefits that accrue, rather than a dying to self and a wholehearted and sacrificial commitment to Christ.
God certainly did honour Eric Liddell’s faithfulness through the spectacular way in which he won the 400 metre race, following his withdrawal from the 100 metres. But in the wake of that, Liddell turned down the prospect of a sporting career of unparalleled potential in order to become a missionary in China. He did so because he had made God his No.1 priority. He recognised, as the Apostle Paul did, that there is a crown that will fade (1 Corinthians 10:25) and that there is a heavenly crown that is imperishable and never fades.
Olympic gold medals are beyond the grasp of all but a select few, but we can set our goals on a much more valuable prize, spoken of in Philippians 3:14. In our culture today, where long-held principles and virtues are being jettisoned almost daily, and worse, even deemed to be anti-social, offensive and divisive, we need more Christians of the calibre of Eric Liddell who have learned that honouring God, enduring the cross and despising the shame are what is paramount in the race that we are all called to run.
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.
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