In life there are few men and women who exemplify what could be called true greatness. This kind of greatness often defies definition and is instead understood by seeing the character within the narrative which makes them special. Today I want to share with you the story of someone who exemplified this kind of character.
His name is Eric Liddell. Liddell’s story may be known to some from the 1981 movie, Chariots of Fire. The movie relates Liddell’s story, how at the age of 22 he climbed the ranks of the world’s best 100m sprinters—one of the favorites to win the 1924 Olympics in Paris. However, Liddell learned that his heat of the 100m was set for a Sunday (Liddell was a Christian who refused to participate in athletics on Sundays). To shorten a story which ought not to be shortened, he switched events, giving himself 6 months to train for the 400m race—winning in one of the most improbable victories in sports history.
Overnight Liddell had become a sports sensation. He had the opportunity for massive endorsements, interviews, etc. However, Liddell shunned the money (and largely the fame), choosing instead to conduct evangelistic meetings at various churches and proclaimed the gospel to anyone who would listen. In fact, although he was already being touted as the sure favorite in the 1928 Olympics, Liddell turned his back on pursuing athletic greatness, and followed the footsteps of his parents—becoming a missionary to the people of China.
Liddell sacrificed his prime athletic years in service of the people of China. As the beginnings of WWII set China ablaze, Liddell shipped his family off to Canada while he stayed serving the people of China. Liddell would never see his family again. He lived the last of his years in Weihsien (Way-Shin), the Japanese internment camp created for foreigners in China.
As is often the case, circumstances reveal the depth of character (or lack thereof). Liddell quickly gained a reputation of selfless service in the camp. Regularly serving in capacities that were not his responsibility, serving others, loving them, and sacrificing in whatever way he could. While other prisoners fought over food, clothing, and the like, Liddell would give away his own possessions and seek the betterment of others. The testimony of fellow prisoners indicates that Liddell was never one to complain, but he only sought to help bear the burdens of others.
At the end of his life, at the young age of 43, Liddell lay dying in Weihsien. He had an undiagnosed brain tumor, causing him much pain and discomfort. However, medical staff in the camp mistakenly diagnosed his condition as a mental breakdown from overwork. To his credit, Liddell’s response says a lot about his character. He bemoaned the fact that he had broken down, stating that he ought to have been better at casting his cares on the Lord. Right before his final promotion, Liddell scrawled out his last words, in large and difficult letters. He wrote this message to his family. It was a message that represented the totality of his faith. He wrote, “All will be well.”
Eric Liddell died on February 21, 1945 at the age of 43. He was born in China, and died in China. He is an example of what it looks like for someone to live life in this world, but to not belong in it. He was a man of whom the world was not worthy.
Note: I encourage you to check out For the Glory, by Duncan Hamilton. It is an amazing rendition of Eric Liddell’s story, published in 2016.