The complete series on Eric Liddell can be found here.
Whether we realize it or not, and whether we are willing to admit it or not, there is a core value that has been ingrained in us from our very earliest days which teaches us that the most important thing in life is that we are well liked. If we are honest, we have to admit that a substantial portion (if not most) of our energies and our strivings and our efforts are designed to procure a “well done” from our friends, family, and co-workers.
This desire for approval is so ingrained in us (and our culture), that it largely goes unnoticed. And when it is noticed, it is quickly dismissed as harmless or irrelevant. After all, we think, this is just part of life. What’s the harm?
The problem, of course, is that a deep-seated desire to please men is incompatible with a life devoted to pleasing God. For what pleases God and what pleases men are often at odds with one another. And what will a person do when that inevitable day arises when he is forced to choose between the two? A person cannot serve two masters.
That day arrived for the Scottish Olympic sprinter, Eric Liddell, in the most unexpected of ways. Liddell was favored to win the gold in the 1924 Olympics in his best event, the 100 meters. But when the heats were announced, Liddell noticed that they fell on a Sunday.
For most of us, that seems hardly worth noticing. After all, if we were picking a day to run, we might actually choose a Sunday. For those in the modern world, Sunday is one of the most free and convenient days.
But Liddell was not like most people. As a Scottish Presbyterian, he took the Sabbath day, the Lord’s day, very seriously. And so, he immediately withdrew from the 100 meter event.
When we look back at this story it is easy to be impressed by Liddell’s convictions, and to express our profound respect and appreciation for his commitment to truth. But in 1924 this decision was not met with support. On the contrary, Liddell was ripped apart by the press. He was criticized as being selfish, dogmatic, narrow-minded, and petty. He was a fool, the newspapers said, for throwing away his athletic career along with the honor of Great Britain.
At one point, a group of reporters, students, and concerned citizens even gathered outside his door in Edinburgh, banging on it and declaring, “He’s a traitor to his country.” Liddell quickly became “the most unpopular man in Britain.”
Liddell’s willingness to stand for truth is a much-needed lesson in our modern day. Just as Liddell’s beliefs were mocked as narrow and dogmatic and traditionalistic, so today Christian beliefs about marriage or sexuality are mocked as narrow and dogmatic and traditionalistic. If we stand up for what God has to say about marriage, we may quickly find a mob outside our door as well.
The lesson of Eric Liddell’s life is that the world is not changed by people whose number one goal is popularity. The world is not changed by people who only desire to please men. The world is changed by those who desire, more than anything, to please God. Even if it costs them everything.
In sum, Eric Liddell’s life reminds us that the “well done” we desire to hear from the world is not really the one that matters. The only one that matters is when Jesus, on that final day, says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21).
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
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Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time, of course) at my home church, Uptown PCA.