By John Percival
I have recently been reading David McCasland’s excellent new biography of Eric Liddell, which I heartily recommend. Liddell is well-known to many for his convictions that led him not to run on a Sunday in the 1924 Olympics and his subsequent gold medal in the 400 metres that inspired the film Chariots of Fire. Less well-known is his later career as a missionary in to China where he recently became the first Protestant missionary to be honoured with a memorial. But not many people know about him as a preacher. So, what lessons can we learn from Liddell?
Let me propose ten:
1. Some people have to be asked
It was miraculous to Liddell that he was a preacher at all. He was naturally shy and reserved and it was only when he was directly asked to speak at an evangelistic meeting in Scotland that he accepted. Even then it took a verse of Scripture quoted by a friend to give him confidence that God would be with him. Sometimes people have to be asked.
2. You don’t have to be a great preacher to have an impact
It is true that Liddell’s celebrity status helped draw crowds to his message, but he was never a great preacher. His style was to be rooted to the pulpit, he rarely gestured with his arms or hands, and his enthusiasm was quiet and steady rather than demonstrative. Even when he arranged Bible studies for his students as a missionary, or preached in the Japanese internment camp where he died, people did not flock to hear him in spite of his Olympic win; rather it was his character that seemed to impress them.
3. Celebrate Christian teachers
When Eric Liddell turned his back on the fame and fortune of an Olympic gold medallist to become a missionary in China, he did so to become a maths and science teacher at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin (now Tianjin). Liddell’s philosophy was to integrate evangelism with education, and he took every opportunity to influence those around him whether that was through participating in the religious life of the school by taking assemblies or playing sport. He organised a voluntary club for some of his students to study the Bible and taught them the life of Christ and the Old Testament. Conversions were few but solid and Liddell said that a slow reasoned acceptance of Christ was better than a sudden conversion which was based on little understanding. If we are pastors we should remember to pray publicly for Christian teachers in our congregations.
The whole Liddell family was involved in missionary work. Eric was born to missionary parents in China (with the result that some have tried to claim him as the first Chinese Olympic gold medallist!). Eric’s brother, Rob, was a missionary doctor and Eric himself became a missionary and evangelist to China – all at a time when it was very dangerous and politically unstable. And yet the sacrifices were willingly undertaken. These were the days when children were left sobbing at boarding school while their parents went to serve on the mission field. Accordingly, Liddell’s parents sent Eric and Rob to school in England when they were only 6 and 8 knowing that they wouldn’t see them again for another five years. Times have changed, and probably rightly so, but the willingness of families like that of Liddell’s to sacrifice for the gospel is striking.
5. Have a sense of humour
This doesn’t come naturally to all of us, and given what we have just said you might be surprised to hear that it came naturally to Eric Liddell. His contemporaries consistently said that he was serious about God but not about himself, and this helped people to relax quickly around him. After getting married, when his new mother-in-law started calling round every day for tea, Eric is said to have quipped that his favourite hymn was rapidly becoming “Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away!” I am not sure that is a good model to emulate, but I do remember a conversation with one well-known preacher (who shall remain nameless!) who told me that he had to learn how to use humour in order to connect with people better. Let’s remember that the gospel is serious, but sometimes humour can be a good ally.
6. The fuel of the Christian life is the devotional life
This is the lesson that stands out most prominently from Liddell’s life. As a preacher he may have been unremarkable but there was the unmistakable sense that he knew Christ and sought to follow him wholeheartedly. Liddell always emphasized the importance of morning devotions and made it his practice to have an hour with God at the start of every day – a practice he continued in a Japanese internment camp, often with a pen and paper ready seeking God’s guidance about the many issues before him. When he met with his students he sought to encourage them in two things: 1) the habit of morning prayers, and 2) the expectation that the Bible had a message for them every day. Those who knew Liddell were often amazed at the resources that he had to give to so many people and were left in no doubt that it came from the time he spent with God. Later on, Liddell produced a daily Bible reading plan for a year to give to others and also a short book of daily prayers. The latter contains the challenge: “One word stands out from all others as the key to knowing God, to having his peace and assurance in your heart; it is obedience.” (McCasland, p237). His approach to the Bible was summed up as, “Read accurately, interpret honestly, apply drastically.”
7. Watch what you wear
In 1933 Liddell appeared in the Union Church pulpit in Tientsin wearing shorts – something that definitely wasn’t done back then – and earned a swift reprimand from many in the very traditional British church community. Liddell respected tradition but probably had little time for unnecessary discomfort in the heat. However, he never wore his shorts again, not wanting his dress to cause more of a stir than his sermon.
8. Focus on the future
In one interview recorded by McCasland (p167) Liddell was asked, “Do you ever preach on the text, ‘So run that you may obtain?’” “Actually,” Eric replied, “I’d rather preach on ‘The race is not to the swift.’” The interviewer continued to ask, “Are you glad you gave your life to missionary work? Don’t you miss the limelight, the rush, the frenzy, the cheers, the rich red wine of victory?” Eric answered, “Oh well, of course it’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m at the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for more at this than the other. Not a corruptible crown, but an incorruptible, you know.”
9. Love your enemies
In the last few years of his life, Liddell meditated much on the Sermon on the Mount – no doubt partly as a response to what he saw going on around him in the Japanese occupation of China. He saw in the beatitudes an ‘offensive of love’ and a way to know God’s peace amidst the frustrations of separation from his wife and daughters and constant delays and searches by Japanese soldiers. In his internment camp he preached on Matthew 5:43 “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.” He asked whether it was possible to love the Japanese guards, and then said, “When we start to pray, we become God-centred. When we hate, we’re self-centred. We spend a lot of time praying for people we like, but don’t spend much time praying for people we don’t like… But Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. I’ve begun to pray for the guards and it’s changed my whole attitude towards them. Maybe you’d like to try it too.” (McCasland, p267)
10. It’s all about complete surrender
Eric often said that the secret of the Christian life was to be found in complete surrender of one’s life to God. He was even speaking about this topic to a teenager in the internment camp when he had a massive seizure and died just before the end of the Second World War. It was later discovered that he had a brain tumour and that even the greatest medical care in the world would have been unable to save him. Tributes poured in and perhaps the most famous has become that delivered by one of his London Missionary Society colleagues:
“What was the secret of his consecrated life and far-reaching influence? Absolute surrender to God’s Will as revealed in Jesus Christ. His was a God-controlled life and he followed his Master and Lord with a devotion that never flagged and with an intensity of purpose that made men see the reality and power of true religion.”
Rather less famous was the tribute offered by one of his old room-mates who said, “He lived a far better life than his preaching.” May that be true of all of us.