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The Moment that Changed Eric Liddell’s Life

“Hey Eric, would you come speak at our event?”

That simple question would prove to be monumental in the life of an incredible man in church history.

Of course, most people know about the life of Eric Liddell, the great Scottish runner who would go on to win a gold medal at the Paris Olympics and then go to China as a missionary.

We’ve heard about his refusal to run on Sunday and his desire to be in church instead. We’ve also heard that instead of running his best event—the 100 meters–at the Olympics since it would fall on a Sunday, he was allowed to run the 400, an event that is so different from the 100 meters that it could be compared to a basketball player joining the soccer team for a game. Despite this difference, he was able, not only to win the gold medal in the event but to break the world record.

What was shocking to me to find out was that Eric Liddell was already a famous athlete before ever going to the Olympics. In fact, his biographies point out that he already had competed on the Scottish national rugby team, and some say that he was the best on the team probably because of his great speed.

 

Some young men who were friends with Eric’s brother, Robert, got together and wanted to think of ways to reach some of the men in their community with the Gospel. As they brainstormed, they all agreed that perhaps playing rugby with the men with someone sharing their testimony at half time would be a great idea. Then all of a sudden, David, a friend of Robert said, “maybe we could ask Robert if Eric Liddell would be willing to speak.”  But another friend said, “is he a Christian?”  They had no idea. They knew he went to a missionary kids’ school and that he had grown up in China as a missionary kid, but up to that point, no one had ever heard Eric talk about his love for the Lord.

One biographer even said that Eric’s own parents were concerned for his son and the fact that he had never publicly spoken about his love for Christ.

So, David volunteered to be the one to go ask him. When he got to the house, he greeted Robert and asked him if his brother was around, and if he thought he’d be willing to speak at the event. So, Robert told David he’d have to ask Eric, “he’ll be right back from his run,” he said.

All of a sudden, Eric arrived and David was face to face with one of his sporting heroes, and after telling him about his idea he went ahead and asked him, “Hey Eric, would you come speak at our event?”

Eric loved spending time with the Lord, and he loved learning about Him in the classroom, the only issue was that up to that point he had never been asked to speak about Him out loud.

There are different versions of this event, but one biography says that Eric—who was sitting in a chair at the time—put his head in his hands and sat there for what probably seemed like centuries to David.

As I was reading this to my children, I was overwhelmed by this story. I cried as I thought about what went on in Eric’s mind.

Eric was having to make an important decision; of course, no one was going to force him to speak or to have a public ministry. But I’m sure that Eric was counting the cost. Some people may say no big deal, but this was a huge deal. Especially for such an introvert.

This decision was going to affect the rest of his life. Was he going to be a closet Christian or a committed one?

He was realizing that following Christ means standing beside Him, and carrying a cross so that the whole world could see.

This year, we celebrate 500 years of the Reformation. And looking back at the Reformation, I think we can all be overwhelmed. As we hear stories of Luther, Tyndale, and Lady Jane Grey, we see boldness in the face of entire nations, popes, and scores of cardinals and executioners, and we wonder whether we would ever be able to stay committed to Christ when we could possibly be burned or lose our heads. But most of us will probably never have to face that test. Most of us will simply be called to be faithful in the circles God has sovereignly placed us.

The question is will we be faithful to speak unashamedly of our love for Christ when He calls us to?

Eric went on to preach thousands of sermons, and give up a life of fame and success for the sake of Chinese souls, but that all started on a simple afternoon in his living room. As he sat there contemplating the request, he had to simply ask himself, am I willing to serve Christ no matter what?

After the long pause, he simply answered, “All right, I’ll do it. Tell me where you need me and when.”

May Eric Liddell be an example to us of faithfully obeying Christ no matter the cost, and no matter how big or how small an impact we think our decision will make.

If you want to read more about Eric Liddell’s life, I recommend the book Something Greater Than Gold for children, and two books for adults For The Glory by Duncan Hamilton and Pure Gold by David McCasland.

 

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