Faith that survives Success and Suffering

30 March 2020 - Andrew May

Eric Liddell winning the Olympic Gold Medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics (photo source)

Use your time well

Using your time in self-quarantining to read or listen to a good Christian book can be a very valuable investment in strenthening your faith.  Christian biography can be particularly encouraging as we seek to learn from the example of those who have gone before us – especially in times of hardship.

In recent years, I have found the biographies of Christians who have experienced the adversity of war thrust open them to be quite profound and challenging.

Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer paints a comprehensive picture of a thoughtful Christian leader who sought to stand for God and others against seemingly overwhelming forces in Nazi Germany, when many of his contemporaries were carried along by the current of the day.  It raised for me the question “What would I have done?”

A Faith that endures

Last year, I listened to Duncan Hamilton’s excellent biography of Eric Liddell entitled “For the Glory”.  Eric Liddell was born in China to Scottish missionary parents but was raised and educated in Scotland.  Liddell had the unique combination of being exceptionally gifted, especially at sport, as well as being devoid of any vanity.  Based on the conviction of his Christian faith, Liddell made the principle of not competing in his best event – the 100-metre sprint at the 1924 Paris Olympics. This was due to the heats of the race being run on the Sabbath.  Liddell was one of the favourites to win gold and he had many critics from his own nation for the stance he took because of his faith.

As an alternative, Liddell was entered into the 400-metre race and as a sprinter, was not expected to win.  Made famous by the movie “Chariots of Fire”, Liddell went on to win Olympic Gold and set a world record with his distinctively upright, head tilted back running style.  The movie ends at this moment of Liddell’s life but perhaps the greater story took place in the second half of his life.

Liddell was offered all the trappings of a comfortable life that came with Olympic Gold.  Many sponsors came to offer him riches but Liddell chose to use his fame as an evangelist, travelling the country to speak to large crowds to urge them to turn to Jesus.  Liddell also kept a promise he made in his childhood to return to the place of his birth as a missionary.  It was in China that Eric Liddell met and married Florence Mackenzie and had three daughters – Patricia, Heather and Maureen.  When the Japanese invaded China, Liddell eventually sent his family to the safety of Canada but remained in China himself to serve. 

Eric Liddell in Xiaochang (photo source)

What struck me about Eric Liddell’s faith is that it could endure both fame and famine, success and suffering.  Men of weaker faith would have succumbed to either threat.

In 1943, he was captured and interned in the Weihsien Internment Camp.  In appalling conditions, with limited food and essential items, the internees would often behave with similarly appalling character – cheating, lying, hoarding and stealing in order to survive.  In this environment, Eric Liddell was a beacon of light.  Liddell would give his food away to others, he would rebuke others who were hoarding, exhorting them to share.  He helped the elderly, ran Bible classes, taught Science and held athletic and sporting events to encourage the internees, especially the children in the prison camp. Liddell worked tirelessly in the camp and was loved by all.  The children in the camp referred to him affectionately as "Uncle Eric".  In February 1945, after months of ailing health, Eric Liddell died just five months before liberation came to the camp.  He died aged 43, having never met his youngest daughter.  In the presence of a close friend and fellow missionary, Eric Liddell’s final words were “It’s complete surrender”.


Eric Liddell’s life is a living example of the prayer of Agur in Proverbs 30:8,9:


Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.  Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’  Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.


In the end, Eric Liddell didn’t dishonour the name of His God.  He ran the race, fought the good fight to the very end.  What struck me about Eric Liddell’s faith is that it could endure both fame and famine, success and suffering.  Men of weaker faith would have succumbed to either threat. Success threatens to steal the soul in exchange for the fleeting taste of earthly glory.  Suffering can embitter one’s heart turning it to resentment against God.  Liddell managed to avoid both threats and as such lived an attractive life of deep conviction, Christ-like humility and unyielding service.

The Secret of Enduring Faith

By the end of the Covid-19 crisis, may it be said of Christians around the world that we lived with such faith as that of Eric Liddell.  May it be said that suffering only made us shine brighter for our Lord Jesus.  When we emerge on the other side of the virus may we not strive for the ephemeral rewards that the world longs for but the heavenly prize that awaits us (Philippians 3:12-14).  But how can we have the muscular faith of an Eric Liddell? 

Dr David Michell, who was a child in the Internment Camp, wrote this about Eric Liddell:

What was his secret? He unreservedly committed his life to Jesus Christ as his Saviour and Lord. That friendship meant everything to him. By the flickering light of a peanut-oil lamp early each morning he and a roommate in the men’s cramped dormitory studied the Bible and talked with God for an hour every day.  As a Christian Eric Liddell’s desire was to know God more deeply, and as a missionary, to make Him known more fully.

I hope that you can use this time of self-quarantine well.  Read a Christian book.  Listen to a biography like that of Corrie-Ten Boom’s or even better still, strengthen your faith by developing the habit of humble devotion in the Scriptures and daily prayer so that you may know your Lord like Eric Liddell knew His.