Movie Parables: Chariots of Fire
"God Made Me Fast"
The true story of two British track athletes who compete in the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics was captured in the historic film drama Chariots of Fire. Harold Abrahams, a determined Jewish student, ran for personal glory while Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish missionary, ran for the glory of God.
I held my breath during the reenactment of a race held more than sixty years ago. Eric Liddell, an Olympic hopeful, was in a pack of runners and breaking for the lead. Halfway around the track, the audience gasped as he was thrown off balance and came crashing to the ground. As Eric lifted up his head, the camera rapidly zooms in to capture his point-of-view: the other athletes, who never looked back, were pulling away and leaving him in a trail of dust.
The scene lasted for a few seconds. What was flashing in Eric’s mind at that moment? Was he badly injured? Would he get up? And if he did, could he possibly catch up, or much less, finish the race? He got up! And the man broke into a run. As he ran with complete abandon, his arms would flail with no obvious rhythm and he would throw his head back to an almost unnatural angle. It was as though he was looking to heaven for inspiration. The audience was dazed by that unexpected moment. Spontaneous cheers rang out from the sidelines as the fallen runner picked up the pace, closed in on the runners, pulled away from the pack, and finished a distant first.
What was it that ignited Eric’s drive to get up and finish the race? From where did he draw this single-minded passion? Our hint comes midway in the movie when his sister confronts him with a pressing choice. We discover that this determined young man was torn between serving God as a missionary to China and serving his country as a runner in the Olympics. What was his decision? To run the race. What was his reason? “I believe God made me for a purpose,” Eric said, “but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”
Before the race, Eric learns that his run was scheduled on Sunday. He stood his ground in front of the British Olympic Committee stating, “God made countries. God makes kings, and the rules by which they govern. And those rules say that the Sabbath is His. And I for one intend to keep it that way.” In a sermon on the very Sunday he refused to run, he said, “You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape—especially if you've got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven't got a job. So who am I to say, ‘Believe, have faith,’ in the face of life's realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, ‘Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.’ If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”
Throughout the athletic competition as a runner and his heavenly calling as a missionary, he never forgot his father’s words of encouragement: “Run in God’s name, and let the world stand back in wonder.” This early experience proved to be a milestone for the young man whom God was preparing for the mission field. He eventually answered his calling and ministered in China as a teacher and missionary.
In March of 1943, due to World War II and the Japanese occupation in China, all foreigners were detained in an internment camp. A brain tumor ravaged Eric’s body with severe headaches and caused him to collapse and die in 1945. His last words, “It’s complete surrender.” Upon learning of Liddell's death, all of Scotland mourned.
Although Eric was acclaimed as a national hero because of how he ran his Olympic race, this is not why we remember him as a hero. Dozens of other Olympians won gold in the 1924 games, and few, if any, are remembered today. The athletic heroes of yesteryear are soon forgotten by succeeding generations, being quickly replaced by the newest sports sensation. Eric Liddell remains a hero today because of how he ran the race of life. He did not live his life to garner prizes or the applause of people. Rather, he lived his life and ran his race to glorify God. He pressed ahead toward the goal for the prize of his heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14).
Eric Liddell’s legacy lives on in the people he influenced for God and the example he leaves for all of us to follow. Known as “The Flying Scotsman,” he ran in the direction of his purposeful vision. He leaves us with a lasting testimony that the pursuit of Olympic Gold pales in comparison to the reward that awaits us in heaven. Even today the world stands back in wonder over the life of this uniquely gifted man, while God in His heaven rejoiced over this good and faithful servant—this chariot of fire!
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor 9:24-27).
Chariots of Fire (Enigma Productions, 1981) written by Colin Welland (original screenplay) and directed by Hugh Hudson.
Copyright 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.
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Eric's refusal earlier that week to run on Sunday in the Olympic 100-meter race had stunned the world. Now his incredible victory in the 400-meter race further strengthened his belief in God's promise, "He who honors Me, I will honor."
Years later, Eric Liddell would be tested far beyond mere physical ability as a missionary to China. His characterm, perseverance, and endurance are a challenging example for all who would obey the call to bring the gospel to the nations.