Fireworks explode, music rings out, a huge torch is lit and thousands of athletes and hundreds of flags flood the stadium heralding the start of another Olympic games – games which in their modern form have been going since 1896.
Even the non-sporty among us (me!) can take a certain degree of pleasure in the Olympics – the grandeur of the ceremonial aspects, the wide variety of sports on display, the feel good stories about athletes helping one another, and the surprising wins! Plus who doesn’t feel good when their county wins in a global competition?
Paul the Apostle and the Isthmian Games
The Ancient Greek Olympics had been around for hundreds of years by the time Paul was writing his letters to the early church but second only to those were the Isthmian games and the centre for those games was the city of Corinth – where the Corinthian church was also based.
It makes sense then that Paul often used sporting metaphors when encouraging fellow believers. In 1 Corinthians chapter 9, verses 24-25 Paul says,
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
Something that amazes me about athletes is how single-minded they are – training for hours everyday, honing their skills for years, sacrificing time, money, and other pursuits with a laser-like focus directed at being picked for the Olympics and then winning their event and the award they so desire.
Paul uses this picture of incredible determination and amazing reward to point towards something even greater than the Olympics – and someone who understood and lived that out incredibly well was my favourite Olympian Eric Liddell.
Eric Liddell – Olympic and Gospel Champion
Eric Liddell embodied the message Paul shares in 1 Timothy chapter 4, verse 8,
“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”
Eric Liddell is most well known for his incredible achievements of winning the gold and bronze medals in the 1924 Olympic games – the movie Chariots of Fire was a gripping depiction of the events leading up to those games and the stance he took not to compete in the 100m heats because it went against his personal conviction to compete on a Sunday.
The first way Eric showed that he valued godliness above achievement in sport was that despite incredible pressure to compete in the 100m race (his strongest event) he would not go against his personal convictions even though he was lambasted by the British public for failing Scotland.
The second – and even more significant way – that he showed that he valued godliness above sport was the goals he had in life. There’s no doubt that God made Eric fast and that Eric loved to run, but winning the gold medal against great odds, and being crowned the greatest runner in the world was not the pinnacle of what he wanted to achieve.
In the wake of his glory at the Olympic games he went back to Edinburgh, graduated from university and made preparation to go to China as a missionary. This fact is recognised by a single sentence at the end of his movie - “Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II. All of Scotland mourned.”
Yet in Eric’s mind his Olympic achievements were a footnote at the end of his life devoted to sharing the gospel in China. Eric, more than once, said that God had made him for China and it was China in which he spent the rest of his life – from 1925 -1945 where he died in a Japanese prison camp.
Even after having to send his family to safety in Canada and being imprisoned in the grotesque conditions of the Japanese prison camp, Eric continued on with his ultimate goal – faithfully following God and sharing the gospel with those around him.
There are records of the great encouragement and impact he had during the time he was imprisoned in the camp and the light that he brought to all those who were alongside him in the deplorable conditions of the place.
Running the race of faith with the tenacity of an athlete
Paul uses the example of athletes to encourage the Corinthian believers because they are an excellent demonstration of the work, determination, and pain required to achieve the goal of attaining the prize. In the case of athletes, it is something of temporary value such as a cup, medal, or accolades from society.
It is impossible to become a world class athlete without going through pain and hardship – for example, getting up early to train every morning when you’d rather be sleeping, or the discomfort of having to push yourself to complete a 5km run when your muscles would rather have a spa.
The Christian life is very similar. It requires saying no to sin and yes to God’s good plan for our lives. It requires determination, sacrifice, and single-mindedness all while keeping our eye on the prize.
However, in the case of a Christian, it is not a gold medal or earthly glory, but it is everlasting life with God our Father in the new heavens and new earth where everything will be perfect with no more pain or sadness – but instead a crown of glory that we get to wear forever more. Eric Liddell set his hope upon this final glorious reward and wonderfully God invites us to as well!
Jessica McPherson lives with her best friend and husband, Eoin and their family of rescue animals in Christchurch. She loves reading, writing, photography and scrap-booking but most of all sharing God’s love and truth with a hurting world. Jessica is particularly passionate about encouraging children and building them up in gospel truth.