In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul exhorts “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, ESV). This exhortation has seismic effect on each one of our lives, because it breaks down the barrier between sacred and secular. In Jesus we come to see that worship is not a ritual activity to be done at a holy place, but rather worship is something that can be done anywhere at anytime. Truly, all that we do for the glory of God is in fact worship. There is no aspect of our lives that this truth does not manifest itself. For it is in the “whatever you” aspect of Paul’s exhortation that we find the freedom to worship in spirit and truth (see John 4:23). There is no better example of this in the past century than the life of Eric Liddell, who’s life we examine in brief through our first installment of the study series A Cloud of Witnesses: Studying The Lives of Saints Through Biography.

Eric Henry Liddell was born on January 16, 1902 in Tientsin, China to Scottish missionaries. He lived in China until age six, when he moved back to the British Isles to attend a boarding school with his older brother near London. At an early age, it became evident that Liddell was an outstanding athlete, excelling at sports such as cricket and rugby. Yet it was while attending the University of Edinburgh that he became known as an outstanding runner, making headlines as a potential Olympian. In due time, Liddell was selected to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. His best event was the 100-meter race, however the Olympic schedule placed this race for a Sunday. As a follower of Jesus, Liddell had a decision to make. Would he honor his convictions of keeping the Sabbath or would he compete for a gold medal? He ultimately chose to withdraw from the 100-meter race, likely insuring that he would not make the podium, as he was not the favorite in his other events. Yet that would not deter him from trying his best.

Liddell entered every event determined to do his best, as do all other competitors. What made Eric Liddell stand out, however, was the purpose for which he competed. While others competed for the love of the sport or for the goal of winning the event, Liddell ran for different purpose. He ran for the glory, the glory of God that is. He saw running as act of worship. When he ran, he would throw his head back as if looking up to heaven. At the 1924 Summer Olympics, the day came from him to compete in the 400-meter race. Known for his gifting as a short distance sprinter, Liddell was not the favorite by a long shot. When the gun went off Liddell, who was positioned in the outside lane, sprinted out of the blocks at break-neck speed. He came out at such a fast pace, that it was thought he would run out of energy before the finish. Yet he sustained his pace, causing two other competitors to fall trying to catch him. Liddell finished the race in first place, becoming an Olympic champion. His pace (47.6 seconds) set both an Olympic and World Record at the time.

As an Olympic champion, Liddell was offered all of the accolades and perks that come with such an accomplishment. Then, as today, Olympians were offered endorsement deals and endless opportunities to elevate their brand. Yet Eric Liddell would have none of it. He used his platform to promote one person, Jesus Christ. After Paris he set his sights on what he saw as his true life’s work, being a missionary. He returned to China in 1925 to serve as a teacher, following in the footsteps of his parents. He would serve as a missionary for the rest of his life. In 1934 he married Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries to China. They continued the work that Eric had started a decade earlier. 

In 1941 China became a dangerous place to live after the invasion of Japan during WWII. Liddell sent his pregnant wife and other children to Canada to live with her parents, while he stayed back to finish up some of the mission work. He had planned to join his family later, but that did not happen. In 1943 Liddell was captured by Japanese forces and placed in an internment camp in Weihsien. As a natural leader, Liddell helped organize activities for those placed in the camp, where he also taught Bible classes each week. Yet as one can imagine, life was extremely difficult in the camp, and sadly he suffered from a nervous breakdown. Liddell soon discovered that he had an inoperable brain tumor, and died in the camp on February 21, 1945. He was only 43 years old.

The question that comes up regarding the life of Eric Liddell is, did he waste his life? Here was a man who was undoubtedly gifted as an athlete. As a reigning Olympic champion, he was favored to win another gold medal in the 1928 Olympics. Competing in more competitions and winning, would have easily elevated his platform. Could he not have spared himself the suffering he endured and lived longer had he not chosen to go to the mission field? The answer to that is ultimately unanswerable, but he likely would have lived a much longer life had he not become a missionary. The argument could even be made that as a well known athlete, he could have reached more people for Jesus. Perhaps, but it may not have brought God as much glory. You see, Eric Liddell only cared about the platform of one person: Jesus Christ. Just as he ran for the glory of God, so he ran life’s race for the same end. He felt called to the mission field, and by being obedient to that call, he brought glory to God.

The life of Eric Liddell challenges us all to live our lives for glory of God, which can be summed up in the following lyrics from the song “Yet Not I But Through Christ In Me”:


With every breath I long to follow Jesus
For He has said that He will bring me home
And day by day I know He will renew me
Until I stand with joy before the throne

To this I hold, my hope is only Jesus
All the glory evermore to Him
When the race is complete, still my lips shall repeat
Yet not I, but through Christ in me*


To further study the life and mission work of Eric Liddell, I would recommend the biography by Duncan Hamilton For The Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey From Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr (Penguin Press, 2016). Hamilton tells Liddell’s story in gripping detail. Interestingly, this book became the inspiration behind the name for Reading For The Glory. Eric Liddell’s life is also depicted in the major motion picture Chariots of Fire (1981).

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