Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul, thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
    -Be Still, My Soul, Katharina A. von Schlegel (Eric Liddell's favorite hymn)

Divine intervention (Gregg Easterbrook, 7/01/03,
Next is the notion that performance in sport gives honor to God. People who say this usually have good intent; they are trying to set a good example for the positive effects that faith can have in a person's life. George W. Bush tells anyone who will listen that he was once a pretty crummy guy, until Jesus took his hand and gave him the strength to face things about himself he was too weak to face alone. If faith caused George W. Bush to change from crummy guy to decent man -- personally, let's leave politics out of this -- then honor is given to God, and people should know.

But this is delicate, especially in the superficial context of the sports interview. Maybe faith made Reich a better athlete or Bush a better person, but forces that have nothing to do with higher power can make you a better athlete or a better person, too. There are some terrific athletes who are unprincipled, contemptible human beings; Nautilus machines and Nike shoes made them better athletes, not God. At the same time there are some saintly, soulful human beings who believe in no divinity; ethical philosophy made them better people. To praise God when things go well for you does not necessary mean much, since things might just as easily go poorly for you, or might go well without any involvement of the divine.

Praising God for success in sports can be not only grating but a form of self-flattery. When an athlete says, in effect, "God helped me catch that touchdown pass," he's saying that in a world of poverty, inequality and war, higher powers thought his touchdown catch so vastly important that God intervened on Earth to make sure that both feet came down inbounds, while doing nothing to prevent slaughter in Africa or the Middle East. Though meant to suggest humility, praising God for success in sports often becomes a form of vanity: God wanted me to catch that pass! When I hear athletes imply that this is what the divine is like, I think: No thanks.

Finally, does God show favor or disapproval by causing us to perform well or poorly in sports? Maybe, but it seems unlikely. Could Frank Reich really have been a fine, admirable human being worthy of God's favor on Jan. 3, 1993, day of the 35-3 comeback, and then have become a despicable person deserving of divine retribution by Jan. 31, 1993, day of Reich's embarrassment in the Super Bowl? It seems a lot more likely he just had a really good outing in one game and a really bad outing in another.
There's another question implicated here though, or one of the same one's implicated in a slightly different way: if the abilities that each of us possess are ultimately gifts from God, do we not in fact honor Him by using those abilities to their utmost? This notion lies at the core of the great film Chariots of Fire and is the life lesson taught by one of its heroes, Eric Liddell, The Flying Scotsman.

Liddell was both a devout Christian missionary and one of the fastest men in the world. Training and racing obviously place certain demands on his time and attention, to the strong objections of his sister (at least in the film), who thinks he is being distracted from his duties to God. In one of the better set pieces, he explains to her: "I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To win is to honor Him." When his faith and his gift do truly come into conflict--when one of his 1924 Olympic trial heats is scheduled for the Sabbath (Sunday in his case)--he still has enough perspective to see that God must come before self. He resists pressure from the Olympic Committee and from the Prince of Wales until a teammate, who has already medaled in the hurdles, offers to give up his own place in the 400 meters in favor of Liddell.

Just prior to the start of the race, Jackson Scholz, part of an intimidating American track team that was expected to dominate the Games, hands Liddell a note with the quotation: "He that honors me, I will honor." Indeed, Liddell proceeds to win the race, setting a new World Record in the process, even though the event was not his specialty.

The movie ends by noting that Liddell went on to become a missionary in China and was imprisoned by the Japanese during WWII. There he played a key role in comforting his fellow prisoners, as one describes here:
[T]he Japanese armies had rounded up all enemy nationals for internment in Weihsien in the province of Shantung, North China.

Sent to this same camp in Weihsien in August 1943 with many other missionaries' children, I will forever share with all the other hero worshippers of my age that vivid memory of the first sight of the man whom other prisoners described excitedly as the Olympic gold medallist who wouldn't run on a Sunday. [...]

Eric Liddell helped organize athletic meetings. Despite the weakening physical condition of people as the war dragged on, the spirit of competition and camaraderie in sports was very good for us. Young and old watched excitedly, basking in the aura of Olympic glory as Eric Liddell ran in the race for veterans, his head thrown back in his characteristic style, sailing through to victory. [...]

But for Eric Liddell death came just months before liberation. He was buried in the little cemetery in the Japanese part of the camp where others who had died during internment had been laid to rest.
Perhaps God did make Eric Liddell for a purpose, so that his speed, his sportsmanship, and his spirit might help to make life in that camp a bit more more tolerable for his fellow internees. It seems certain that in his athletic endeavors and his faith he gave honor to God and enabled the rest of us to see some reflection of God within Eric Liddell.

The other story told in the film, though less overtly religious, ultimately does the same. It concerns the obsessively competitive Harold Abrahams, who uses his speed to demonstrate the worthiness of a Jew in a still anti-Semitic Britain. When the authorities at Oxford summon him to express their discomfort at his being trained by a professional coach, that it violates their sense of amateurism because it seems excessively concerned with winning and the self, Abrahams responds:
You know, gentlemen, you yearn for victory just as I do. But achieved with the apparent effortlessness of Gods. Yours are the archaic values of the prep school playground. I believe in the relentless pursuit of excellence and I'll carry the future with me!
Abrahams, like Jackie Robinson, confronts bigotry with the fact that he excels in those efforts by which men measure themselves, thereby forcing them to concede that he is their equal or even their better, that he too is made in the image of God. Seventy years on it may seem trivial to some, but it is no coincidence that some of the greatest strides in the history of the ongoing struggle for human equality were effected by athletes, by men like Abrahams and Robinson and Jesse Owens. Their performances gave honor to God and made us perceive God at work in races we'd unfortunately considered inferior, even sub-human. It diminishes them not one whit to say that their gifts and the uses they made of them truly are cases of divine intervention.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -INFO : Chariots of Fire (1981) (
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Hugh Hudson (Imdb)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Chariots of Fire (1981) (MRQE)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Chariots of Fire (1981) (Imdb)
    -REVIEW : of Chariots of Fire (Cheryl Sneeringer, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of Chariots of Fire (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW : of Chariots of Fire (Frank Deford, September 28, 1981, Sports Illustrated)
    -REVIEW : of Chariots of Fire (Text this Week : Movie Concordance)
-REVIEW: of Chariots of Fire (Plugged In : Focus on the Family)
    -REVIEW: of Chariots of Fire (Frederic Brussat, Spirituality& Health)
    -Sports Illustrated's Top 20 Sports Movies

    -Eric Liddell Centre
    -xrefer - Liddell, Eric (1902 - 1945)
    -PROFILE : Eric Liddell (Portraits of Great Christians, In Touch Ministries)
    -Famous Scots - Eric Liddell
    -BBC History : Scots Timeline : Eric Liddell wins gold 1924
    -Eric Henry Liddell(1902-1945) : Olympic athlete and Christian missionary
    -ESSAY : AFTER THE GOLD (Heart Values)

    -ESSAY: To end all culture wars: The theology in To End All Wars is so sound and explicit that it may turn off Christians reared on pop spirituality (Gene Edward Veith, 1/11/03, World)