Jeanie and I had a common thought this past week.
It occurred to each of us independently that we ought to watch the 1981 Oscar Award-Winning Film of the Year “Chariots of Fire” again.
We had seen it the first time in a movie theater in Lincoln, Nebraska while we were still dating . . . nearly 40 years ago.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
As Jeanie and I went to dinner afterward, we both confessed to being moved nearly beyond words, both emotionally and spiritually. It was a spiritually bonding moment. It seemed as though God were speaking to each of us, though our lives had yet to become one, that we were to run the spiritual race well, without compromise, until the finish, for God’s glory.
We watched the movie again earlier this week for perhaps the sixth time since we first saw it. And again, the moment the movie’s magnificent score began sounding, and we watched those fleet-footed men of ancient lore pounding their way through the surf on a beach in a 1920’s England, we both immediately became emotional—for me, to the point of tears.
I’m often slow to catch on to the subtleties of a story—in this case, the meaning of the film’s title. I initially wondered, after seeing the movie, what the chariots of fire actually were. There had been no literal chariots in this film. After all, it depicted life in the United Kingdom in the 1920s. However, it eventually dawned on me that the two chariots were the two fleet-footed lives that paralleled each other and eventually intersected in a critical arena of competition at the highest levels of athletics in the British Isles a hundred years ago.
The first life was that of Harold Abrahams, a Jewish student at Cambridge with a huge chip on his shoulder, whose fire was fueled by the anti-Semitic prejudice he had experienced. That produced an angry pride determined to justify his existence by succeeding in every area of life, and exceeding everyone else in one particular endeavor—as a world-class sprinter.
The other was Eric Liddell, the Scottish son of Chinese missionaries. His fire came from an entirely different source. It was a desire to glorify God. Running, as one of his admirers put it, was simply an extension of that motivation. He used his fame as a runner to create a platform he repeatedly used to share the Gospel and encourage believers to run the race for Christ.
The two had proven themselves to be the fastest sprinters in the British Isles before they finally met in a race in 1923. Liddell easily beat Abrahams in the 100 meters—the first time Abrams had ever lost a footrace. In the personal crisis that followed, the amateur Abrams infamously hired a professional track coach, Sam Mussabini, in an attempt to achieve his dream—a gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Conflicting purposes were, at first, no obstacle to the same goal for Liddell. Their much anticipated rematch was set for the Olympic 100 meters in Paris . . . until an unexpected twist of fate forced Liddell to choose between Olympic, earthly and national glory and God’s glory.
What would he choose? And why? How, then, did it all play out? Well, that’s the rest of the story, and what makes the film so incredibly riveting and inspiring.
It’s not the only reason, but it’s perhaps one of many, why Jeanie and I are still running the race for Jesus 40 years later. There have been many points in our racing career when compelling compromises were offered, great sacrifices were required, and seemingly impossible tests were placed in our path. There has been no Olympic glory, little earthly glory, and some glory for God, but there remains the prospect of finishing the race well and eventually experiencing heavenly glory.
The movie’s most ironic lines are actually mouthed by Abram’s professional coach, Mr. Mussabini, as he’s in a bar with Abrams very early one morning in Paris. He claimed that what set him and Abrams apart from everyone else was this one thing—“We care about the things that really matter.”
The most inspiring lines are Liddell’s as he reads from Isaiah 40 in a Sunday morning church service while the Olympic Games are playing out in his absence:
Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance . . . All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity. . . (He) bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity . . .
Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary?
He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth (might). . .
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
(Isaiah 40:15, 17, 23, 28, 30)
So, what race are you running?
Do you care about the things that really matter?
And how will you finish the race?
And if you want to watch one of the best and most inspiring movies of all time during this unique time in our history, Chariots of Fire is my choice for you.
Watch it! Follow Eric Liddell’s lead! And you won’t be disappointed at the finish line!
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (I Corinthians 9:24-27).