Monday, June 8, 2009

Chariots of Fire -- following your conscience, glorifying God

Director: Hugh Hudson, 1981.

Who can forget Vangelis' Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire? The melodic electronic theme almost instantly evokes the beach scene where the British runners are on a training run in the surf. Moreover, the film itself won the Oscar for best picture, which is unusual for a sports film (Rocky is the only other sports-themed best picture in the last 60 years).

The title, Chariots of Fire, is taken not from the verse in 2 Kings (6:17) where Elisha prays for his servant to see the providential protection that is typically invisible to the spiritually unopened eye. Rather, it is a phrase in the English patriotic anthem, Jerusalem. And this song is sung in the opening scene in a London church in 1978, where the funeral of the great English athlete, Harold Abrahams is taking place.

This is the based-on-true-life story of Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), two distinctly opposite British runners who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Abrahams is a bright student, son of a rich Jewish businessman, going up to study law at Trinity College, Cambridge. He enjoys the high life of champagne, girls and opera. Liddell, on the other hand, is a blue-collar Scot, the son of a missionary to China, who is ready to go back to the mission field. What they have in common is speed, although they run for different reasons.

Abrahams is a man with a chip on his shoulder: prejudice. When asked, by his girlfriend Sybil, about his running, why he runs, he answers, "I'm more of an addict. It's a compulsion with me, a weapon I can use." Sybil asks, "Against what?" and he responds, "Being Jewish I suppose." He had experienced the religious prejudice of a Jew living in a "Christian" nation, and fought against this with his natural ability. By winning he could "prove himself" and his faith. He was no worse than the rest; indeed, he would be better because he was number one.

Sometimes we do this. We face some kind of prejudice and rather than accept it, we react to it. We may not be able to overcome it with our speed. But we may use our academic prowess, or our ability to get the job done at work. When we focus on being the best in our field or our school to gain acceptance, we are falling into the same trap that Abrahams fell into. Our acceptance by men should not be focused on what we can do, but on who we are. Character over career. But this is hard, especially for those of us who may feel inferior or somehow persecuted. Ironically, Abrahams converted from his Jewish faith to Christianity, after his racing career was over.

One problem with Abrahams' motivation is its total focus on winning for self-glory. When he loses a 100m sprint to Liddell in a pre-Olympics race, he pouts like a toddler, "If I can't win, I won't run!" Sybil wisely retorts, "If you don't run, you can't win." You must be willing to risk losing to have the chance of winning. In this life there are few certain victories. We can choose to play the game of life and risk losing. Or we can retreat from life, not chancing losing but never feeling the thrill of victory. Life, like running, is an endeavour that must be attacked with gusto, even if we might not win. Would you rather sit on the sidelines never knowing either victory or defeat? Or are you willing to get into the game, and experience the highs and the lows, as Abrahams did, after his pep talk?

Liddell makes this point clearly, in an evangelistic address to a group of spectators after he wins a race in England. "You came to see a race today. . . . But I want you 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." The writer to the Hebrews says essentially the same thing: "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Heb. 12:1). Unlike the sprints that Abrahams and Liddell ran, our race of faith is more of a marathon requiring endurance and lots of training. We can choose to begin this race the day we embrace our great trainer and coach, Jesus Christ. We will face obstacles. We will hit "the wall" that all marathoners hit once the initial energy burst has dissipated. But with grace we can push onwards to the finish line, the end of our earthly life, where we will be crowned as winners by Jesus himself (Rev. 2:10)!

If Abrahams' motive was self-glory, Liddell's was God's glory. He said to his sister, who was trying to dissuade him from running so he might focus on the mission, "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure." Liddell knew what he was chasing -- God's pleasure. And he was content. Abrahams was never content, "I'm forever in pursuit and I don't even know what I am chasing."

Lidell felt he had wings on his heels and the wind in these wings. He wanted to run for the God who had blessed him with this speed. John Piper, pastor and author, has a ministry motto that says "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." When we are doing what God has designed us to do and to be, we can feel not only satisfaction but the very pleasures of God. And in this way, we glorify him.

Liddell's example can translate into our lives, even if we are not runners. God has gifted each of us in unique ways. Perhaps it is running, perhaps it is writing. We may be artistic or musical. We might be fantastic at relating to people. Whatever the gift, when we use it we find a deep sense of personal satisfaction. And when we do it intentionally for the glory of God, as Paul commands Christians to do in all things (1 Cor. 10:31), then we can also bring great glory to God and experience the pleasure of God as he sees and blesses us.

After his loss to Liddell, Abrahams hires a professional trainer Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm, better known as Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Oscar-nominated here). With his help, Abrahams makes it through the heats to the final of the 100m sprint in Paris. He is on his way to success. Liddell, though, discovers that the heats of this race occur on a Sunday. As a devout follower of Christ, he is not willing to compromise his belief that the Sabbath should be kept for worship alone."God made countries, God made kings, and the rules by which they govern. And these rules say that the Sabbath is His." Despite enormous pressure to cave, he remained true to his principles. Even the Prince of Wales could not persuade him. He followed his conscience. And as he did for Abraham in his hour of testing with Isaac (Gen. 22), God provided a way out.

Once more Liddell's life gives an example of what it means to follow your conscience. Many followers of Jesus would not hold the same conviction as Liddell about Sabbath-keeping. But Paul tells us, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5). If it is wrong for us, we need to follow our conscience. We need not hold others accountable to our own conscience-held beliefs. But we must hold ourselves true to what the Holy Spirit has spoken to our consciences.

Both Liddell and Abrahams achieved victory. Both experienced glory. But they ran for completely different reasons. Which one would you rather model?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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