Running for God

Harold Abrahams winning the 100M in 1924

I was only a boy when Chariots of Fire first hit the silver screen. I remember watching it with my parents— This is long before Internet streaming or NetFlix or DVDs, and video-tape machines were even still pretty expensive, and films were not released for home viewing as they usually are today. So imagine how impressed I was when I recently streamed it via Netflix and remembered so many of the significant scenes and lines.

This classic film tells the story of two Olympic runners, one a Jew, Harold Abrahams, the other a Christian, Eric Liddell. In the story, Liddell is the one who puts God first. A missionary to China, he refuses to run on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, because the Sabbath is sanctified. And that did happen in real life, though not quite as dramatically as portrayed in the movie. He also finds importance in his running, even though he doesn’t see it as his ultimate calling: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” This is one of the most memorable statements that the writers put into Eric Liddell’s mouth, and for good reason, as it turns the tables on what Christians usually think of as the work of God. We understand that preaching in China is God’s work, but how can God use an activity so mortal as running?

As a teen, I wrestled with this issue, but I didn’t get it. I loved developing software, but I didn’t see how God could use me in that occupation. Maybe if I wrote a computer program that helped introduce people to the idea of salvation… because I believed the most important things in life were about spiritual salvation, and the way to bring God’s purpose into your life was to orient it in that direction.

Harold Abrahams, meanwhile, drives himself to win, by any means possible within the rules. He values his Jewish identity, but we never see him wear a kippah. We never see him in shul. In fact, he uses an awful lot of words of dialogue just trying to fit in as an Englishman, because loathsome attitudes against Jews is an emotional burden against which he wrestles. While he never denies his Jewish heritage, he is the kind of Jew we today would call “secular.” Ultimately, Abrahams falls in love with a Christian girl. And that, too, did happen in real life, though not exactly as portrayed in the movie. In real life, he converted to Catholicism just as the Nazis were coming into power, and then he met Sybil Evers, who would become his wife.

So we have two stereotypes here. One is of the Christian who pursues God’s spiritual eternity, but sees God’s hand even in the mortal activities of life. The other is of the Jew who pursues success in this life, though with honesty and a steel-hard work ethic. The strength of these stereotypes are no doubt one of the reasons Chariots of Fire is so famous a film. But these stereotypes radically oversimplify the truth of the differences between Jews and Christians. It’s a truth I believe both sides can benefit from, but I want to look at it from the Christian perspective.

Life Is Not a Dress Rehearsal

Rick Warren, of “Purpose Driven” fame, said that life is a dress rehearsal. “God wants us to practice on earth what we will do forever in eternity.” The possessions of this life, the popularity, the pressures, all the physical and emotional needs of our human existence— none of these should drive us; only God’s ultimate purpose matters. “God didn’t put me on earth just to fulfill a to-do list. He’s more interested in what I am than what I do. That’s why we’re called human beings, not human doings.”

I don’t know if that’s something the Eric Liddell from the film would agree with. Running had great meaning to him, both in a literal and figurative sense. Indeed, our need for purpose in this life is a core human need. Liddell found purpose not only in preaching the gospel in China, but also in running, in training to run, in competing to run, and in winning races. And he didn’t just ascribe his athletic prowess to personal passion, but also to God’s purpose for him.

But if this was true for Liddell, then for Abrahams even more so. He’s portrayed as a secular Jew—and he may have been one in real life. But a remnant of God-inspired Jewish values nonetheless filter through into this portrayal of his athletic career. He too found great purpose in running, but he never bothered to ask whether it was God’s will that he run, because Judaism draws no dichotomy between eternal purpose and mortal purpose. And he ran to win, because only by winning could he fulfill the purpose he saw for himself. What I’m saying is that he could have been a practicing Jew—and he should have been a practicing Jew—and the athletic story would have played out exactly the same way it had in the film. Because Judaism doesn’t look at this life as a rehearsal for the afterlife; it sees this life as partial implementation of God’s divine vision.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik draws the distinction in terms of Jewish practice, halakha:

Halakhic man does not long for a transcendent world, for “supernal” levels of a pure, pristine existence… It is here that the Halakhah can be implemented to a greater or lesser degree. It is here that it can pass from potentiality into actuality. It is here, in this world, that halakhic man acquires eternal life! “Better is one hour of Torah and mitzvot in this world than the whole life of the world to come,” stated the tanna in Avot [4:17], and this declaration is the watchword of the halakhist. Not only will the universal homo religiosus [religious man] not understand this statement, but he will have only contempt for it, as if, heaven forbid, it intended to deny the pure and exalted life after death. (Halakhic Man, p. 30)

Christianity has fallen into this trap, a tendency to over-spiritualize salvation, as though what we do in this life doesn’t actually count, as though what we accomplish doesn’t count, as though the race we run doesn’t actually count. But it does count. What we do here does not just glorify God in an eternal sense, but in a mortal sense as well. “Physical training,” wrote Paul, “is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8)

How to Carve out a Little God in Your Time

How do you worship God between Sundays? This question was thrown out as part of a recent sermon I attended. Several answers came back: By studying the scriptures. By listening to spiritual music. By admiring God’s great creation. But these Christians missed the most important answers. How about: By discussing politics? By loving your wife? By driving your kids to soccer practice?

“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord… since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” (Colossians 3:17,24)

Why do we always talk about carving out a little time for God, but never about bringing God into everything we do?

This latter is a Jewish idea. The Jews have a blessing for everything, and a Jew is supposed to recite a hundred of them every day. When I first encountered this idea, I thought it was a little extreme. But it’s actually pretty mild: there are so many reasons to bless God, it should be pretty trivial to find a mere hundred occasions on which to do so. Jewish worship is not confined to the Sabbath, or to times we “carve out” for God. Worship is an immersive, ongoing experience, a practice, a habit. In fact, one of the most important Jewish prayers, Birkat haMazon, is never recited in synagogue.

This life is not a dress rehearsal. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) We were made to worship God today, in the way we live, as “living sacrifices,” as Paul put it (Romans 12:1), not in some abstract, spiritual sense, but in what we do and how we live. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 15:22) This is our “reasonable service.” I don’t think Christians get all that means.

Or in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal A Fractured World:

As long as there is hunger, poverty, and treatable disease in the world there is work for us to do. As long as nations fight, and men hate, and corruption stalks the corridors of power; as long as there is unemployment and homelessness, depression and despair, our task is not yet done, and we hear, if we listen carefully enough, the voice of God asking us, as he asked the first humans, “Where are you?”

The very nature of salvation is at stake, which is why the Rick Warren quote is so apropos. When Moses and the Israelites sang, “You, O Lord, are my strength and my song, and you have become my salvation” (Exodus 15), were they thinking of “salvation” as most Christians do? Salvation to them was not a passport to heaven, as so many Christians think of it. Much less was salvation constrained within someone’s mind. Salvation was a social phenomenon, because sin also manifests itself socially. Therefore, their salvation happened not just in the forever-after, but in the here-and-now.

And the same ought to be true for us, as well. At the end of our days we should be able to look back and say, “I think the world was a better place because I was in it.” And we should be able to convince God of that, because we’re going to be accountable to him. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) But we have an advocate before God’s judgement bar, an advocate who also made restitution for any damage we may have caused. (1 John 2:1-2)

That should be enough to urge us to action in our own choices, and to forgiveness for the choices of others.