Sabbath Harder: Eric Liddell and Complete Surrender
Written by Managing Editor on March 5, 2020
By Jesse Sumpter
Christians should know how to keep Sabbath. I am not saying this the way that some in our culture would say it. Some people say we need more rest because we are too busy, living crazy, distracted lives. These people suggest we need to do some yoga and find our inner guru stillness. That is not what I am talking about. I am suggesting that we are not doing enough with Sabbath. What we really need is to Sabbath harder. By that, I mean we need to have a better understanding and vision for Sabbath. This means we have more to do, not less.
In the fourth commandment, God commands his people to rest. He says work on six days and then rest on the seventh. This is a command. This is not an option. While it might seem like a command will dampen our joy, the reality is that obedience brings great joy and peace. This command is a wonderful gift so that we have one day out of seven to rest. This Sabbath rest is a gift to us because we are reminded what our rest should be founded on. It should be founded on something that God has done, not something we have done.
In Deuteronomy 5, it says that the Sabbath day is a memorial for what God has done for his people: once they were slaves in Egypt and God brought them out with his mighty hand. God has done this great work and so the people need to rest. In the new covenant, we celebrate and remember God’s work on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead. Our Sabbath rest is on the first day of the week because our lives are oriented around the Gospel. God has done a great work for us and we are to reflect and remember and celebrate that work. This is something American Christians need to do more.
Eric Liddell and Sabbath
The story of Eric Liddell is a wonderful lesson of how to Sabbath harder. In 1924, Eric was a runner who was going to compete in the 100m event at the Olympics in Paris. However, that year the 100m event was held on a Sunday. So Eric switched events, changing over to the 400m event. Eric refused to run on Sunday because he knew that was against God’s law. He honored God above men. Eric knew of the schedule issue ahead of time so he was able to train for a different event but this new event was still a huge challenge for him. It is crucial to see that while Eric honored God and kept Sabbath, this did not mean that Eric sat back and was passive about it all. Actually, he jumped in and worked harder. He trained for the 400m and he won that race.
The famous movie Chariots of Fire records the story well. The character Eric in the movie talks with his sister about being a missionary in China. He explains that he will be a missionary but that God also made him to be a runner. He says the great lines, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” In this way, we see that Eric was not a snooty sabbatarian; he truly wanted to enjoy the good gifts of God in his life. He knew that God had called him to be fast and he wanted to use that gift to honor God.
After he won the 400m, Eric explained how he had won: “The secret of my success over the 400m is that I run the first 200m as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God’s help, I run faster.”
In this quote, Liddell is not saying that he ran 50% and then God added another 50%. Rather, the whole thing was a gift of God. By God’s grace, Liddell ran the whole thing.
That is the correct vision for Sabbath rest: we need it because that is where we are reminded that we cannot do what is required. We must run and strain for the goal but we cannot get there in our own efforts. We must look to God for our strength in order to run. Paul in Romans 9:16 says it this way: “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”
Sabbath as Surrender
Later in his life, Liddell went to China to be a missionary. He followed God’s calling on his life and he worked and served there for several years. He eventually gave his life there dying in 1945 in an internment camp. His last words are recorded to be: “It’s complete surrender.”
Liddell’s last words summarize the Christian life: it is surrendering everything to God. But this surrender does not mean that we remain still and passive and don’t have anything to do. Rather, It is a complete surrender to God’s will for our lives and so this means that we work harder and longer than we ever thought possible. But this comes from God’s strength, not from us.
There are two errors in how we approach Sabbath rest. One error is to think that rest means inaction: I just sit here and do nothing. Some might erroneously encourage us to a still quietness as if our problem is that we are too busy in life. But busyness is not the problem for Christians. The reverse is more often the case: we are too lazy. So Sabbath is not about finding an inner peace or quiet. True Sabbath rest is about action.
The other error is to think that I must do everything. God might save me, but I am the one who has to run the race. So I get out my running shoes and I run. I grit my teeth and I try to run harder and faster: as if God will be more pleased with me, if I can just do more things faster. But this is wrong too. My job is not to do what I think; my job is to do what God says to do.
This means that I must obey God all the way, every day. I must obey the command to glorify God but the reality is that this command is an impossible task for me. So it is only by God’s grace that I can fulfill the task before me.
The answer then is complete surrender. We must give it all up to God. In God’s command to rest on the Sabbath, he is not saying that the other six days are ours to do with as we please. All our days belong to God. He has claimed them all. There is nothing left over for us. In turning to God, we must surrender it all to him. Then God in his grace gives us back six days to serve and obey him.
Sabbath as Launch
In this discussion, it is important to emphasize God’s grace to us. It is all grace. I am not saying that we must do our part and then God adds his part. The truth is that all of it comes from him. God gives us the task to run and we must run our best. And we run only by God’s grace. And then God takes us even farther than we thought possible. And that is by God’s grace also. When it is all done and we reach the end, we will see that we had run because we had surrendered it all to God. He will get the glory because we were merely obeying what he had told us to do.
In Luke 17, Jesus says it this way, “Does [the master] thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” At the end, when we have run our hardest and in God’s strength we have gone even farther than we thought possible, we will say like Liddell, I didn’t do it. I just surrendered it all to God. I don’t deserve any praise. I was just doing what I was commanded to do.
In this way, we see that the Sabbath is not about us having a chance to rest or for us to get a chance to take a nap, although those things are good gifts from God. The true vision of Sabbath rest is that life is like a pole vault competition. The pole must be placed in a stationary spot, a spot that doesn’t move. This is not to keep the pole from moving, but because the pole is supposed to move. The stationary spot is the point from which something larger can be launched. Sabbath is like that spot for the pole. We set it there in God and in his great work of deliverance, and then He launches us farther than we ever thought possible.