Langdon Gilkey was a twentieth-century American theologian and writer who encountered the truth of God’s grace in the most unlikely of places.
As a young man, Gilkey attended Harvard University where he studied philosophy. During his time there, he, like many college students, lost his faith and began to identify as a secular humanist—someone who believes human beings are intrinsically good and rational at a base level but do not need to be concerned with God or spiritual things. He held the view that human beings can make progress and achieve a better society on their own.
After graduating from Harvard in 1940, Gilkey traveled to China to teach English at a university. World War II broke out shortly thereafter, and the Japanese invaded the area of China where he was living. Gilkey was placed in an internment camp with other foreigners facing difficult and inhumane conditions.
These hardships took a toll on the prisoners within the compound, bringing out cruelty and selfishness in the inmates as well as their captors. What’s more, a fair number of those in the camp were foreign ministers and missionaries who, instead of exhibiting compassion or mercy, used religion to justify their greed and self-centeredness.
In his memoir, Shantung Compound, Gilkey recalls the extreme disillusionment with humanity he felt as he faced a reality that deeply opposed his beliefs in the innate goodness of people.
But one man, in the midst of deep evil, brought hope. His name was Eric Liddell.
Liddell was a Scottish missionary and previous Olympic gold medalist. Gilkey described him as “overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”
Their encounters chronicled in his memoir show Gilkey being drawn back to faith. While virtually everyone else struggled with crushing despair and exploitation, Liddell remained a constant source of light, relief, and generosity. He became a self-appointed youth director of the compound, starting chess tournaments and square dances, checking in and talking with people, constantly pouring out love and care to those around him, and sharing what little he had with others.
During his stay in the compound, Liddell began to feel unwell. A mere two weeks after his diagnosis, he passed away due to a tumor that had grown in his brain.
But even after his death, Liddell’s life stuck with his fellow inmates. One man’s sacrificial lifestyle had such a significant impact on those around him that Gilkey wrote, “We don’t believe we would have psychologically survived without him.”
The differences in Liddell’s attitude, posture, and care for others displayed the great difference between religion and the gospel of grace. His circumstances were every bit as bleak as those around him. He was a sinner, the same as everyone else in the compound, but he was not self-seeking; there was no pride or arrogance in him, only a deep certainty of God’s love. This belief buoyed him up to be able to extend true generosity, rather than looking down on others.
In the context of a World War II internment camp, Gilkey discovered that humans’ true nature, regardless of religion or secularism, is one of pride. And this pride blinds us to God’s grace. We so easily forget about the gospel and preach the message, “You’re saved by your right doctrine;” “You’re saved by being a good person;” “You’re saved by helping the poor;” “If you do these things, then God will love you.” But this attitude is entirely focused on what we do—what we can bring to God or the world—and it creates pride, intolerance, and self-righteousness.
Neither religion nor secularism can cure these vices in our hearts. The only power that can overcome our sin nature is the gospel of grace.
Nathan Cole, an 18th-century British minister who was converted after hearing a sermon by George Whitfield, said this about his conversion: “My hearing Whitfield, my hearing him preach, gave me a heart wound and my old foundation was broken up and I saw that my righteousness would never save me.” This is the essence of what it means to be a Christian, and this is the beautiful truth Langdon Gilkey found in the example of Eric Liddell.
God’s grace confronts our human pride in all situations. Only when the church is filled with people who have had such a confrontation and allowed God’s grace to win out over their own sinful nature will we have a missionary encounter with modern society. What does this look like in your life? In your church? In your community?
Regardless of your situation or circumstance, regardless of need or excess, regardless of previous postures of self-righteousness or shame, choose today to be part of the missional movement that allows God’s grace to win in your heart and touch those around you.