The words we use to describe our work say a lot about who we’ve become, what we expect from the world, and what the world demands from us. “Busy” might be the first word that comes to mind, as busyness has become a status symbol for self-importance and a default response to the simple greeting, “How are you?” But when we describe what we’re busy doing, a verb better serves the purpose, and no verb is as versatile or widely used as “run.”
We always seem to be running late or running out of time. We have to run errands or run that idea by the boss, but first we must run to that chain coffee store that America Runs On. Eventually, we get run down.
“Run” is the most complex verb in the English language, with more than 645 verb form meanings. Simon Winchester, author of the 2011 New York Times article “A Verb For Our Frantic Times,” told NPR that use of the word “run”expanded over time because of how people keep time: running like clockwork. According to Winchester, it also expanded because of people’s propensity for energy over solidity and to be mobile rather than static. In the U.S., political candidates run for office, high performers at work are known to hustle, and we run everything from computer software to our entire business. “Run is all about ambition and optimism and the possibilities of the future,” Winchester wrote.
Running through the Bible
This run-of-the-mill, three-letter word also has a running theme in the Bible. The Apostle Paul used the analogy to races and running so much that some theologians even wonder if Paul was a runner. There’s the passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize (1 Cor. 9:24).” Elsewhere, Paul wrote “I have finished the race (2 Tim. 4:7),” “You were running a good race (Gal. 5:7),” “I did not run or labor in vain (Phil. 2:16),” and “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Heb. 12:1).”
Forget walking humbly with your God (Mic. 6:8); apparently we need to run—fast!
Why? Maybe it’s because we feel pressured by a lack of time—or by someone who’s keeping track of the time we use. But that someone isn’t God.
Running Out of Time
Rather than running to glorify God, many of us run to bow before the altar of time, a finish line that is a human construct. Media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman once observed that, after the Enlightenment, “the clock introduced a new form of conversation between man and God, in which God appears to have been the loser. Perhaps Moses should have included another Commandment: Thou shalt not make mechanical representations of time.”
The irony here is that the first mechanical clocks were assembled in monasteries after Christian monks desired a precise measurement of time to follow their rigorous prayer schedules.
Although we often replace God with time, our race isn’t against time because we don’t know how long we have to live. Instead, the race that’s marked for us is our life’s work.
Running Our Race
Philosopher Lars Svendsen defines work as “changing the external world such that one can get the necessities of life.” Perhaps we think we need to run just to keep up with the external world.
If we look to God, however, we’ll find that the race that matters—our life’s race—is already won.
The Rev. Ralph Hawkins, pastor of the Northminster Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, put it this way:
You are standing at the starting line of the race that is life to death, anxious about whether you will make it to the end, much less make it with success. At some point Jesus leans over and whispers in your ear: “You will finish.”
We know this because Jesus ran the race before us (by his humanity) and secured the victory (by his divinity).
But even though we know the outcome of this race, we still need to run it.
“Run in the knowledge that the outcome is secure,” Hawkins added. “One might think that learning the race is rigged would tempt you to sit it out or run poorly, but as John Calvin taught, the only true response to grace is gratitude. So, actually, the news of a ‘rigged’ outcome pushes you to run well … with faith, hope, and love.”
The Final Word
As you describe your work to others, be careful with your word choice. The words you choose often become your actions, which are truer expressions of your love (1 John 3:18). If running is all about “ambition and optimism and the possibilities of the future,” then where do your faith, hope and love lie?
“Run” for your life. “Put” in a day’s work. “Set” your alarm clock and do it again tomorrow. Whichever words you choose to describe your own race against the external world, know that you’ll eventually be the loser. The finish line is death. Instead, run the race for which God has already won for you, and give him the glory in your conversations. The race is rigged, but the reasons to finish and succeed run deep.