The term “virtue signaling” has picked up momentum in the past few years. According to Google Dictionary, virtue signaling is “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.”
Whether intentionally or not, most of us have practiced virtue signaling, especially on social media. For example, if you’ve ever changed your social media profile to align yourself with or distance yourself from a hot-button issue, you have signaled your virtues. In order to keep up with the speed of news and cultural change, it seems our web banners, memes, and carefully crafted statements of belief change weekly. One quick glance at a news feed or a Facebook profile reveals where people stand on a whole host of matters. Political issues, celebrity scandals, social movements—the list goes on and on.
While speaking out on important issues is sometimes warranted, the Scriptures invite (nay, command) us to be much more concerned with virtuous living than virtue signaling. Jesus instructs us to devote far more time and energy to aligning our hearts and lives with the truth of his Word than to aligning our profiles and feeds with groups or causes.
New Term, Old Problem
While the term may be freshly minted, the idea of putting virtue on public display for the sake of image or approval is nothing new. The Pharisees could be considered the original virtue signalers. Acutely attuned to truth and being right, the Pharisees were known for overt and ostentatious shows of their own virtue. They were in the habit of putting their attempts at righteousness on display for all to see, mostly for the sake of their image and power.
The Scriptures invite us to be much more concerned with virtuous living than virtue signaling.
Christ didn’t mince words with the Pharisees. He made it clear that he cared far more about what happened in the hidden places than what happened on open street corners (Matt. 6:5–6). To be certain, Jesus commanded his people to let their lights shine before men so others would see their good deeds and glorify the Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14–16). But that last phrase seems to be what the Pharisees were missing. They were more concerned with their own public images than with the Father receiving glory.
Jesus cared less about the surface action and much more about the heart from which it issued. In Matthew 15, Jesus reiterated the sentiment God expressed to his people throughout the Old Testament. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God declared, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men” (Isa. 29:13).
Our God desires truth plastered not only on our news feeds and profiles but more significantly within our deepest parts: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Ps. 51:6). The Scriptures are replete with terms like “inner man,” “within,” and “the secret place” that remind us God sees us all the way through. While the world looks on the outward appearance, God looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).
Our God desires truth plastered not only on our news feeds and profiles but more significantly within our deepest parts.
The New Testament writers assumed virtuous living would make itself known publicly, but as an organic process, not an image-protecting or image-projecting pursuit. Paul instructed the church in Thessalonica to “aspire to live quietly” and “to mind [their] own affairs” (1 Thess. 4:11). Peter told the believers scattered by persecution, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).
These apostles didn’t shy away from inviting the early churches to speak verbally or stand up for what’s right and true. But they knew that right words come from rightly aligning ourselves with the Word of God—not with the constantly changing causes of the day.
Before We Post
Before we post a truth online or publicly align ourselves with a stance on a current issue, we would be wise to pause and process a few diagnostic questions. While the following questions are by no means a rulebook or even a rubric, reflecting beyond the surface level will serve both our souls and our neighbors online.
- Does this cause, problem, or position show up often in my prayer life? If I don’t care enough to talk about this in secret with the Lord, then perhaps I don’t need to post about it publicly.
- Are there tangible ways to locally express and discuss this cause, problem, or position? If so, am I engaged in a meaningful and practical way? It’s far easier to post about a position than to step into the messiness of real life with real people. If I have not tried to engage locally, perhaps that’s a better entry point than social media.
- Does my bank statement show any hints of sacrificial or creative giving toward this cause, problem, or position? Our wallets are often excellent indicators of our hearts. A broader question might be, Have I given my time, talents, treasures, or tears toward this issue?
- Is there someone in my current relational network who has engaged more actively or for a longer period of time in this cause, problem, or position? Have I spoken with him as a listener and learner? The beauty of the body of Christ is that God has granted us each hearts that break over different causes to different degrees.
- Who is the hero of this post? If it’s a group, a party, or a person, is there a way I can better point to the character and nature of God?
If we do feel led to publicly align ourselves with a cause, stance, or group, may we engage with humility and give glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. Apart from him, we’re not virtuous. If Jesus hadn’t aligned himself with our cause to the point of death on the cross, we would be without hope. But the more we look at and hide ourselves in the virtuous One, the more virtue will flow out of our lives.