Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross
Did you know that the term “virtue signaling” is now in the dictionary. An expression that has been used a lot in the wake of the pandemic and social unrest of last year and into this year, it means to “publicly express opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue” (Apple Dictionary, 2.3.0, 2005-2020). “Virtue signaling” is typically used in a derogatory manner. It is felt to be synonymous with jumping on the bandwagon of a popular cause or moral grandstanding, and is considered by those diagnosing a “virtue signaler” as one trying to win praise or acknowledgment from the likeminded for showing support for a social or political cause or to reprimand and rebuke those who feel or behave differently (dictionary.com). The disdain for this practice often arises from the apparent motives of the signaler, wanting to seem more caring, more righteous, or better than others on a given issue. Cancel culture and “wokeism” are often the more virulent strains of this social malady.
Jesus had a low threshold of tolerance for the ancient equivalent of the virtue signaler. Especially in Matthew 23, Jesus calls it out. “They say things and do not do them…” (3-4). How often have we seen people being hypocritical or inconsistent in matters they call out others on? “They do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (5). Only God knows a person’s heart, but is that ever at play in this matter? “They love the places of honor…” (6). Especially may this be evidenced through social media where one may revel in the admiration or recognition of others for occupying the high ground by their signaling. The silent majority may be intimidated by virtue signals, but they are not inherently improved by them.
Depending on your point of view, you may well think that “virtue signaling” is a dirty phrase, that is bespeaks hypocrisy, political correctness, or the like. But, may we never tar the word “virtue” with the same brush. In a list of characteristics better known as the “Christian Virtues” (2 Pet. 1:5-7), Peter urges adding “moral excellence” or “virtue” to our faith. The word refers to “consummate ‘excellence’ or ‘merit’ within a social context” (BDAG, 130). While the Stoics and writers like Homer reserved it for “military valor or exploits, but also of distinction for other personal qualities and associated performance that enhance the common interest” (ibid.), inspired writers coopted the term to mean “uncommon character worthy of praise” (ibid.). While the word is only found a handful of times and more often refers to God (2 Pet. 1:3 and 1 Pet. 2:9), it should describe us, too. If we are praised for demonstrating virtuous qualities, we are to double down on filling our hearts with true righteousness and virtue (Phil. 4:8).
Virtue, as God defines it and guides us to genuinely show it, will encourage others to look at God, glorify Him, and seek to follow Him. Humble, genuine godliness, seeking no attention and wanting no praise, is a powerful persuader. In fact, it’s central to how God wins the hearts of others (cf. Mat. 5:14-16). Let’s stay out of the virtue signaling business, but let us strive for truly virtuous living! God is counting on us to reflect His moral excellence to those foundering and floundering in unrighteousness.