“Virtue” Is Not A Dirty Word

“Virtue” Is Not A Dirty Word

Monday’s Column: Neal At The Cross

sunset and sweetie

Neal Pollard

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. 

Paper straws: Environmental friendliness or an attempt to drive us crazy?
From The Pollard Poetry Archives (III)

From The Pollard Poetry Archives (III)

Two Prayers In The Temple
Neal Pollard

Up high and proud my boasts I declare
I brag and I crow with my head in the air
Til I look in the corner and see him down there
Why is that poor sinner locked up in despair?

I abstain from eating two days every week
I give money too freely, Thy thanks I now seek.
Why is that man crying, the tears stain his cheek
He’s beating his chest, must be some kind of trick.

Lord, I’m not like the swindler, the philanderer, the cheat,
Or even like that tax collector with whose prayer I compete,
I’m walking out now, Lord, my preening’s complete,
But I’ll see You here next time my boasts to repeat

While scarcely detected a man whispered his plea
His face to the floor, if not on one knee
All the sinner could say was, “Be merciful to me!”
And he left more justified than the proud Pharisee.
(Luke 18:9-14)

(prayJune 8, 1997)

“I Don’t Feel Good Enough”

“I Don’t Feel Good Enough”

Neal Pollard

How many times have you said that? You may project an air of confidence that would make it hard for anyone to think you felt that way or you may wear it on your sleeves. But, if honesty prevails, we’d all confess to wrestling with that thought. Daily! With Paul, facing the scope of our challenge, we exclaim, “And who is adequate for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). BDAG informs us that “adequate” means “sufficient in degree…large enough; pertaining to meeting a standard, fit…competent, qualified, able” (472). As Paul’s words are in the context of ministry, conscientious preachers who read that statement really get it. We’re fragile pottery entrusted with a perfect, eternal, and divine message (2 Cor. 4:7).  Oh, how we feel our own humanity as we preach the mind of God to others struggling with their humanity. We know our every weakness better than anyone else does.

Yet, the struggle I mention is not just the preacher’s burden. The best Christians I know live each day fully aware of their inadequacies and insecurities. No matter how many good works they do, how faithful in attendance and duty they are, or how actively they seek opportunities to serve God, they struggle at times. May I suggest that this is one of the biggest blessings of living the Christian life. No, we don’t want to live in a shroud of guilt. Not at all! But, consider what happens when we acknowledge our glaring insufficiencies.  We can see our utter dependency on God that much better.

Could Moses have really led the Israelites for 40 years on his own ingenuity and oratory? Could Jeremiah have really faced his audience on his own temerity? Could a renewed Peter have really preached that Pentecost sermon to Jesus’ killers on the merits of his own homiletic greatness? Could Paul have really transformed the first-century world on the foundation of his cosmopolitan experience and top-notch education from Gamaliel University?

Repeatedly, throughout His ministry, Jesus decries the Pharisaical tendency of trusting in self (Luke 16:5; 18:9). Ultimately, it’s a farce anyway. I may struggle with different weaknesses than you, but I still struggle. While that is never an excuse to give up and indulge in sin (cf. Rom. 6:1-2), it is a great, daily starting place to appreciate our need of God’s favor and friendship. We are not going to make it through this world on our own merits. As the beautiful old song suggests, “I need Thee, oh, I need Thee, every hour I need Thee….”

Here’s the beautiful thing that happens when we recognize our shortcomings and inabilities. We become an empty vessel that God can fill to accomplish His work. God will open doors of opportunity for us to do, by His might, what we could never have hoped to do without Him. Whether doors of service (teacher, elder, preacher, deacon, etc.), lives of holiness, or works of obedience, we will live in amazement of His power. Or, as Paul put it, “Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever” (Eph. 3:20-21). Take heart, Christian! You’re not doing this alone. You can’t! But, what can God not do? That thought is exciting and thrilling. With that in mind, no mountain is too formidable. He’s got this!

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