Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matthew 6:1, NIV)
We’d love everyone to know just how good we are, how closely we’re aligned with the right causes. We’re glad when people are watching, and just in case they aren’t, we stick it in our posts, our tweets, our online comments.
Four or five years ago someone noticed just how much there was of this in social media, and coined the term “virtue signalling”, borrowing the language of evolutionary biology. The term has a slightly pejorative accent: “It’s just virtue signalling” gets to the heart of how this is behaviour or comment for public consumption - without any real commitment.
The term may belong to the social media age, but the practice doesn’t. In the searching application of God’s law to the human heart which we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronted people who did certain things in order to be seen to do them:
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues, and on the streets, to be honoured by others… And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16)
Jesus has a simple point attached to this triple condemnation. There will be no reward for these behaviours, for they are ultimately hypocritical (by which He means play-acting). Real godliness means doing these things in secret, where motives cannot be confused, and the deed is the genuine article.
Parading our good works isn’t the only way we virtue-signal. We also do it by putting down others. To show how good we are, we want to be very clear who and what we’re against. The online world is jammed with commentary which condemns others. We show what good people we are by attacking those who are the wrong side of history;. Our outrage aligns us - so we think - with the best of humanity.
Again, this is nothing new. It is surely fascinating that in the same Sermon on the Mount, only a bit further on, Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way that you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
This verse used to be one of the most-quoted Bible verses, but seemingly less so now. And yet it remains scarily true: how would we get on before God, if we applied the same standards we used on others, to ourselves? The antidote: first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5) There will be a place for taking the speck out of our brother’s eye - but only after we’ve dealt with ourselves. We persuade ourselves we are on a righteous crusade, but in reality we’re wanting to improve our own stock with the crowd.
Virtue signalling - in either of these ways - should have no place in the life of the Christian.
Have I just signalled my virtue by saying this? Well - I need to do better at keeping this!