It is so desperately, frustratingly easy to want to be praised for writing and speaking about praiseworthy things. (Don’t you like how I wrote that? Isn’t it so true?) It’s so tempting to want more than the legitimate enjoyment of true encouragement for a job well done; put bluntly, we often just want to be worshiped. And more often than we realize, we put that want on full display in public.
When it comes to ethics, it is virtually impossible to commend something without sounding like you’re complementing yourself for your commendation. For example, to praise a speech you’ve just heard as brilliant is to quietly proclaim your own smarts for so quickly recognizing its quality. We can even sound self-congratulatory in our condemnations. In fact, it’s especially when we’re decrying something dishonorable that we sound like we’re “virtue-signaling.”
This rather clever phrase (yup, I’m quite perceptive in seeing its merit) connotes the practice of publicly lauding oneself under the guise of lauding something or someone else worthy of praise. Or more often, virtue-signaling involves chastising something or someone so as to garner praise, among similarly minded people (potential fans!), for one’s courage to speak up. Proclaiming our ethics via social media makes matters worse. We can gain lots of “likes,” plenty of retweets and maybe a few follows for posting criticisms which require little careful thought to conceive, little time to compose, and which often result in little follow-up activity in “walking the talk.” In social media, our ostensibly righteous words can easily be all talk, and if we gain enough online accolades, it's tempting to think that it’s all good.
But still, aren’t there virtuous causes which could benefit from our drawing attention to them? Injustices about which we can create more awareness and against which we can recruit more active opposition? Absolutely. There are statements worth making in the service of that which is right and therefore against that which is unrighteous. So how can we, then, especially in our day, publicly promote righteousness without being and sounding self-righteous?
First, we have to face facts. To publicly proclaim your personal identification with a good cause is inevitably self-complimentary. At the very least, it creates that perception in the mind of the reader. You can’t hail the virtue of a cause without implicitly hailing (signaling) the goodness of believing in it, and therefore your own virtue for believing in it (and even more, for saying something to promote it.) And if you’ve done an especially effective, even eloquent, job of signaling this good thing’s virtue, the temptation for readers will be to focus their praise on the proclaimer, not the rightful object of praise. In virtue-signaling, that’s the whole point! But even when that is truly not our intent, the promotion of self in the promotion of good which is bigger than the self is inescapable. We need to keep a sharp lookout for what makes the inevitable insidious, especially those of us who actually get paid to publicly promote righteousness.
Virtue-signaling is a vicious, ever-present temptation for preachers and teachers of God’s Word. In James’ lightning bolt of a letter, he sounds forth a stunning warning to all Christians, telling us that the vast majority of us should not seek to be teachers in the church, for such people are held by God to a higher degree of accountability for their work and their words (James 3 is all about sins of speech). It is especially damaging to the cause of Christ when ministers of the gospel, professors of theology, or writers and speakers who focus on theological topics publish or preach material which can be rightly accused of virtue-signaling. Skeptics can see straight through that stuff, and so can believers who are struggling through doubts in their faith. Both kinds of perceptive people spy the self-worship behind words allegedly written or spoken in praise of God, and both can easily infer the lack of sincerity, or lack of self-awareness, of the proclaimer. From there, another inference easily follows, one made especially frequently in the modern and postmodern era, as we’ve become increasingly aware of the presence of self-interest in all we do. If that guy’s alleged worship of God gets expressed through virtue-signaling, then that guy is really just worshiping himself (and getting paid for it). Virtue-signaling is the very stuff of the sin we preachers/teachers are called to call out, and our ironic actions in spreading it indicates just how insidious, how cancerous to the faith, and how contagious virtue-signaling is in this world.
In a fallen world, ruined by self-worship, we are naturally attracted to and affected by what’s caustic, rather than what’s conducive to peace. A condemnation is much easier to construct than a compliment. An insult against us is much easier to remember than an encouragement toward us. Thus, for preachers and teachers, invectives can be much more attractive than exhortations, not least because, just like us, congregants and students can crave that allegedly sanctified hostility. We praise as courageous the church leaders who insult people especially well, and who dismiss criticisms for such behavior as exercises in misdirection, revealing the gutlessness of the objector. So, too, those who praise temperateness can do so in the hopes of being praised for their allegedly Jesus-like gentleness – says the guy writing for a blog called “Gentle Reformation” - yikes!
When we’re aware of just how insidious self-worship is, the preaching, teaching, and posting of the truth can feel like a no-win situation. The corresponding frustration has led some, respectively, to abandon verbal discretion and others to shirk their responsibility to proclaim hard, unpopular truths. Both options capitulate to and double-down on self-worship rather than countering it. So, what do we do when something needs to be said, and when we’re in a good position to say it?
Certain steps ought to be a given. Pray about it. We should hash it out with our heavenly Father, asking him in the name of Jesus and by the ministry of the Spirit through his word to reveal any false way within us (Psalm 139) as we vie for the truth. We need the posture of heart James mandates in chapter 1, “…quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” In practical terms, don’t push the “send” button right way – if ever! Pause, pray, and walk away from it for a while. If what we want to say is true, it’s worth the time it takes to write/speak it in love. And just because something is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that something needs to be said about it, nor does it mean that we are the ones who have to say it. In fact, the more sincerely we feel that something must be said and that it must be we who say it, the more careful we ought to be in approaching such personal proclamation.
Our sincerity must be marked by self-awareness. Feeling and believing something deeply, intensely, and even unhypocritically is not enough. Contrary to pop culture dogma, sincerity in itself is not indicative of truth, or even, ironically, of true belief. The same very much applies to people who claim to believe and promote objective truth. One of the Bible’s most beautiful features is its built-in epistemology, its understanding of knowledge and truth and of how we know that we know the truth. The Bible’s epistemology stipulates an indissoluble union between objective truth and subjective reception; it lets us know what the truth “looks like” in the life of the one who claims to know it. The book of James is all about this, chapter 2, especially. James (and the rest of Scripture) teaches that our actions are the byproduct and revealer of our truest affections; our true beliefs show up in our actual behavior (this could include the habits of the heart, not easily noticeable by others until they accumulate and harden and become obvious to them – though perhaps not to us). This is part of what makes the public broadcasting of our disgust or our delight so dangerous, especially in a (social) media which lacks true accountability, and which sends our words so often to a plurality of people who do not and cannot observe our daily lives.
True, truth is truth regardless of who proclaims it; but this lack of personal accountability regarding what we say in the name of truth only amplifies the opportunity, and therefore the temptation, to proclaim truth for the sake of self-promotion. Being tempted in that direction is difficult, but being tempted at least presupposes some conscious, internal conflict. The dangers of this lack of accountability are redoubled when we’re insufficiently cognizant of the true condition of own inner motivations and therefore of what’s truly present in the composite nature of our words. Self-deceit is notoriously, and essentially, hard to recognize.
The truest self-awareness comes only as we meditate upon God’s law, and especially as we subject ourselves to its external proclamation to us. James calls God’s law a mirror to our souls (chapter 1), and he commands us to take a good, long, reflective gaze upon its perfections. Even here, self-worship seeks a way in. As we apply God’s law first, foremost, and most fundamentally to ourselves, we must fight off the ever-present, aggressive temptation to look away from our own sin and to lock on with laser-sightedness to the sins of others and how they run afoul of the righteous standard under contemplation.
Once our scrutinizing focus is properly set on self, it’s hard to take in what we suddenly see, the internal injustices and the external words and actions they prompt, revealing us as practitioners in some way to some degree of the very same sin we’re calling out in others, and against which we loudly cry out via social media, books, articles, sermons, and other means of self-expression. Then, humbled as to our hopelessness as hypocrites, we must turn in humility and repentance to the grace of the one who, in his days among us in this world, kept God’s law perfectly, sincerely and without self-deceit, constantly (Psalm 1, 2, 51; Isaiah 53; Matthew 5; Romans 5; Hebrews 4).
Forgiven, and facing without excuse whatever consequences in this life our sin has caused, we’re then in a position to better discern what to say publicly, or even whether taking our words to the masses will actually help the masses. If we do decide to speak up, we’re in a much better posture of heart to let flow its abundance. Feeling more fully the personal and global need for Christ’s righteousness, we can shape our words more self-consciously in keeping with that righteousness, and make them less a vehicle for signaling our own. We can better, more sincerely, and more truly, proclaim our disgust or our delight because ours will be more fully, and verifiably – both by our lives beyond our words and by our choice of words and tone in writing - a desire to proclaim what the Lord Jesus loves, and what he hates. And therefore, we’re also in a better position to not only critique and expose fault when such is needed, but to point our readers/hearers to the life-giving grace of the living Christ, who alone can make us, and the world, whole.
Scripture is loaded with such proclamations, some of them succinct enough for a typical social media post, all of them deserving our deep, prolonged meditation and application to self. One especially instructive example occurs in Daniel 9, wherein Daniel – by all biblical accounts a relatively righteous man – signals in prayer his disgust and shame regarding the sins of his people, with which he personally identifies himself. Surely Daniel was not guilty of all the particular shameful thoughts and acts collectively decried in his prayer, and yet his is a prayer radically committed to repentance, deeply cognizant of his own personal complicity in national sin, aware that individual sin is corporate sin because believers together comprise God’s true house of worship, and focused utterly upon the rightness of God’s law and the wondrous availability of his mercy and forgiveness. Daniel, whose life demonstrated his true faith in his God, was obviously, sincerely, self-effacingly signaling not his own virtue, but that of the God whom he courageously served.
Jesus Christ is the only human being for whom virtue-signaling would be an appropriate action, and yet if we apply that phrase to him, we’d have to eliminate any and every negative connotation which it currently possesses. Both with regard to his thoughts and actions in service to the law of his heavenly Father, and with regard to his inherent righteousness as the eternal Son (John 1), he was, is, and always will be the Righteous One. Thus, the signaling of Jesus’ virtue is only right, and always right. And it is always necessary. It’s a matter of life and death for us and for the world (Psalm 96, Isaiah 65, John 3, Acts 4:12, 2 Peter 3).
With regard to the inevitability of implicit self-commendation in the public praise of God, we can blush a bit and say, with increasing sincerity as we walk with the Lord, that all praise properly belongs to him. What a wonder that he would use fallible, imperfect people such as we to accomplish his infallible, perfect purposes.
What a privilege is ours, to signal the virtues of the Righteous One!