Virtue signaling is a concept that’s grown increasingly popular on social media, in the news, and in casual conversation. But it’s actually not a new phenomenon. So, what is it? Basically, it’s a negative phrase most often used to call out people who seem to be concerned about how they look publicly without having the right motives privately.
Throughout Scripture, we see common themes of people trying to appear outwardly righteous while being inwardly prideful. In fact, the Pharisees were some of the OG virtue signalers.
Let’s back up. The Pharisees were religious leaders who were strict about observing the Law given in the Old Testament. In fact, they were so strict about not wanting to break any laws, they invented new laws—and they wanted everyone to know it.
In Luke 20, we find out that they prayed elaborate prayers in public while cheating widows out of their property in private. Talk about virtue signaling!
They got so caught up with following the Law that they didn’t see what was right in front of them—a Savior offering both truth and grace.
Jesus was well aware of their religious theater and empty virtue signaling, and He was not pleased with it. In Matthew 23, He doesn’t hold back on His criticism of their behavior:
“Everything they [the Pharisees] do is for show. … What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matthew 23:5, 27-28 NLT
Now, it’s easy to point fingers at the Pharisees and condemn their actions. But a better response is to turn inward and notice where we’re tempted to think or act like Pharisees ourselves.
In fact, let’s take a second to evaluate our motivations.
• Are you sometimes more concerned about what others think or say about you than what Scripture says is true of you?
• Have you ever posted about something on social media to “prove” how religious you are?
• Do you sometimes think you’re better than someone else because of how high your Bible App streak is, how often you serve others, or how much you give?
• Do you sometimes do good deeds out of a desire to receive rewards or recognition instead of a genuine desire to represent Christ?
• Have you ever criticized someone else because you don’t trust their motivations?
We’ve all had wrong motives at some point in our lives. And most of us want to be known for being a good leader, a good example, a good Christian, or just a generally good person. Those desires aren’t inherently wrong, nor do we need to wait until our motivations are 100 percent pure to do good. Honestly, it’s unlikely our motives will ever be completely pure.
However, when we become more focused on what others think instead of what God thinks, we can quickly fall into the trap of virtue signaling—spending more energy convincing others we’re doing the right things than actually doing the right things with the right motives.
So, over the next few days, we’ll discover how we can get out of the trap of virtue signaling and instead start living out the true virtues Jesus calls us to.
Pray: God, I recognize there are times where my inner Pharisee comes to the surface. Reveal to me any wrong motives I have, and give me right motivations instead. Help me fully accept Your grace, mercy, and love, and guide me as I seek to live out the true virtue You call me to. In Jesus’ name, amen.