Question: "What is virtue signaling?"
Answer: Virtue signaling is a relatively new term (early 2000s) that can be defined as the expression of a “moral” opinion on a subject meant to make one look like a “good person” to a specific group of people. An example of virtue signaling might be when a person criticizes a form of dress, calling it improper or immodest, in order to look virtuous to a religious group. Or virtue signaling could take the form of posting a charitable gift receipt on Facebook to show yourself as a generous person. Virtue signaling is also used by politicians in order to gain support.
The problem of people publicly signaling their virtue goes way back, and the Lord Jesus addressed virtue signaling in Matthew 6:1–4, long before it was called by that name. The Lord refers to hypocrites who love to give their alms before a crowd of people (verse 2). The advice our Lord gives in verse 3 is to not let your right hand know what the left hand is doing. In other words, keep your charitable activities secret. Virtue signaling is off-limits for the follower of Christ. If people happen to see you giving money to the poor, so be it; but the motivation should never be so that people will notice you. God looks on the heart, not the outward man (1 Samuel 16:7). As one commentator writes, “The secrecy of our charity is one good evidence of its sincerity” (William Burkitt, Commentary on the New Testament, entry for Matthew 6:1).
The Bible leaves no room for virtue signaling. We are told to study to be “quiet” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and to “do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10). We aren’t told to talk about our good works, just to do them. Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.” Virtue signaling and fishing for compliments are roundabout ways of praising ourselves.
What about Matthew 5:16? Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Is this a command to engage in virtue signaling? No, this is not a reference to boasting or announcing our good works (in the same sermon, Jesus warns against such ostentation—see Matthew 6). The Lord’s words in Matthew 5:16 are telling us that, in living an obedient life, others cannot help but notice (cf. 1 Peter 1:15). The glory is God the Father’s, not ours.
It is our fallen human nature that creates a tendency to practice virtue signaling. We naturally want others to think well of us, and it is so easy on social media to publicize our own good deeds or proclaim our lofty values. But we’ve been called to be faithful before God, not to seek the world’s acclaim: “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?” (Proverbs 20:6, KJV).
We are to proclaim not our own righteousness, but Christ’s (see 1 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9; 1 Peter 3:18). Paul says in Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When forced to list his credentials according to the flesh, Paul prefaced his remarks with these words: “In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool” (2 Corinthians 11:17). Virtue signaling is vainglorious, and it is foolish.
John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets (Luke 7:28), had an opportunity to signal his virtues when approached by the priests and Levites in John 1:19–21. When John was asked, “Who are you?” and “What do you say about yourself?” he could have waxed eloquent about his morals, pointed to the great works he was doing, or in some other way signaled his virtue. Instead, John said, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (verse 23). He then pointed people away from himself and toward Jesus Christ, “the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (verse 27). May we learn the same humility.