Virtue Signaling in Church
Something yearns within each of us to be appreciated, to be seen, heard, and known. Recently, on a Sunday morning I had an experience which made me question some of my preconceived notions about what it meant to have a “moment” with God in public. Let me set the table for you. I was at a small church on the edge of a major city in Costa Rica. This was the type of place where you can drive about fifteen minutes and be right in the rain forest. We, my wife and I, were the only native English speakers there. Everyone knew this. During the worship time, one of the homeless men who was in regular attendance started to shout out “praise” to God in English, albeit very poor English. “Tank eugh Jeeza” he shouted, followed by many half English words. I was trying my best to ignore it and focus on worship. Then suddenly I saw him crawling down the aisle, ending up face down in front of the stage. No one knew what to do. I even saw the worship leader trying to suppress a smile on his face.
This went on for two songs and I noticed a couple times he would look up and over his shoulder to see who was looking. Finally, the senior pastor went up to him and asked him to have a seat.
This whole exchange got me thinking about growing up in church and some of the things that I remember seeing. I especially remember how each summer the youth group went to a youth rally and when we got back, there was a lot more raising of hands, standing in worship etc. I remember thinking that the people who raised their hands and stood up when no one else would, were brave, or spiritual, or something like that. But could it also be that this was a bunch of virtue signaling?
Google defines Virtue signaling as follows:
noun: virtue signaling
- the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.
Why Virtue signal at all?
People do this for one simple reason: they want others to think better of them. They want a monopoly of moral behavior and the corresponding clout that comes with it. The concept of a monopoly might be familiar to some of you but in case it is not, I will explain.
- the exclusive possession or control of the supply or trade in a commodity or service.
The person who virtue signals is trying to establish a monopoly in behavior. This would mean she or he will be able to feel great about themselves in comparison to others and might even be able to garner the attention and affections of others.
While monopolies are bad in most cases, they can actually be a good thing for undesirable behavior. Crime is the best example. Thomas Sowell in his book Economic Facts and Fallacies, talks about the positive benefits of a monopoly in crime. He says that the monopoly prices that crime lords impose make the price too high for the small criminal to want to get involved, thus lowering the demand for it. Of course, a better world would be one without crime altogether.
My time in youth group was long before the term virtue signaling became fashionable, but there must be a way to determine when someone is actually sincere or just trying to signal to everyone around them how spiritual or virtuous they are.
The first thing that needs to be asked is: Does it draw attention to yourself? The Bible talks in length about not doing things so that man can see, but in secret for God. Of course, this does not apply to every situation, so what are some other determining factors?
Look at Matthew 6:1
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them.
There are times when practicing our righteousness before men may be okay. Like to build them up, or so they glorify Jesus. That is the determining factor. There is something that can happen when someone comes to see themselves for who they are and God for who He is that makes them just fall before the Lord and worship. Those who see it are like “Wow, the Lord truly is in this place.” The problem is that we do not always know what is going on inside someone else.
Look inside yourself. Keep track of what is going on inside yourself and if you feel that you are on the edge of virtue signaling, STOP, and take inventory. What would a monopoly of the virtue mean in the situation? Start to get better at self-examination and self-reflection. As you do, each time it will get easier and easier.
Thinking about correcting your brother or sister in this area?
In his book 12 Rules for life Dr Jordan Peterson talks about making sure your life is in perfect order before attempting to correct others. He uses the analogy of cleaning your room. This is a simple analogy for concentrating on the areas that you have control over before moving on to those you do not have control over. This is the modern version of the old idea of removing the log that is in your own eye so you can see clearly to remove the spec that is in your brothers eye.
Then I will be able to correct others?
Slow down hot shot. Still even with this people will still offer you a lot of resistance when you try to correct them. This is because it is very easy to spot problems in others, but not so easy in oneself. People are tremendously in love with themselves and very few if any engage in much introspection. My advice (After following Dr. Peterson’s advice) is to go into it with much prayer, and maybe even fasting if you can handle it. Remember that it is God’s job to change someones heart, it is only your job to speak. Count on Him for your results.