The last few posts have reminded us that all Christian behaviour should be motivated by a desire to enhance God’s reputation and to demonstrate self-sacrificing love for others.
Needless to say, that isn’t always easy. Nobody likes to make sacrifices. We are always tempted to find a way to look as if we’ve done something good when really it hasn’t cost us much or anything at all.
Christians in every time and place have faced this temptation. In the early days of the church (Acts 5:1-11) Ananias and Sapphira wanted to enjoy the same praise received by those who had sold land or property and given the proceeds to help the poor. They sold their land and pretended they’d given all of the money to the church when really they’d kept back some for themselves.
As a result, God put them to death. Why? Not because they’d withheld some of the money – it was theirs to do with as they wished – but rather because they’d lied about it. They’d tried to seek praise which they hadn’t earned, by exaggerating the sacrifice they’d made.
As far as we know this judgement was a one-off event done to set an example. It isn’t an offence for which God regularly puts people to death. Still, it should serve as a very serious warning to all Christians who have lived since then, including us.
The same temptation exists today. In an age increasingly driven by social media, one way you might experience it is in what is called “virtue signalling”.
What is virtue signalling?
According to the Oxford Dictionary at lexico.com, it is “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.”
For example, when a terrible event such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack is reported in the news, many people now take to social media to express that their “thoughts and prayers”, or words to that effect, are with those affected. Or people may share a particular picture or hashtag which has been associated with that terrible event.
Most recently, many people are taking to social media to express that “Black lives matter” in the wake of what’s going on over in the US.
Doing so may seem harmless or loving enough, but what is the motivation behind it? Does it do anything to actually help those who are suffering? Is it being addressed to those who are suffering (how can it be, if you don’t know them?) or merely said about them? Is it being done to “raise awareness” of an issue that’s already all over the news?
Or is it being done simply to express sentiments designed to make oneself look morally good in front of the wider world without having to actually do anything?
Again someone might ask: where is the harm in it?
The harm may come from the risk that posting such opinions or sentiments can make a person feel as if they’ve done a good deed in response to the issue, and therefore any practical help they might have offered no longer seems necessary.
Have you ever posted “thoughts and prayers” about a terrible event somewhere in the world? If so, did you follow it up with practical help such as donating to an online disaster relief fund?
Have you ever posted your support for an oppressed group of people in your society? If so, did you follow it up by looking for ways to support under-privileged people living locally?
Am I suggesting that Christians should not publicly share their concerns or feelings about events of great human suffering? Of course not. I’m simply pointing out the danger of thinking that doing so is on its own a genuine act of virtue.
It costs nothing to post sentiments on social media. As a Christian one should avoid promoting one’s own moral goodness without actually making any kind of sacrifice.
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 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 honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1–4)
He also said:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16)
On the surface of it, these two statements may seem contradictory. Should we let people see our good works or shouldn’t we?
This seems to me another instance where the need for balance applies. If we are actively involved in helping those in need, this is not something that can go unnoticed. Yet we should always ensure that the praise for such action goes where it belongs: to God, not to us. Our actions should enhance his reputation, not our own.
That is something to remember whenever we use social media. Are our expressions of concern or sentiment designed to increase our reputation, or God’s?