I confess – I can be slow to add new words to my vocabulary but in these current times of COVID and culture war, three words or terms have become inescapable as they are now front and center as a very visible (audible?) part of the vocabulary of our nation’s daily dialogue. These words are “woke”, “cancel culture” and “virtue signaling.”
In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon says “there is nothing new under the sun.” So I’m wondering if these three terms are really that new or are they just old ideas given a new name and label? History does tend to repeat itself, probably because human nature doesn’t change even though the times we live in do.
Greed still battles with generosity, what is false still fights to obliterate what is true, cruelty still endeavors to overpower kindness, selfishness still struggles with self-sacrifice, pride takes root to win out over humility, oppression continues to war against freedom, cowardice strives against courage, doubt seeks to extinguish faith, indifference seeks to replace compassion, hate attempts to hold our hearts hostage, leaving no room for love, and evil attempts to overcome all that is good, while we humans continue to be our own worst enemies.
No wonder we are at war with each other. We are first and foremost at war within ourselves and that unresolved battle for who we are, for our identities, for our minds and for our hearts spills over into our interactions with others. God gave us the two most important commands – love Him first and foremost, and then love other people. No qualifiers on that second one. Not certain people, not people who meet certain criteria, just people – period.
One of the weapons in our current culture war is virtue signaling. I thought this was something new, but then I remembered the story in Luke 18 about the Pharisee who went to the temple to pray. Now the Pharisees were the religious leaders in Jesus’s day. They made a great show of observing all the laws and of practicing their religion publicly. Pharisees were the ultimate virtue signalers.
In this particular story, a Pharisee stands up in the temple in front of the gathered crowd and prays, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)
Wow! This guy is the poster person for virtue signaling. He is a master virtue signaler for sure. He compares himself with others to their detriment and to his advantage, and he makes sure to enumerate his virtues, such as fasting and the giving of his money, so that everyone listening to him pray will know for sure just what a good guy he really is. This Pharisee leaves nothing to chance. He throws down the virtue gauntlet.
But what happens next in this story is not what we would expect, dear readers. The next guy up, who is a tax collector, of all things, (remember tax collectors were hated, despised and ostracized by the current culture) but anyway, this guy does not pick up the virtue gauntlet! In the ensuing silence you can actually hear the watching, listening crowd gasp.
Instead, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ ” (Luke 18:13)
Pretty much the opposite of virtue signaling. I guess the tax collector recognized that he had no virtue to signal. He knew the truth of Romans 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”
Instead he “kept it real” as my students would say. The result? Here’s what Jesus had to say about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
“I tell you that this man, (the tax collector) rather than the other, (the Pharisee) went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
So is virtue signaling really necessary? Here’s what Jesus had to say on this very current topic in Matthew 6:1,
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Well, that’s pretty clear. But Jesus had even more to say about the Pharisees, those who were the virtue signalers of His day. In Matthew 23:3-7 he said,
” . . . they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ ”
Jesus wasn’t fooled by the virtue signaling of these religious leaders because He looked beyond their outward appearance and saw straight into their hearts. Jesus made this clear when He said to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27-28,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
In the same way, Jesus doesn’t look on my outward appearance. Jesus looks straight into my heart. I can’t hide my true self from Him. I can’t hide my true identity from Him. (probably because He is the Creator of my identity and I find my identity in Him)
“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)
” . . . and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;” (Isaiah 64:6)
I realize I have no virtue to signal, so I have no business participating in virtue signaling. Rather I want to pray along with the tax collector, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
I want to pray along with the thief on the cross, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
And I will hear His gentle, convicting, reassuring reply,
” ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’ ” (Isaiah 1:18)
Even though I have no virtue of my own, my Heavenly Father will credit His own righteousness to me, just as He did to Abraham.
“Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
that’s all the virtue I will ever have or ever need, just what is provided for me by my Heavenly Father –
sincerely, Grace Day
ps. looks like “woke” and “cancel culture” will be another post.