Dictionary.com defines virtue signaling as “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.” Although social media has certainly provided the means for this to be done on a larger scale than ever before, there is absolutely nothing new about virtue signaling—it has been around as long as man has.
When a politician or celebrity shows up at homeless shelter or food kitchen for a photo op—they are engaged in virtue signaling. When someone donates some money at a retail establishment and has their name put on something for all to see—they are virtue signaling (whether it was their intent to do or not). It’s hard not to see a five-year old wearing a tee shirt that says, “Well done Mom and Dad, I’m awesome” as virtue signaling on someone’s part!
This is exactly the kind of thing that’s under consideration in Matthew 6:1-18 where Jesus talks about giving, praying and fasting. He’s in favor of doing all three things because when done correctly they are healthy, helpful behaviors. Giving is about participating positively in the lives of others. Praying is about seeking the reign of God in our lives (see v. 10). Fasting is about focusing on God in some special way. (And just for the record, Jesus did say “When you fast” rather than “If you fast” – v. 16).
However, Jesus brings these things up because they weren’t being practiced in the right way. All of these behaviors were being used for virtue signaling by certain people. Giving was being done in a highly visible manner so the giver would be “honored by others” (v. 2). Praying was done in the same way “to be seen by others” (v. 5). Fasting was done in such a way as to show others they were fasting (v. 16).
Righteousness is a central theme of Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount. He uses the word 5 times (5:6,10,20,6:1,33) but almost everything He says in the three chapters deals with the subject. Righteousness is doing the right thing for the right reason. The hypocrites (virtue signalers) were doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
In contrast, Jesus said to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (5:16). This tells us the kind of behavior that God desires—a life lived to His glory. We don’t need bumper stickers, tee shirts or social media posts calling attention to our deeds—just serve in a quiet, simple way and give the glory to God. We don’t seek to publicize what we’re doing. Those who need to see will.