Formations 09.19.2021: Loud and Clear

Matthew 6:1-18

The term “virtue signaling” has been around for a little over a dozen years. It refers to expressing opinions or attitudes that demonstrate one’s good character or moral correctness.

It is not a compliment. On the contrary, people accuse others of virtue signaling to call them out for making a show of their politically correct opinions. Conversely, some argue that the very act of accusing someone of virtue signaling is, itself, a form of virtue signaling.

Today’s culture has little tolerance with people who make a show of their uprightness. In this regard—maybe only in this regard—people today have more in common with Jesus than with his first-century culture.

Whereas modern, Western cultures prize individualism, the ancient world prized honor. Honor involves doing what is expected of you, upholding traditional roles…and making sure that everyone sees you doing these things. By definition, you don’t have honor if nobody knows it!

So when Jesus tells his disciples to practice their piety (“piety” and “righteousness” are the same word in Greek) privately, without fanfare, they may well have wondered what in the world he was talking about. What’s the point of charitable giving, saying one’s prayers, and observing the expected fast days if you can’t get credit for it in the eyes of your peers?

But Jesus says we are to do all these things “in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (vv. 4, 6, 18).

Can we just admit that doing this is harder than it sounds? We all want to be recognized and appreciated. If we aren’t busy earning brownie points for church attendance or Scripture memorization, we might be obsessing over job titles or grade point averages or followers on Instagram.

For all our individualism, we still look to others as a sounding board or a measuring stick to assure us that we matter. Tell me you don’t feel your heart swell when others praise you for things that are important to you, and I’ll tell you you’re lying—very possibly to yourself.

The point, I think, is to graciously accept the praise of others when it comes, but to keep doing what’s right even if it doesn’t. Jesus’ followers need to make sure they’re not doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. If we do good because we have calculated that it will win us the admiration of others, we might as well not bother. We worship and serve and give and pray and fast for an audience of One, as Formations Commentary writer Judson Edwards likes to say.

And that means we owe ourselves not to be overly concerned with whether anyone notices our good deeds. God notices, and that should be all that matters.

Discussion

• What spiritual disciplines do people today practice to deepen their relationship with God?
• What are the pitfalls of doing these things inappropriately?
• Why does Jesus urge us to do these things in secret?
• Does this mean there is no room for such things as corporate prayer services or communal fasting during Lent? Explain.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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