Never have there been so many opportunities for self-publication, self-promotion and self-absorption than today. The constant pings from the digital device in our pocket, on our wrist, in our hand, are providing dopamine hits that reassure us that we are of value; people want to contact us; someone might even be liking something I’ve posted. I’m affirmed, therefore I am.
The attachment to our digital devices is not hard to miss in the pages of news op-eds. There’s a lot of (hypocritical?) hand wringing about the selfie generation, with some writers even suggesting a link between holiday destinations and Instagram accounts, since two weeks lying on a sunbed won’t get you the covetous comments about the adventurous holidays with endless views to die for.
But what about the church? I mean, nevermind the hand wringing from the press’ editorials, but isn’t the church often critical of the culture in which it’s been planted? It certainly seems to be critical of many issues, especially when the culture is seen to be seeping into the church and challenging her Biblical authority, or when laws are passed that could limit freedom of religion or challenge the protection for the individual’s conscience in matters of faith and practice. But what about challenging ourselves with regards to the less obvious but more insidious sins in our networked lives?
The world says love yourself; you’re worth it. The Bible says love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But with our eyes glued to our Facebook accounts, checking our WhatsApp groups and seeing who’s reposted our witty tweet from 17 minutes ago, would we even recognize our neighbors? If the good Samaritan had carried a smartphone, would he have seen the man lying half dead? What are we focusing on…and what are we missing? What if we’re so busy virtue signaling that we don’t have time to show some actual virtue?
It was the Pharisees whom Jesus rebuked for their self-publication, self-promotion and self-absorption. In Matthew 23:5-6, Jesus says to the crowds and to his disciples, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the market places and being called rabbi by others.” What if our popular podcasts are taking the place of our pastoral care? What if your defensive tweet ought to be a word between you and the tweeter alone (Matthew 18:15)? Should the blog just be a journal that you keep under the mattress and review at the end of the year, cringe to yourself and rejoice that God has sanctified you and grown you in wisdom? Is our own digital world a little on the Pharisaical side? Not always, not necessarily, but perhaps if we are seeking virtue rather than signaling virtue we might want to pause and reflect on our digital practices.
Jesus spent a big part of what we now call “The Sermon on the Mount” discussing first-century virtue signaling. There is hardly a better definition than when Jesus said, “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). He gave some examples. Giving? Blow those trumpets, get the people’s affirmation! Fasting? Walk around your neighborhood and look like the world is going to end. Signal that you’re having a major gloom-fest and wait for the commendation. Praying? Stand on the street corner and in the synagogue and make sure everyone can hear you—after all, they’re the audience, aren’t they (Matthew 6:2-4, 5-6, 16-18)?
And I guess that’s the point, really. Who’s your audience? Along the way, as the web is woven, how easy it is to get caught up in it all and forget that our primary purpose, in all we do and through all we do, is to glorify God. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul writes, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Later, in Colossians, Paul reiterates the point when he writes, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Christ Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). Of course, we can only do this by God’s grace in the real and in the virtual worlds. In struggling with our own need for public affirmation, we see our weakness, but in that very struggle, there we find God’s strength working in and through us for His glory and our good. And how important to be reminded that the affirmation that we are seeking, the affirmation we should be seeking, is all of grace and all from our heavenly Father when He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).
The master in this parable entrusts his servants with various amounts of his property. Two of the servants were able to take what their master had given them and double its worth, to present it all back to him. The master tells both the servant of the five talents and the servant of the two talents that they have been “faithful over a little” (Matthew 25:21,23). How difficult it is in this age of self-publication, self- promotion and self-absorption to be “faithful over a little.” How difficult to serve without a selfie, to quietly visit the elderly sister in Christ, to be faithful in the little things in the hidden places with the thankless tasks and the exhausting duties. Not a lot of dopamine hits come from that list; just your heavenly father’s reward (Matthew 6:3-4, 6, 17-18). That’s all. But after all is said and done, tweeted and blogged, what other affirmation really matters?