Virtue Signaling

If I was a betting man, I’d put money on “virtue-signaling” to be Oxford’s word of the year for 2017.  You’ve probably noticed it, even if you haven’t heard the term.  When a celebrity is outraged about an issue and co-ops an awards ceremony to express disgust or hate, but otherwise does nothing about it, the point is apparently to signal what a virtuous person he or she is.

James Bartholomew, writing in “The Spectator” (2015) defined the term virtue signaling. He said, “No one actually has to do anything. Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs. There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice.”

Here’s how it works with certain celebs, pundits, and partisans. Hurl accusations of misogyny, xenophobia, or other phobias to signal deep concern for certain groups of people. Vent rage at an opposing-party politician by hating his family.  Take a hydrocarbon-fueled private jet to a European conference to hate on climate-deniers. Support a violent protest of a travel security policy while contributing nothing to resettle refugees.  Jesus called out those who “love the place of honor at banquets” but they “say things and do not do them” (Mat. 23:2-6).

Is it OK to hate something immoral? God does.  He calls these seven things an abomination: “Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, one who spreads strife among brothers” (Prov. 6:16-19).  May God purify your heart and hands of these.  It is humbling to realize that if you have any virtue at all, it is the righteousness of Christ and the exchanged life you live by faith (Gal. 2:20).

Virtue should be on display, but the question is motive. Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 6:1).  He also said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 5:16).  See the difference?  When your virtue is on display, it either flatters you or glorifies God.

Our secular culture increasingly disagrees with Christian values, yet you are called to remain steadfast. “Keep your behavior excellent among the (non-believers) so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12). And may that day come soon!

The Messenger

It was a sequence of events that left me feeling caught up in something beyond my control, wondering what just happened. It’s a true story from when I lived in Haiti.

A fellow (I’ll call him KT) in our village always seemed a bit unhinged. The rope he used for a belt around his cut-off pants was a rather conspicuous place to keep his blade.  His reputation was ruffian.

One afternoon I was driving a Land Rover truck home from a neighboring village. Seeing an unusual commotion ahead, I stopped.  “A man just fell off the back of your truck!” they shouted.  I looked back to see a man lying in the road, holding his head. Unbeknownst to me, he had jumped in the back of the truck, only to be pitched out when we encountered a particularly non-maintained location in the road.

I helped him into the cab and rushed to the hospital. I parked, helped him inside, and began to visit with friends who worked there.  I thought nothing else about it until someone rather breathlessly informed me that my passenger was KT’s brother, and KT would surely blame me.  Well, that was a bit unnerving.

I left the hospital on foot along the trail to our house nearby where my wife and children would be glad to see me. Up ahead, behind a large tree near the trail, I saw a man’s foot.  I steeled myself for what would likely be an unpleasant encounter.  As I approached, KT stepped out as though to startle me.  I greeted him politely hoping to diffuse the tension.

“You hurt my brother. I was going to wait for you at your house,” he said, hooking his thumb in the rope near his blade.

With concern for my family, I demanded, “What was your business at my house?”

“Well I didn’t stay there.” I pressed for an explanation.

“There was a man in your yard that didn’t want me to stay.” My interrogation intensified with concern now about two men.  Finally in a fit of frustration, he blurted, “I don’t know who it was and I don’t know if he was white or black.  All I know is he was about this tall, and he didn’t want me in your yard,” as he leveled his hand about seven feet off the ground.

In his book, “Angels,” Billy Graham recounts encounters that might be explained as supernatural. Contrary to popular thought, angels aren’t cherub babies with wings, or deceased humans.  The word “angel” means messenger, but the Biblical account expands that role to helper (Heb. 1:14), protector (Psa. 91:11), and warrior (Dan. 10).

So that began my friendship with KT, and his brother was OK. I’m not claiming that an angel was in my yard, but whoever it was, I appreciate the message.

We Have Songs

Singing and playing the banjo were not what first brought fame to Steve Martin. His public career began in comedy in the 1960’s when he worked with the Smothers Brothers and Johnny Carson.  Music was part of his stand-up routine, but in the last 15 years or so Martin has made a serious showing in bluegrass music.

I’m sure Martin meant no offense with his satirical tune “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” and it is a catchy tune (look it up on YouTube). The lyrics include, “Baptists have the Rock of Ages.  Atheists just sing the blues.  For atheists there’s no good news.  They’ll never sing a song of faith.  For atheists, they have a rule, the ‘he’ is always lower case!”  As concerned as I am for my friends who have yet to believe, I find little humor here.  And whether or not they have songs, I’ll leave between them and Martin.

But this I know. We Christians have songs.  Once I heard Dr. David Kirkpatrick liven up a systematic theology lecture for sleepy seminarians when he declared that the most profound hymn ever written is “And Can It Be.”  Billy Graham said in 2005 that this is his favorite hymn.

To understand the emotion of the hymn, you must know what happened to the author just days before he wrote it. Though raised by godly parents in the Anglican Church, Charles Wesley reached adulthood troubled and searching.  A Moravian brother in London led him to understand that his best endeavors for God were not enough.  He embraced God’s grace through faith, and was saved.  He said, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.”

So, he marveled at his good fortune with this: “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?  Died He for me who caused his pain! For me, who Him to death pursued?  Amazing love!  How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?  Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night.  Thine eye diffused a quickening ray.  I woke; the dungeon flamed with light.  My chains fell off, my heart was free!  I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

These two stanzas are not all of it. The hymn taken in its entirety expresses the burden of the soul, the marvel of God’s plan, the identity and purpose of our Savior, and the blessed release of believing and receiving the hope of eternity.  “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7).

Yes, we have songs, and we are more than willing to share the lavish riches with our atheist friends. Everyone needs a song.

Grace Under Pressure

Winning Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for his life’s work was inevitable for Ernest Hemingway. He was by all accounts a brilliant scoundrel.  He was a master at developing characters with the code hero traits of honor and courage.  It was Hemingway that popularized the phrase, “grace under pressure.”

Reflecting on his work, he once said that, “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” His work reflected that idea, such as in “The Old Man and the Sea.”  As he fought the massive fish hooked on his line, the old man “settled comfortably against the wood and took his suffering as it came and the fish swam steadily and the boat moved slowly through the dark water.  There was a small sea rising with the wind coming up from the east and at noon the old man’s left hand was uncramped.  ‘Bad news for you, fish,’ he said and shifted the line over the sacks that covered his shoulders.  He was comfortable but suffering, although he did not admit the suffering at all.”  The old man courageously endured his suffering, because that was his lot in life.

Though grace under pressure was a useful theme to Hemingway, it precedes him by far. Jesus stood apart from other teachers (“the crowds were amazed at His teaching for He was teaching them as having authority”) because he promoted and demonstrated a more profound version of that theme.  He said that people persecuted for righteousness are blessed and rewarded.  He said to reconcile with someone who has wronged you.  He taught to “make friends quickly with your opponent,” and “whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”  These teachings recognize the pressure and call for grace.  Perhaps the toughest to practice is, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mat. 5)

Jesus didn’t just teach this. He lived and died by it for your eternal benefit. He is the “author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).  He now offers to exchange his life for yours.  Upon that transaction, you have the hope of eternity, which sets your present circumstances into perspective.

To endure suffering with grace is to move toward perfection. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam. 1:2-4).  No one is immune from the troubles of life and the human condition.  The question is, are you prepared to exhibit grace under pressure?