As social media explodes with outcries of injustice, many people question the motivations behind these posts. Are they simply a way to signal to your community that you are virtuous or are these earnest moral pleas? Is it even necessary to take such public stands rather than quietly working behind the scenes? Do mixed motivations matter in our attempt to seek justice?
Many people have been rightfully outraged at the latest string of attacks on Black lives. Advocates are currently flooding social media with hashtags, articles, and other forms of support. But critics are quick to say that these posts are convenient forms of virtue signaling. Many social media posts advocating support are quickly dismissed in comment sections with the accusation that they are “jumping on the social justice bandwagon.” They argue that many are pressured into saying something even though they would rather say nothing at all.
Motives are clearly important in the Bible. Jesus says that when we do good we shouldn’t, “let our right hand know what our left hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3). It’s important that we examine our own motives as we seek to work for justice. But we cross the line when we begin to judge the motives of others. Jesus in the same Sermon on the Mount asks, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the long that is in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3). The point isn’t necessarily that our sins are much greater than our brother’s. The idea is that we have a much better view of our own sin than the invisible motives of our brother. When a sister accuses us of virtue-signaling, we have to ask the question, “What are your own motivations in staying silent? How do you have such clear insight into the hidden motives of others?” Often these accusations are deflections or justifications about their own lack of concern.
It’s undoubtedly true that every good deed is done with a mixture of motives. Who can claim that any good that we do is only for the sincere glory of God and love for neighbor? If we waited for absolutely pure motives for doing every good work, we would cease to do any good work. But as Christians we confess our impure motives as we see to work toward better ones. Better yet, God uses our imperfectly motivated deeds for glorious ends.
In my own work with homelessness, I’ve admittedly been motivated by guilt and a desire to be seen by my members as living out our church’s vision to be merciful. For the last few years I’ve volunteered to preach at the Union Rescue Mission, one of the largest homeless service providers in Los Angeles. What started as a burden for a burnt-out pastor, became a balm of healing as I began connecting with the many residents. They taught me what it means to trust God when you literally have nothing left. My life has been changed through friendships with men like Mike who fearlessly battled cancer until the very end of his life. What starts off in the flesh can be transformed by the Spirit.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians church, he celebrates the advancement of the gospel. But he specifically mentions that many preach the gospel out of the impure motivations of envy and rivalry. But instead of criticizing these preachers he celebrates them because even in pretense, “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). For the Apostle Paul, what ultimately mattered was the advancement of truth. During our time today, many are advocating for justice with a sincere motive of love and others out of a desire to feel virtuous. But what ultimately matters is the advancement of justice. God will eventually sort out those mixed motivations when we all give an account for our lives (2 Corinthians 5:10).
From the perspective of the oppressed, what matters most is liberation. If you were falsely imprisoned would you sincerely question the motivation of every person who came to your defense? Wouldn’t you want as much of an outcry from others regardless of their intentions? This question resonated with me when I visited a congregant at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. I saw a sea of mostly Black faces in a city where they were less than 9 percent of the population. He told me that the minute he got out, the system was designed to get him quickly back inside. Questioning the purity of motivations is ultimately a luxury for those who can afford to wait.
The scoffer is a character that makes cameos throughout the wisdom books. He’s described as an arrogant critic of those seeking virtue. The scoffer could easily be people today who use the label “social justice warrior” or lob the accusation of virtue signaling, shutting down all debate. Proverbs 29:8 warns us that “scoffers set a city aflame” and they need to be driven out so that strife will cease (Proverbs 22:10). We should never let the scoffers have the final word.