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Keeping Your Morality in College

“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (Psalm 36:5-6).

Mind your P’s and Q’s
What is morality, anyway? The dictionary defines morality as “a set of standards of conduct that are accepted as right or proper.” But what about Christian morality? Is that any different? Should those who follow Jesus have different standards of morality than those who do not know Jesus as their Lord?

Each culture and society has its own set of written and unwritten rules, its own opinions as to what’s right or authoritative. For example, most modern cultures would agree that murder is unacceptable behavior. But people might disagree about whether or not it’s OK to steal from a grocery store if you need food, take revenge on a mean neighbor or drink alcohol. Even within the body of Christ, we don’t all agree on all issues of morality.

Take a look back at your high school years. I bet your friends had a set of unwritten rules to live by. They had certain understandings about whether it was acceptable or unacceptable to drink, smoke, have sex, go to parties or listen to certain types of music. Even if you’re a follower of Jesus, there’s a good chance you had friends with different opinions on some of these issues. Maybe you chose to become friends with some people (and avoided others) based on the moral choices they made. Am I right?

If you’re a follower of Jesus, your moral standards should be rooted in him. Christian morality is centered on Jesus Christ and Scripture. Thus, the standard for our conduct isn’t based on popular opinion, but on the life of Jesus. Our choices should line up with what Jesus thinks.

Jesus came to earth to bring life, not death. He came to bring a life that is full, healthy, exciting and joyful. It’s called “overflowing” or “abundant” life (John 10:10). So the big question you need to ask yourself as you head toward adulthood is, “Are my choices headed toward overflowing life as Jesus described it?”

Thinking Like Jesus
If we want our moral compass centered on Jesus, we need to change our way of thinking. Paul told the church at Philippi, “In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5). In other words, we need to do our best to think like Jesus.

If we can figure out what Jesus would say about a given situation before we act or speak, we’re in great shape. Let’s put this to the test:

What would Jesus think …
… about deciding to make out with someone you just met?
… about telling a “little white lie” to protect a friend?
… about having friends over for a drinking party when your parents are away?
… about stealing the final exam for a class you’re taking, throwing it out the window and picking it up after school so you ace the exam? (A high school friend of mine did this!)

These are all real life situations you or a friend might face. I know they’re focused on the “negative” side of Christian morality, but it’s important to decide ahead of time what we would do based on what
Jesus would think. But the questions don’t apply only to the “don’ts.” We might also ask these questions:

What would Jesus think …
… about staying after school to help your shop teacher clean up and store equipment?
… about giving money to help a classmate who can’t afford to buy lunch?
… about taking a short-term mission trip to help build houses in a poor community?
… about a couple making a commitment not to have sex before marriage?

I think Jesus would be pleased if you acted positively on these scenarios. This is where the rubber meets the road, when you graduate and become a mature, Christ-following adult.

A lot of the moral issues we face today are directly addressed by the Bible, but some questions are not. Still, I believe trying to think like Jesus really helps with even issues the Bible doesn’t directly address. I believe our pursuing the Jesus of the Bible makes all the difference in how we look at the world. This pursuit isn’t just a one-time event, but a daily commitment. As you do this, your thinking will become more like the mind of Christ, and the lines of morality will become clearer.

Paul reminds us that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” the One through whom “all things were created” (Colossians 1:15-16). Through Jesus, God came to Earth in human form. And through Jesus’ death on the cross, we’ve been reconciled with God (1:20).

Have you ever wished you could see God? Maybe you think, if he’d just appear in my bedroom one time, it would make a difference. Well, God has appeared in our world, and his name is Jesus. Why did he? To bring people to himself; for his glory, honor and delight. The cross brings life. The cross brings the lines of morality to our everyday lives through the guidance of the Spirit, who lives inside of every follower of Jesus.

Defining Your Morals and Values
God doesn’t leave us hanging; he guides us in our morality. The whole of Scripture directs us toward a moral, Spirit-filled, overflowing life (John 10:10, Galatians 6).

In Matthew 5-7, we find Jesus’ greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. These few chapters hidden away at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel are a sort of Christian “Declaration of Independence” that provide marching orders for those who want to be disciples of Jesus. In this sermon, Jesus focuses not just on the importance of our actions, but also on the motives of the heart that lead to action.

At the very beginning of this famous sermon are a series of statements called the Beatitudes (5:2-12). Jesus tells the gathered crowd that God’s blessing is on those who are humble (the poor in spirit), tender (those who mourn), broken (the meek), godly (those who hunger and thirst for righteousness), forgiving (the merciful), clean (those who are pure in heart), and reconciling (the peacemakers). This isn’t an easy list to live, and Jesus closes the list by acknowledging that people may insult or persecute those who live by these words. But he promises that those who base their actions in these characteristics will be blessed. These are incredible statements from the one who lived them out all the way to the cross. I suggest reading the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. It will guide your lines of morality as you transition to maturity.

A Few Specifics: Honesty and Integrity
Let me get more specific for a minute. How important do you think honesty is? Is lying acceptable? Do your friends tend to lie? Are “little white lies” OK? Dishonesty has become the norm these days. How one determines whether it’s OK to lie or not is based on individual circumstances, like protecting yourself or a friend. Instead of asking the question, “What would Jesus think of me lying?” we lie almost instinctively.

I’ve heard some young people say, “Everybody lies, and everybody knows that everybody lies.” There’s research to support that many teenagers and 20-somethings lie on a regular basis. But when those same people are asked if they’re honest, the answer is “Yes, I’m basically an honest person.” Yet their actions often tell a different story.

As you head into adulthood, you’ll be tempted to lie in small and big ways. Maybe you’ll be asked about your past work experience in a job interview, and you’ll wonder if you should exaggerate in hopes of getting the job you’ve always wanted. Maybe you’ll be tempted to tell your parents your college grades are better than they really are. Maybe, when your boss asks you a question at work, you’ll lie without even thinking about it and lose your job. Perhaps the consequences will never be so quick and direct, but I assure you, there will be consequences. In your pursuit of holiness, I encourage you to ask yourself before lying, “What would Jesus think of my lying in this moment?”

A couple of other temptation areas you’ll wrestle with are integrity and trustworthiness. Have you or your friend ever cheated on a test? Maybe it was giving an answer to their friend during a final exam. Or maybe it was something that seems even more trivial, like fibbing in gym class about the number of pushups you did. According to national research, the rate of cheating among high school and college students is rising, though college students tend to cheat less than high school students, according to some surveys.

Draw the line now. As you become an adult follower of Jesus, choose not to cheat in any form. Minor cheating now could morph into cheating on your taxes in the future. That’s how sin works—you think you’re in control of yourself, but sin’s really in control of you. This is why Paul told the followers of Jesus at Colossae, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9-11).

As a follower of Jesus, ask for God’s helping in making moral choices rooted in honesty and integrity. Make the decision now to avoid lying or cheating in any form that would prevent you from making a smooth transition into becoming an adult who wholeheartedly loves Jesus.

What do you think?

Questions for the Journey
1. Brainstorm a list of the immoral actions you see in the world. How does this list make you feel?
2. How do you determine your lines of morality? What’s your measuring stick?
3. Do you know friends who’ve lied or cheated in the last few months? How do you respond to this behavior? What can you do to stay away from falling into this trap?
4. What steps can you take to cultivate honest, encouraging relationships as you make the transition into the real world?  

Excerpt adapted from my book The Ultimate Guide to Being Christian in College: Don’t Forget to Pack Your Faith.  For more information about this book, click here.

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Jeff Baxter's passion for helping the next generation know and love Jesus led him to pursue his Doctorate in Youth and Family Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. Jeff has been a frequent speaker in various settings including the National Youth Workers Convention. Jeff lives in Littleton, Colorado, with his wife, Laurie, and their three children where he is an associate pastor at Foothills Bible Church. His most recent book is Together: Adults and Teenagers Transforming the Church (Zondervan). Jeff blogs at sacredoutfitter.blogspot.com.