Foster good habits, develop moral courage
When you think of habits, what pops into your thoughts? Maybe something like always having to watch TV before going to sleep for the night, or maybe something more serious, such as an addiction or a behavior that impacts your dealings with others. But what’s a good habit? There are a few good habits we can develop as Christians, and specifically as students of Christian Science, that foster the kind of moral courage that comes from God—courage that’s needed in a world hungering for genuine love, and relief from materialism.
The Sentinel talked with Galen Benson, who is currently an assistant professor of educational studies at a college, and a dad to two kids. Prior to this, he was a teacher in the Colorado prison system for many years, where he taught cognitive education and parenting classes and helped prisoners earn their GED (General Education Degree for students who have not graduated from high school).
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Galen, can you share what developing good habits means to you?
Happy to. For a lot of people, expressing love and kindness is probably the most obvious response to this question. But I’ve realized that it all starts with one very important thing—how we think. For me, the best good habit is prayerfully affirming my relation with God when I wake up each day—even before I open my eyes!
There is a statement in Mary Baker Eddy’s book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures that’s foundational to me. It’s called “the scientific statement of being,” and pausing to ponder it sets the tone for my day. Here it is: “There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual” (p. 468).
The best good habit is prayerfully affirming my relation with God when I wake up each day.
After I pray with this statement, thoughtfully appreciating its meaning, I get up and go about my morning activity, which includes entering the “closet” of prayer, as Christ Jesus taught (see Matthew 6:6). To me this means spending quiet time studying the weekly Bible Lesson (found in the Christian Science Quarterly), which contains passages from the Bible and from Science and Health. I am an early riser! I like having time to take some notes and think about what jumps out at me. I feel that starting the day with good thought and practice is one of the greatest gifts I can give myself. And as this presence of spiritual harmony is at the forefront of my thought, it is also a gift I can give to others I come into contact with throughout the day.
How does this commitment to spiritual growth translate into acting with fearlessness and moral courage?
Let me share a few examples. When I was teaching in a prison, it had been determined that 55 percent of the offender population in one of the prisons for men should have been in maximum custody; but the max facility was full. So even though I felt appreciated and respected by the men I was teaching, I also knew it was important to listen to God, divine Mind, for direction. Practicing the good habit of mentally preparing was especially important each day as I got ready for work. Understanding that my spiritual strength comes from God because I am God’s reflection was key. And understanding that each inmate was God’s reflection and therefore receptive to God’s love and reforming power, was crucial.
There are two examples of God’s protection I would like to share that I feel are a direct result of developing good spiritual habits.
The first was when there was a shortage of correctional officers. Teachers were asked to help out in other areas. On this particular day, I was on gym duty and was asked to supervise offenders while they played basketball or did workouts. I was standing in the middle of the gym while there were one hundred and thirty inmates out and about, and I realized there were no guards. Immediately, I felt afraid and thought, “Wow, I’m really vulnerable. Anything could happen to me right now, and nobody would know.” But because I had made an effort every day for mental preparation, mental protection, and spiritual strength, that fear just washed away. God was equipping each man in that gym, including me, with integrity and moral courage.
I knew God was my rock and was keeping me, and everyone, safe. I ended up just standing there and feeling at peace. Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I noticed a man walking very quickly (almost running) toward me. I almost had a twinge of fear again, but then realized that I was actually protected, and I felt peaceful. The man stopped right in front of me, paused, and then asked, “Are you a Christian?” I said, “Yes.” And then he said he wanted to thank me. He turned abruptly and walked away. I felt only the calm assurance that all was well.
On another occasion, the prison was on lockdown. All of the inmates had been escorted to a certain area of the facility, one cell house at a time. They were handcuffed and had to sit down and wait while we searched their cells for weapons and drugs. As time moved along, there was the potential for tempers to rise. On this particular day, emotions were running high, as the inspections had gone well into dinnertime and everyone was frustrated and hungry.
I was finishing up searching a cell when I heard a noise. I turned around to see an inmate who had come back to his cell early. Then the cell door closed and locked with the two of us inside. The prisoner looked angry. We looked at each other, and the atmosphere was tense. I thought of this quote from Science and Health: “Let neither fear nor doubt overshadow your clear sense and calm trust, that the recognition of life harmonious—as Life eternally is—can destroy any painful sense of, or belief in, that which Life is not” (p. 495).
I felt that all were protected by the love of God; I was calm and trusting. The man and I just looked at each other, and it came to me to throw out a little bit of humor about me rummaging through his belongings. So I said, “Wow, this is awkward.” He laughed, and everything was fine. I made a call, and someone opened the door for me.
I’m reminded of a Bible quote: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). This applies to everyone, including those inmates who repent of their actions and work toward having better lives for themselves and their families.
What can we do when things get tough, and we’re not so sure what to do? What steps can we take?
Whether it’s a big crisis or a little crisis, it all comes down to listening to God for direction, even if it is just being receptive to how to say something or what to say.
When I taught in prison, I pondered the idea of approaching everyone with love and seeing that we are each made in God’s image and likeness. I love this quote from Science and Health: “The Christlike understanding of scientific being and divine healing includes a perfect Principle and idea,—perfect God and perfect man,—as the basis of thought and demonstration” (p. 259).
It is important to instill the good habit of respecting the God-given dignity of all.
Separating an act that someone has committed from the true identity of the individual as God’s man (God’s image and likeness) can be challenging. And yes, there absolutely does need to be repentance and reformation. Seeing someone as God’s own son or daughter does not mean we make excuses for or condone violent or harmful behavior. And often, redemption doesn’t come without a struggle. Yet, we are redeemed through God’s love, through a better understanding of God, and through striving to live with moral and spiritual integrity each day. And we can help each other in this work.
I always go back to the fact that even a “hardened criminal” has the ability to feel God’s love and to be reformed—to express empathy, trust, and faithfulness, and to turn to God, Spirit, as the source of joy and substance.
One thing I saw quite clearly in a parenting class that I taught in the prison (and this happened multiple times) was the love a father has for a child. Of course God loves us, His children. Our love for others originates in God, divine Love, and we can’t help but express divine Love.
The parents there came from lots of different circumstances. I explained to the inmates that it didn’t matter if they’d never met their child or hadn’t seen their children very much, or even if they disagreed that they were the biological father of a child; the parent-child relationship is based on love and can never be broken. There is that knowledge of feeling pure love. And often, when I explained this to inmates, I observed weeping and a tender vulnerability, no matter how hardened they were in their hearts and no matter how tough they seemed. Acknowledging that they have the ability to feel and express genuine love, and can be loved, was a powerful reflection of the way God loved each of them.
Galen, you are a devoted husband and also a dad to two kids. Can you explain how you and your wife apply the ideas we’ve been talking about in your home?
As a parent of two kids, I try to be a role model—to set an example by expressing Christlike qualities and following in Jesus’ footsteps. We can all express love and have high moral standards without condemning people. By not harboring hatred, we give ourselves the gift of being able to see others in their true spiritual light.
It is important to instill the good habit of respecting the God-given dignity of all. There are little mental steps to be taken along the way, but once our consciousness is filled with kindness, gratitude, empathy, love, and compassion, our moral courage blossoms. Our understanding of God improves. Our understanding of our purely spiritual nature improves. Then, when we are faced with challenges, we have a sure basis in God and a solid foundation for responding in a way that heals.