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Trade Paperback
256 pages
Apr 2004
Baker Books

Becoming a Healthy Disciple: Ten Traits of a Vital Christian

by Stephen A. Macchia

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1

Experiences God’s Empowering Presence

The healthy disciple understands the role of the Holy Spirit and lives daily with a fresh reality of his power and presence.


The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, . . . will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  John 14:26

My promise was broken. My word was not trustworthy. My actions were evidence enough. It was her final game of the season, and I was in another state attending to the needs of other people for reasons that a brokenhearted ten-year-old didn’t fully understand. “I’ll make it right when I get home,” I rationalized to myself. But the damage had been done, the game was now over, the trophies were handed out, and the memory was created without my presence to cheer, applaud, and celebrate. Could I really make it right?

Sure, my delightful ten-year-old daughter will forgive me. In time, she might even forget. The soccer trophy will collect dust and eventually be thrown into a box that will end up in the attic, and time will heal this hurtful, incomplete experience. “Many other dads miss times like this,” I defensively responded to my family. “I’ll watch the calendar more closely next time.”

Thankfully for Rebekah, there were to be many more next times for me to make it up to her. I know the importance of being there for our children on special occasions. I remember when my parents were there for me. There was the Pinewood Derby in Cub Scouts, the Spartan Chorale and Winter Carnival in high school, the high school and college graduations and special awards ceremonies, birthdays, wedding, anniversaries, graduate school, ordination, installation services, etc. During those defining moments in all of our lives, there’s something about having special people present without whom the experience is incomplete.

When God promises to be with us, his word is never broken. Not only on special occasions, but every day of life he’s there to guide, protect, lead, and empower us by his Spirit’s presence. His invitation is for us to “set our hearts at rest in his presence” (1 John 3:19). As Immanuel—God with us—he will never leave us or forsake us. This word cannot be denied. Jesus’ promise to his disciples that the Spirit would come and abide in their presence is fulfilled in our lives as well.

In general, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is misunderstood by the average Christian today. If you have a handle on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, then you are above the norm. With more than three decades as a believer, as well as a master’s and doctorate under my belt, I’m still growing in my knowledge and experience of the work and ministry of God’s Spirit. However, we can rest assured his promised Spirit is always present. Always. It’s not something that comes from head knowledge—it’s a truth we can experience in every realm of our being. As we submit to God and invite him to reign supreme in our hearts, the Holy Spirit’s presence is available to guide us in our decisions, enrich us in our relationships, and lead us in our hearts’ desire to please and honor God.

In His Presence

There is fullness of joy in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Despite the circumstances of our lives, when we abide in his presence there is peace beyond measure, abundant life, and eternal hope.

The Spirit of God was also a vital presence in Jesus’ earthly life. “Found to be with child through the Holy Spirit,” Mary gave birth to a son, “‘Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:18, 23, italics added). He was spared the sword of Herod because of a dream whispered into the hearts and ears of his parents by the Spirit (Matt. 2:12). At his baptism the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven announced, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt.

3:16–17). When tempted in the desert by the devil himself, Jesus was ministered to by Spirit-empowered angels (Matt. 4:11). All throughout his earthly life, the Spirit’s presence is acknowledged in the Scriptures as the listening ear, the protecting arm, and the guiding feet of Jesus.

The Spirit of God desires to be that same empowering presence to watch over and participate in our lives. Throughout John 14–16 we discover Jesus’ promises to his disciples that he will send the Holy Spirit to live among them after he departs this earth. He loved his disciples and said, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18). Although not physically present with them after his death and resurrection, his Spirit’s presence was sent for them and for us.

The roles the Holy Spirit plays in our lives are many and varied. The Spirit is the person of the Trinity who convicts us of our sin, turning our brokenness into joyfulness and faithfulness. The Spirit is sent to transform a broken heart and converts us from a life of oppression and self-absorption to a life of freedom and God-consciousness. Throughout our lives, the Spirit directs us in accordance with his will as he counsels us, healing our emotions, comforts us in the depths of our hurts and disappointments, and consoles us with his love and grace. Under the controlling auspices of the Spirit, we are called into a life of obedience to cooperate with the marching orders of the heavenly Father, birthing within us the hope and renewal that only he can provide. Then, as we grow in our lifelong journey of regeneration, the Spirit continues to quicken our hearts to remain in alignment with his love, Word, and ways. Ultimately, it will be the Spirit who completes the work in us so that when we go home to be with the Lord for all eternity, it will be the Spirit who empowered us to be recipients of the “well done, good and faithful servant” affirmation from our loving heavenly Father.

It is the work of the Spirit of God to convict, convert, counsel, comfort, console, cooperate, continue, and complete believers through his empowering presence in our lives. As followers of Christ, we need to have a cross experience daily, not just when we come to Christ initially, but as God’s empowering presence brings us closer and closer to the heart of God and his purpose is lived out through us. The Spirit enables us to humble ourselves in his presence and to rely upon him in every circumstance of life.

Jesus wanted to make sure his disciples understood that there is plenty of room in his presence both here on earth and in heaven. “In my Father’s house are many rooms,” Jesus told his disciples (John 14:2). William Barclay comments on this passage: “An earthly house becomes overcrowded; an earthly inn must sometimes turn away the weary traveler because its accommodation is exhausted. It is not so with our Father’s house, for heaven is as wide as the heart of God and there is room for all. Jesus is saying to his friends: ‘Don’t be afraid. Men may shut their doors upon you. But in heaven you will never be shut out.’”1

When we abide in his presence we stand amidst countless others, all of whom have plenty of room in his arms, on his lap, in the wideness of his heart. There is no overcrowding in the presence of God. There is plenty of room for all, not only in the everlasting kingdom of heaven but also here on earth.

Our Posture

As we enter God’s presence and abide there throughout our daily routines, we are presented with a choice regarding our posture. Like all forms of basic communication, our body language tells more about the message we are seeking to convey than the words we speak and the tone of voice we use. So it is as we experience God’s empowering presence.

When we wake up for a new day we are given the opportunity to be self-controlled or Spirit-controlled. Making the right choice each new day is critical to how our day begins and ends.

Suppose for a moment that I wake up and choose to be controlled by my self instead of the Spirit. I make up my own mind as to how I will use the day. I choose how to speak to my wife and children. I determine what agenda fits my personal needs first and foremost. I go about my day with my best interests in mind. If anyone gets in my way, I remind that person in one way or another that I don’t appreciate the interruption. I am seeking my own agenda and the heck with everyone else.

On the other hand, when I wake up and start my day as a Spirit-controlled person, I am functioning in quite the opposite fashion. I start the day on my knees in prayer, reflecting on the Scriptures as my life-guide and anchor. I consider the needs of others more important than my own. I bend with agility toward the agendas of others while maintaining focus on the mission God has called me to fulfill. I choose to look for ways I can affirm others, building them up so their best interests are served. I function as a servant to God and others and find joy, peace, fulfillment, and hope in living life with such vitality.

The first example, that of living for my self, is a “clenched fist” posture. A clenched fist selfishly holds everything close to oneself, with no room for others and no interest in God. On the other hand, the example of the Spirit-controlled life is an “open hand” posture. An open hand is willing to receive from and submit to the Spirit of God, to look attentively toward the needs and interests of others, and ultimately to love, serve, give, affirm, and empower others to become the best God wants for them.

When we are truly walking through life in his presence we cannot help but see and feel the dramatic difference between those two distinct postures. The fact is that we wake up every day with those two basic options—self or Spirit?

The posture of the open, outstretched hand is ready to receive from the Holy Spirit the many joys of being in relationship with God—his calling to new birth in Christ, his empowerment for daily living, his filling and indwelling, his fruitfulness and giftedness realized through us. This posture is reflected not only in outstretched hands but in open ears that hear the Spirit’s still, small voice, in open hearts that are warmed by his abiding presence, and in obedient feet that are ready to move on a moment’s notice into submissive service to God first and then to others as a reflection of our love for him.

Reflecting real love to Jesus is not always an easy thing. It is shown most fully in our loving and true obedience. “It was by his obedience that Jesus showed his love of God; and it is by our obedience that we must show our love for Jesus.”2 Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:15–17, italics added). True obedience comes when we choose the posture of openness to the Spirit of God to work in our lives, guiding us in what to do and enabling us to do it. As we live in prayerful expectation for the Holy Spirit to work in and through us, he comes to empower us for a lifestyle of loving obedience.

Principle 1.1 Exemplify His Fruit

What does a healthy disciple look like while experiencing God’s empowering presence? As we live in submission to the work of the Spirit each new day, we invite the Spirit’s presence to be made known to us throughout our day and through our very lives.

In Becoming a Healthy Church,3 I remind the reader that the plumb line against which we can measure whether we are abiding in God’s presence is described by the apostle Paul as the fruit of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Gal. 5:22–26).

None of the nine lovely expressions of the Spirit can be fulfilled on our own strength or power. It is only when we are filled with the Spirit that these fruit can be exhibited. Therefore, it is a worthy discipline to pray daily that the Spirit would be so present in our lives that his fruit would be seen in us. Let’s consider then the nine fruit of the Spirit one at a time and reflect on the meaning of each for our personal lives.

Love. The word for love used in this passage is the New Testament word agape. It is one of the four common Greek words for love. The best definition I have discovered for agape is “unconquerable benevolence.” It means that no matter what people may do to us by way of insult, injury, or humiliation, we will never seek anything but their highest good. It is therefore a feeling of the mind as much as of the heart; it describes the deliberate effort—which we can make only with the help of God—never to seek anything but the best even for those who seek the worst for us.

Joy. The Greek word for joy in this passage is chara—the kind of joy based in a religious experience, not the kind that comes from our possessions and earthly pleasures. Nor is it the kind of joy we feel when we triumph over someone else in competition. The Spirit’s joy has at its foundation our relationship with God. It doesn’t need to be vivacious or overpowering; it can be a joy within one’s heart that has no outward expression. Such genuine joy comes from the realization that our lives are held securely in God’s hands.

Peace. The third fruit of the Spirit is peace, known in Greek as eirene. In the time of the apostle Paul, this word was commonly used to describe the serenity that a country would enjoy under a just and righteous leader. It was also used to describe the kind of law and order that existed in cities or villages because the “keepers of the peace” were doing their jobs correctly. Here it means the tranquility of heart and mind in the inner recesses of a Christian’s soul that comes from the all-pervading consciousness that our lives are in the hands of almighty God.

Patience. The Greek word for the fourth fruit, patience, is makrothumia. Generally speaking, this word is used to describe patience with people rather than events or objects. We see it in the person who is slow to anger, even when tempted to fight back. This is often our most difficult attribute to reflect, which makes us all the more dependent on God to live through us in this regard. He has such unlimited patience that he bears with all of our sinning and chooses not to cast us off. That’s an awesome truth. In our dealings with one another, we must reproduce this loving, forbearing, forgiving, patient attitude of God.

Kindness and goodness. The fifth and sixth fruits, kindness and goodness, are closely related terms that should be considered together. In fact, the Greek word for kindness is chrestotes, which can also be translated as goodness. The idea here is goodness that is kind. Kindness can be described as active helpfulness, while goodness can have the aspects of rebuke and discipline added to it. Jesus showed goodness toward the people in the temple when he cleansed it and drove out those who were making it a bazaar instead of a place of holiness and worship. He also showed kindness to the sinful woman who anointed his feet with her tears. In the life of the healthy disciple, we need the same goodness that expresses both kindness and strength of character.

Faithfulness. The fruit of faithfulness is also considered trustworthiness. The Greek word here, pistis, describes a person who is trustworthy, reliable, true to his or her word. Faithfulness is extremely important in the Christian community because there are few things worse than working with someone who has breached your trust. It takes time to become worthy of one another’s trust, but as we live and minister together, seeing each other in our truest forms and working out the bugs of living in the community of faith, we build trust and confidence in one another.

Gentleness. The eighth attribute of the Spirit-empowered life is gentleness. The Greek word, praotes, has three distinct meanings in the New Testament. First, it means being submissive to the will of God. Second, it means being teachable or not too proud to learn. Third, it means being considerate of others. No matter what the conditions of life may be, no matter how great or unfortunate, gentle people know how to treat others with a tender word, action, or attitude and know how to control their anger. A gentle spirit turns away wrath and influences the tone of a faith community in a way that is compelling and beautiful. Gentleness is godly, not something to be shunned by the “macho” as a sign of weakness. It is a sign of inner peace and communion with God.

Self-control. The ninth and final fruit spelled out by the apostle Paul is self-control. He saved the hardest for last! The word in Greek is egkrateia and simply means “self-mastery.” It is used elsewhere to describe the athlete’s discipline of his or her body and of the Christian’s mastery of sexual temptation. One who is self-controlled knows how to depend on the work of the Spirit to master one’s desires, which makes a person fit to be the servant of others.

In essence, Paul is saying that for us to truly live out a Spirit-empowered life, we need a healthy self-mastery that is ready at a moment’s notice to serve the needs of others. When we are self-absorbed, wanting to meet our own needs first, we are not walking with the Spirit or fully prepared to serve and give out of love. Self-control must affect every aspect of our being, including the use of our time, our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our spirits. This is an ongoing process of growth under the lordship of Christ and the leadership of the Spirit.

To become healthy disciples, we must become people who abide in Christ and remain empowered by his Spirit. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 6 that the Christian has died with Christ and risen again to a new, clean life in which the evil things of the past are done with and the lovely things of the Spirit are coming to fruition. Frankly, the more I have studied, taught, and reflected on the nine lovely fruit of the Spirit, the more I have become convinced that we cannot embody a single one of them without the empowering presence of God’s Spirit. It is only through living in full submission to the work of the Spirit that the fruit can blossom and grow, and that requires daily prayer and obedience.

Principle 1.2 Embody His Thumbprint

In stark contrast to the Spirit of God is our life of flesh. Left to fend for ourselves, we will always have the tendency to lean away from what the Spirit wants and the Scriptures command. In fact, the leaning is so dramatic it is generally seen as outright disobedience to the will of God. This is called sin. This three-letter word, so small and nondescript, is actually the single most powerful force in opposition to a life of healthy discipleship.

Sin is not a popular subject today. In fact, it’s one of the most blatantly avoided topics of our time. The defining lines between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood have been so blurred that the concept of sin has been taken out of public discourse and left in the hands of the theologian and the pastor. However, even within the circles of theological discourse and pastoral ministry, we aren’t hearing a lot about sin. It’s just not a subject that helps you win friends and influence people.

Since September 11, 2001, the concept of sin has become more front and center (without the word being used). We are more willing to speak of evil, especially when pointing a finger at despicable acts of barbarism and terrorism. That is blatant “sin,” and we recognize it in a dramatic fashion.

Lest we neglect the three fingers pointing back at us as we point out the sins of others, what about the sinfulness that resides within us? In chapter 5, “Commits to Loving and Caring Relationships,” we will address the sin that occurs in broken relationships with others, but here we must focus on what our sinfulness does to the heart of God and how it alters our experience of God’s empowering presence.

Unless we are willing to wake up each day with a genuine heart’s desire to come clean and confess our sins before God, we will not experience the richness of God’s empowering presence and will continue to sin throughout the day. Upon our conversion, we do not become sinless human beings. Instead Christ invites his disciples to embody his thumbprint on our lives as we continually come clean of the sins that encroach upon us in thought, word, and deed.

Yes, even as we reside as sin-filled people in a sin-sick world, God offers us the Holy Spirit to watch over our lives in ways we don’t expect or deserve. Inviting his empowering presence, however, is a matter of the will and a reflection of the heart. If we deliberately avoid or reject his presence, he will flee from us. It is our daily choice to invite him in—come, Holy Spirit.

As we invite God’s Spirit to reside in our hearts, we can call upon his empowerment to forgive us when we sin and to restore and release us to deeper relationship with God and fulfillment of his will. It’s like the natural patterns of breathing that bring us into his presence—inhaling choices to love and obey by the Spirit’s presence and power, and exhaling his empowerment as we are released of our sinfulness and fully abandoned to his loving will.

When we recognize our daily—often hourly—need for his empowering presence, we can celebrate the life that he’s given so freely and generously. When we fully embody his thumbprint, we express in word and deed the personality he has given to us. The focus moves away from our sinfulness and into our blessedness. As a blessed disciple of Christ, we rejoice in the life he has given to us and the person he has enabled us to become.

David Midwood, a colleague and friend in ministry, continually reminds me of the importance of watching for and listening to “God sightings” in our midst. Every day he journals about these sightings as a reminder of God’s ever-present power at work in his life and in the lives of others. Where have you seen God today? Are you celebrating his life in you, redeemed from your sinfulness and destined for a great and marvelous mission to fulfill? Write it down today; it’s all a part of the unfolding discernment of his unique thumbprint on your life.

Principle 1.3 Express His Gifts

An outgrowth of the embodiment of God’s thumbprint is evidenced in the expression of his gifts. The Spirit has empowered each believer with gifts that grow beyond one’s capacity to muster up abilities on our own strength or power. As the Spirit resides in the center of our heart, he fills us with himself and gives to us spiritual love offerings that are to be freely and generously given away to others. C. Peter Wagner defines them as “a special attribute given by the Holy Spirit to every member of the body of Christ, according to God’s grace, for use within the context of the body.”4 They are part of the special gifting that the Spirit desires to implant within us for his purposes to be accomplished through the life of the healthy disciple.

Ruth has the gift of discernment. Paul has the gift of teaching. Joanna has the gift of intercession. David has the gift of mercy. Bob has the gift of evangelism. Tom has the gift of leadership. Pat has the gift of hospitality. Ted has the gift of speaking in a spiritual tongue (spiritual prayer language). Brian has the gift of prophecy. We can see these gifts in those around us, and when used for the glory of God, they are multiplied by the Spirit himself.

Discovery of our gift(s) is the first place to begin. Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 are wonderful passages to read to see listings of the gifts of the Spirit. As we study and reflect upon such texts, we can begin to prayerfully seek the gifts of the Spirit or a deeper, fuller manifestation of the gifts we already have. Using materials like the Network curriculum from the Willow Creek Association,5 participating in small group studies with others who are interested in discovering their gifts, and seeking the counsel of discerning believers can also affirm and help us understand the work of the Spirit in us.

After we discover our gifts, we need to hone them in order that they become more and more effective. Ruth’s gift of discernment is honed as she participates in counseling with and praying for others. Paul grows in his teaching gift as he practices with groups of all ages and in varieties of teaching settings. Joanna develops as an intercessor both in the quietness of her prayer closet and as an active member of the healing prayer team. David becomes more effective in his ministry to underprivileged children as he extends mercy to them throughout all seasons of the year. Bob’s evangelism gift is put to the test each time there is a divine appointment with a seeker. Tom becomes a more effective leader as he harnesses the energy of his ministry team and develops new resources for multiplying their work in the local church. Pat practices hospitality naturally, but when put to the test with increased numbers of people at the events for which she is responsible, she realizes her need for a team to assist with the growing numbers of attendees.

Our spiritual gifts are harvested for the glory of God when we give them away in service to others. The apostle Peter reminds us, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:10–11). What greater motivation or higher calling than to exercise the gifts of the Spirit for the glory of God?

Principle 1.4 Envision His Call

A natural spiritual outflow of the expression of his gifts is in the envisioning of God’s call upon our lives. Another way of saying the same thing is through the term vision. What is the Spirit of God calling us to passionately pursue as his disciples? What is our long-term dream for the years ahead? Into which pathway is the Spirit of God leading us as individual members of the body of Christ?

Vision is best depicted by the phrase “preferred future.” It’s the direction of our lives that propels us forward in fulfillment of his call. Paul’s strong sense from the Lord was that his spiritual gift of teaching, his love for various people groups around the world, combined with his passion for international missions and travel equaled a call out of a single ministry setting into an international leadership training mission. There the embodiment of the fruit of the Spirit, expressed in his unique personality and mix of gifts, is now being evidenced in the passionate vision he has for the future. He is fulfilled in his work because of the near perfect melding together of each of these elements.

The reflection of 20/20 vision is nearly impossible except when it’s a vision that comes from the Spirit of God. Prayerfully seeking God’s vision and obediently following after it makes for an energizing experience as a disciple of Christ.

To envision the call of God is to understand that in this life we are destined to fulfill a piece of his overall vision for the world. We may not make it into the history books of the Christian church, but each of us has an important part to play in God’s elaborate encyclopedia of humanity. We are not here on earth by mistake or without reason; in his infinite wisdom he has called us to participate in the grand design of humanity. He desires to reveal through that still small voice his visionary purposes for us—yes, even us. We will cover this in more detail in chapter 8, “Manages Life Wisely and Accountably.”

Principle 1.5 Experience His Presence

If we are ever to fully embrace a lifelong experience in God’s empowering presence, we must live dependent upon God’s Spirit, trusting his plan and purpose for our lives each and every day. The difficulty is that we love our independence and would rather live out our days in our own self-righteousness and under our own auspices rather than through the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit.

When we practice the presence of God, however, we acknowledge that he is here with us always—throughout every moment of every day. His omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (ever-present), omnipotent (all-powerful) influence over our lives is now and always. The psalmist put it beautifully:


You know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

        you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

        you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

        you know it completely, O LORD. . . .

        You have laid your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

        too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?

        Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

        if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

        if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

        your right hand will hold me fast.

Psalm 139:1–10

God’s empowering presence is a fact for every Christian disciple. The first step toward healthy discipleship is affirming his presence, living in it daily, and lapping up the blessings he freely and generously gives to all his children. Keep your eyes open, your ears attuned, and your heart sensitized to the work of his Spirit. Your life will never be the same again.


Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. These simple words of praise are my words today, dear Lord. I long to live in your empowering presence, refreshed in the reality of your Spirit, embracing the fruit of the Spirit, and exhibiting the gifts of the Spirit.

I open up myself to the fullness of your Spirit’s power so that I am released to embrace your vision and call. May my daily experiences of life be marked with your abiding presence. And may your power reside within me as I trust you today as my empowering Master and King. All for your glory and in the reflection of your Son’s love, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

For Reflection and Renewal

The healthy disciple understands the role of the Holy Spirit and lives daily with a fresh reality of his power and presence.


        1.      Which aspect of the ministry of the Holy Spirit needs further clarification for you today? Which aspect was most striking to you in this chapter and why?

        2.      How will you focus your heart and mind on the fruit of the Spirit in the coming week? Memorize the nine lovely fruit of the Spirit and place them in written form prominently before you in one or more creative locations in your home or office.

        3.      What gifts of the Spirit are you most thankful for today, and how will you hone this gift in the days ahead? What gifts can you affirm in others?

        4.      Write out a prayer that speaks to how the Spirit is nudging you today to practice living your life in his empowering presence.

        5.      Share one or more highlights of this chapter with someone you trust, and commit to praying for one another for the faithful embodiment of this trait of discipleship health.