Joy and Sin in the Christian Life

Review of Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy by Matt Litton

By COYLE NEAL

In many ways, this book is the epitome of modern American Christianity: it is the result of a guy sitting alone in his basement thinking about himself and Jesus (see Chapter 1: “A Nomad in the Basement”). What is the result of his meditation? That we are too attached to material possessions, and should give them up (but not literally) in order to follow the Spiritual Nomad, Jesus. What does it mean to follow Jesus? It means we stop being so attached to worldly things like possessions, image, and reputation and instead care about following Jesus. But what does that mean practically? Well… that’s maybe harder to answer. After all, we don’t want to be too critical, or, you know, like, lay down any rules or anything. You should just follow him. Spiritually.

Okay, so maybe that’s a tad harsh. But by and large the problem with the book is that it—like most 21st century religion—is devoid of any substantial theology. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t important topics raised—I kind of wish that I had blogged through this book a chapter at a time, since each chapter provides good fodder for discussion and reflection. And that is one of the two great strengths of the book: despite being fairly theologically flabby, Holy Nomad does have some kind of intuition of what the important topics are. It touches on (but doesn’t discuss in any depth) sin, redemption, community, the Trinity, and joy, among other topics. The other strength of the book is that it is well written. Matt Litton can string two words together in a way that makes Holy Nomad a quick and smooth read (I did the whole thing in about two and a half hours).

Moreover, I should note that my criticism of the book doesn’t quite extend to the whole thing. Chapters 22 and 23 are slightly better than the rest of the book in terms of having some substance to them—but only slightly, which I’ll discuss at length below.

There’s way too much in this book that needs full and in-depth criticism; but because our editors get cranky when reviews are too long (myself included) I’ll restrain myself to two topics: sin and joy.

The biggest failing of this book is that Litton seems to have functionally no category for sin. In the first 21 chapters of the book, sin seems to have no role in Litton’s thought about the Christian life. Consider his description of the greatest dilemma a “nomad” faces:

The great dilemma of our journey toward the Nomad [Jesus] is finding ourselves caught between two desires: wanting to be known and loved for who we are and wanting to hide behind our clothes, our cars, our smiles, our Facebook profiles, and especially our words. (117)

Apparently, our “great dilemma” in trying to get to Christ is not being sure whether we want to be known or want to hide who we are. This ignores the two facts that 1) Jesus already knows who we are (being omniscient and all); 2) what keeps us from Christ is not ultimately some hand-wringing identity crisis, but rather the moral depravity of each and every one of our hearts. It is sin, not indecision, that keeps us from God.

To be fair, in chapter 22 (“Pitfalls of the Journey: Sin and Failure and Moving Forward”), Litton does talk a bit more about sin, even using as examples believers who have done terrible things (Moses, Abraham, et al.). Yet even in this chapter, sin is little more than stumbling on the journey, when “We allow our missteps to immobilize us.” (182) As the epigraph for the chapter says,

A sedentary life is the real sin against the Holy Spirit. Only those thoughts that came by walking have any value. –Frederick Nietzsche (181)

Leaving aside the implication that he gets his definition of sin from one of the most atheistic philosophers in history, Litton seems to have little or no understanding of sin as a deep moral evil. The Biblical view of sin is not that it is merely ‘stumbling’ or even refusing God’s offered help (as Litton suggests on page 188-189). The Biblical view of sin is that it is spitting in God’s face while we trample on His law. Sin is not the means by which we temporarily inconvenience ourselves—it is our hatred of God as expressed by our open rebellion against His just rule. When we sin, we are personally insulting God (Psalm 36:1-4, and throughout the Bible). I suspect that much of the book is so theologically vacant simply because Litton—like so many other Americans—has no category for the full moral horror of our rebellion against God.

This, in turn, means that his view of forgiveness and redemption is likewise small. I’ll say more about this in the section on joy below, but it is important to note even here that the result of ignoring the reality and depth of sin results in a skewed view of forgiveness. Litton concludes his chapter on sin by saying:

The Story of God is the greatest reminder that, unlike us, he is never as concerned with where we have been or what we have done as he is about where we are going… Nomads understand that they are not defined by their shortcomings, their sin, or their failures—only by their willingness to follow. (189)

Which shows us the heart of the problem with this book—Christians are in fact not to be defined by our own “willingness to follow”, or our reason, or emotion, or any other internal characteristic inherent to ourselves. We are to be defined by the person and work of Jesus Christ. Specifically, we are to be defined by the cross. This book has no sense that the radiant heartbeat of Christianity is the good news that through the cross we are forgiven and restored to a right relationship with God. If we are to be “nomads” in this world (which is a fine enough term—though I confess a slight preference for the older and more historically-rich term “pilgrim”), then what should make us stand out from everyone else is the fact that we have resolved to know nothing other than Christ crucified. Not only is this not the driving force in the life of the “nomad” outlined by Litton; it is for all intents and purposes completely absent from the book. The few discussions of the cross in the text do not hold it up as the place where redemption is accomplished and applied—where the wrath of God against the sins of His people is once and for all extinguished in the death of Christ. Rather, it is treated as merely the prime example of how we should live a nomadic life. (157, for one example. Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that Litton himself is not a Christian. I am merely noting that what he personally thinks about the cross in terms of salvation is simply absent from the text.)

A second topic (which I promise not to spend quite so much time on) worthy of discussion is Litton’s view of joy. In chapter 23 (“The Measurements of Following: Nomadic Joy”) Litton suggests that joy is the destination the nomad aims at all through this life. “There is”, he writes, “only one measurement for the depth and substance of your nomadic freedom. It is joy.” (192) What is “joy”? It is “a deep contentment, a confidence, and a hope” found in God. (197) Our travels through this world as nomads are not so much headed towards a specific geographic destination as they are headed towards a relationship with God, who fills that journey with joy. (196-197) While these points are all true, they are also incomplete.

We should find joy to be a central aspect of the Christian life. But this joy is not just a sense of inner peace and the personal presence of Jesus—if it is, we’re in trouble because this kind of “inner peace” is never promised to us in this life. Any experiences we have of it will, for most people, be fleeting at best, however strong they may feel while we experience them. True Biblical joy is established by our justification in Christ but then grows and is increasingly experienced through our growth in holiness. That is, our joy starts with the beginning of our relationship with God through the cross, but it is as we grow through the (painful!) process of putting off sin and putting on the fruit of the Spirit that our joy is magnified. The Christian doctrine of holiness is the other major point missing from Litton’s book. If we are following Jesus, we should enjoy it, but we should enjoy it because we are increasingly being conformed to his image as we wage war on our sin and fight to reflect His character in our lives. This is the fertile ground from which joy grows. Jesus himself says this to the disciples when he tells them to “obey my commands.” Why? “So that my joy may be in you.” (John 15:10, 11)

Obviously this is not to say that Christians are only happy when we are perfect (though it does explain why we will be perfectly joyful in heaven—where we are perfectly obedient). It is, however, to say that our joy should increasingly be the outgrowth of sanctification and a strengthened relationship with Christ. Litton is quite right to point out that joy is the measure of our journey with Christ, but it is dangerous to leave out the fact that that journey is one of holiness.

At the end of the day, this is not so much a bad book as it is an unhelpful one. Keep in mind, the discussion of the two points above are drawn from the best chapters in the book. The rest are so vague and indeterminate that they offer little of practical use in trying to live a Christian life—though again the book may not be a hindrance either, which is more than can be said for some books out there.

If you want to read more works about the topics mentioned in this review, I suggest J.I. Packer on sin, Jonathan Edwards on the delights of heaven in “Heaven: A World of Love,” and anything John Piper has ever written on joy, but especially For Your Joy and his talk “Created for Joy.”

I am very grateful to the publisher and Patheos Book Club for the chance to read and review this book (and who clearly did not require me to write a positive review).

Dr. Coyle Neal lives in Washington, DC where he teaches political philosophy and church history. 

  • George

    I teach undergraduate New Testament courses and came across Litton’s book several weeks ago. I will say that Nomad, while it has its flaws, is a well-written and accessible conversation about Jesus. Of the reviews on Patheos, I found this particular overview to be confused, dogmatic, and honestly a little misplaced. If you are hoping for in-depth discussion of New Testament theology (and you arent an academic), Wright and McKnight both have some great titles on interpretation, maybe you can begin there. I would love to see Mr. Coyle stick to reviewing more academic titles.