Suffering and faith

Thematic links

The wider theme of suffering within the Christian experience is naturally linked to the following themes:

  • serving God
  • the Dark night of the soul
  • temptation to despair
  • trying to understand evil in a world God has made.

What we need to consider specifically in it is not suffering in general, but the suffering actually caused by being a Christian believer.


One of the most obvious examples is persecution. The nuns in The Wreck of the Deutschland were being persecuted in Germany and were sent into exile. Hopkins can accept this: Christ told his disciples to expect persecution:

Blessed are you when men shall insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all manner of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:11)

What Hopkins uses much of the poem to portray is not the actual persecution, but the suffering caused to the whole ship by the storm. Such suffering is common to everyone, whether believers or not. But the nuns' faith gives them extraordinary courage that marks them out. They die bravely, Hopkins even suggesting they may have received some vision of Christ coming for them.

Felix Randal is another description of a brave death because of the person's faith. Although used to a life of unreflecting activity, Randal can die quietly through the consolations of his faith.

Hopkins' own suffering

Yet in Hopkins' own life, he finds it all but impossible to face suffering with such equanimity. His work demonstrates that mental and spiritual suffering is far worse in some ways than physical, especially in a person as sensitive and conscientious as Hopkins:

No easy answers

Since commitment to God is unconditional, demands and expectations cannot be made of him; but Hopkins feels justified in asking for an explanation, at least. After all, Christ did say,

‘I no longer call you servants ... Instead, I have called you friends' (John 15:15)

Yet no explanation seems to be forthcoming. It could be expected that believers always find consolation in their religion, but Christian experience can be tough, and here it almost seems God gives the toughest treatment to his most loyal servant. So there is no easy answer to suffering caused by faith. Hopkins is a true artist in that he is honest about this.

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