Emotions real, but not reality

During the American Civil War, the Confederate Navy filled Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico with mines, which at the time were called “torpedoes.” As flag officer David Glasgow Farragut led the Union’s fleet of 18 ships into the bay, he issued one of history’s most memorable orders:

“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

The tactic succeeded. Only one ship was lost, and the last Confederate stronghold on the Gulf of Mexico fell to Union control. (And Farragut was made admiral of the U.S. Navy and honored with two postage stamps.) It’s also a good strategy for our emotions:

Damn the emotions! Full speed ahead!

Don’t deny emotions

I’m certainly not denying that my life is a mine-filled sea of emotions. I regularly struggle with clinical depression, so there are days I just want to go below deck and hide in the hull. But I’m not alone. I have plenty of company with the psalmists of the Bible. One-third of all psalms are known as “laments.”

    My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
    Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
    Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.
    Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief (Psalm 22:1-2 NLT).

    O God, why have you rejected us so long?
    Why is your anger so intense against the sheep of your own pasture? (Psalm 74:1).

    When I was in deep trouble,
    I searched for the Lord.
    All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven,
    but my soul was not comforted (Psalm 77:2).

Don’t deify emotions

The psalmists certainly didn’t deny their emotions, but neither did that make their emotions their god. Inevitably, the psalms above are followed by a psalm of praise:

    The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have all that I need.
    He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams (Psalm 23:1-2)

    We thank you, O God!
    We give thanks because you are near.
    People everywhere tell of your wonderful deeds (Psalm 75:1).

    We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
    about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders (Psalm 78:4).

Saint Paul sums up these “bi-polar” extremes of emotions:

    We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Do defy emotions

Emotions are fickle feelings that may be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, a subconscious reaction to an event in the past or present, or something we ate the night before. Emotions are real, but they are not reality. (That’s good! You may want to write that down and post in on the bathroom mirror!)

So, I find myself paraphrasing Admiral Farragut’s order: “Damn the emotions! Full speed ahead!”

And most days, I’m successful—with prayer, persistence and Prozac—in navigating the emotional mines floating in my life. I can’t deny them, but I also refuse to deify them. They are not my God, but bio-chemicals, sub-conscious reactions or, perhaps, the pizza I ate before bed.

Full speed ahead!

Copyright © 2011 James N. Watkins


1. Do not deny depression. If you have symptoms lasting more than two weeks, see your family doctor. I’ve certainly been helped by anti-depressants, but it took trying five or six different meds before I found one with maximum benefits and minimum side effects.

2. I’m not talking about physical ailments that do prevent us from doing those things we wish to do or must do. Right now (July 2011), I must have picked up a nasty bug on my Denver flight. I’m getting some work done propped up in the recliner with my laptop, but after about two hours, I’m completely depleted and it’s back to bed.

3. And if emotions are causing incapacitation, I trust you find the help needed and with Admiral Farragut, defiantly shout, “Damn the emotions! Full speed ahead!” Either way, you’re in my prayers!


Author and speaker

10 thoughts on “Emotions real, but not reality

  • May 21, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    Wonderfully helpful, Jim. Until inexperienced depression myself after Ryan died, my reaction to others complaints and what I called whining was “oh get a grip. Get over it”. Though I never said this out loud, it was what I was thinking a good part of he time.
    But once I experienced t, I understood. Oh, how I understood. Between depression and severe bouts of anxiety, I thought I was losing my mind.
    But I was helped tremendously with meds and counseling.
    But you know , even in 2014 there are many evangelicals who secretly think depression, ADHD,anxiety, OCD, etc are really nonsense and it’s “all in your mind” and you can pray it away–like being gay, I suppose.

    • May 21, 2014 at 6:55 pm

      Thanks for your honesty. The church in general is making progress in understanding mental health, but has a long way to go!

  • May 30, 2014 at 11:54 am

    This has been my mantra for the last twenty odd years. Thank God and Prozac, I am still forging ahead on deck when I feel more like cowering below. We don’t have a choice of having this imbalance or not, but we do have a choice as to how we either give in or stand up to it. I frequently tell those who are down, that we can’t trust our emotions. They are temporal. God and His Word are eternal and infallible. Even when we can’t ‘feel’ His presence or the truth of His Word, He is there to help us through our storms if we will acknowledge Him…and the others He’s sent to help us such as doctors. This IS a physical illness. Bless you and your ministry.

    • May 30, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Thanks, Linda! Today, I’ve been tempted to sit in the dark, eat my weight in dark chocolate and write really depressing posts. But I got dressed, rode mountain bike (get endorphins pumping), sat at the computer for eight hours (I actually accomplished a few things), and ran some errands. “Damn the depression! Full steam ahead!” (That said, my heart goes out to those who are suffering from debilitating depression and who can’t do anything but sit in the dark. I pray they find the meds and counseling needed to get back, as you said, “forging ahead on deck.”)

  • March 5, 2018 at 11:56 am

    THANK you James for your transparent and well articulated sharing! Love the reminder of emotions being fickle but God’s Word is eternal – so we use that as our anchor and truth to stabilize us during those times when our boat “feels” unstable or of course. Love the Psalmists- sharing felt emotions but lifting them to God and remembering who He is. And YES, so sadly some churches and legalistic Christians have denied many persons the grace and permission to seek medication because “Jesus is all you need”. Yes prayer is necessary but people have chemical imbalances that can be helped by seeking good care from a mental health professional and the right meds adjusted to the right dosage. Think this would be an Excellent book you have outlined- so needed! Write it!!

  • July 15, 2019 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks Mr. Watkins. As a fellow depressionite, (is that a word), I know what it’s like to fight my emotions, which make me feel things that aren’t based in reality. It’s good to hear someone else is fighting the good fight, so to speak. I appreciate your encouragement to fight back.

    • July 24, 2019 at 2:17 pm

      There are a lot of us like you and me. We’re not alone–humanly–and definitely not alone in Christ. “Father, bless my friend Travis and may he continue to fight the good fight as well. We are guaranteed victory in You! Amen.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *