One of the most common objections fellow Christians raised when I first started taking family preparedness seriously was that I was letting fear guide my decisions. Early in the 2008 mortgage crisis, as a newlywed 20 year old, there is a very good chance that was at least partially true. But it isn’t true now, and what we’re seeing with COVID-19 is that fear from failure to prepare far outstrips any anxiety that comes from thinking rationally through the process of preparing.
“Prepping” has become a somewhat widely used term, with a whole genre of entertainment built up around it as well as huge uptick in businesses whose sole function is to sell various types of survival gear to preppers. Most of what you see in the various books and TV series seems kooky, and is tied to fairly extreme fears about worst case scenarios. Yet the term "prepping" shouldn’t really even exist. Approaching family preparedness in a rational, level headed, and methodical way is nothing more than historically normal human behavior. As if that wasn’t enough, for Christians, being prepared is part of our duty to care for those we are responsible for and to love our neighbors.
Lack of preparedness breeds a climate of fear, and the events surrounding the current outbreak provide an exceptionally good lens through which to study the issue. It hadn’t made the news yet, but I saw early signs of panic buying back at the very beginning of March. I was making the monthly Costco run and discovered that they were nearly out of toilet paper. While toilet paper has gotten most of the attention since then, they were also low on bottled water and easily stored foods like Spam. That was almost three weeks ago. Things may be different where you live, but around here we’re now seeing grocery stores set significant purchase limits in an effort to keep food on the shelves. Anything that has, or can be made to have, a decent shelf life is selling out rapidly.
The whole situation has spiraled downward relatively quickly. A few people started buying in bulk out of fear of what was coming, our fragile supply chain quickly began to show signs of strain, and then at that point people who weren’t particularly panicked decided they had better buy extra as well out of fear that they wouldn’t be able to find things later. The final result has been a self-propagating spirit of fear, in which the actions of each successive group of people fuel the fear-based reactions of others.
If you haven’t seen the memes about toilet paper, you’ve really missed out for the last week or so. The online community seems to have no shortage of derision for those first few people who started buying up supplies early into the COVID-19 scare. While I’ve laughed along with the memes, and with the apparent lack of foresight in bulk-buying-TP leading into the outbreak of a respiratory virus, I actually think that the whole situation reflects a much more serious problem. I see two major factors that are significantly impacting the way this crisis has begun to play out.
The first is that the United States retail industry is built on a complex global supply chain that uses just in time delivery in order to keep costs low. This supply chain was already under strain due to a lack of Chinese imports, and it has no built in resiliency to handle a sudden swell in purchases. We see this with nearly every major crisis, especially severe weather. When all the people in an area suddenly discover that they need larger-than-normal quantities of the same basic items, the shelves get emptied rapidly. This should be a motivation to prepare now—but there isn’t anything we can do about it at the individual level.
The second issue is much more within our sphere of control, and it is also the primary reason—in my opinion—that toilet paper has become so scarce. The reason people started panic buying toilet paper in absurd quantities is that they have no idea which supplies they’ll need in a crisis like this, or in what quantities. In a situation that is already frightening, that uncertainty adds fuel to the emotional fire and translates to significant levels of fear. With fear in the driver’s seat people rush out to buy the things they think they might need, with no real forethought as to what those needs will look like. The end result is that the store shelves get emptied of basic supplies, and a number of people have now purchased several months-worth of toilet paper unnecessarily.
Despite the well-meaning objections raised by my friends, I’ve been able to move through the whole situation with very little fear. Obviously, some of that comes from the fact that I have trust that God is sovereign, and that I need not fear anything that happens in this life. However, having a basic family preparedness plan has also taken away all of the uncertainty and allowed me to act purposefully. I’m not as organized as I should be—but my wife and I already knew about how much food we need to get through a multi-week crisis, and we knew that we already had the basics of what we need covered from the beginning. On top of that, I saw the warning signs early because I knew what to look for, and I knew what areas to go ahead and top off before the situation got any more intense.
The result was that my emotions didn’t impact our decision-making at all over the last two weeks. I am as sensitive as anybody else to the climate of fear that seems to be taking over the population, but I was able to resist it through prayer and worship and rest in the confidence that the plans and procedures I had in place were well thought out and could handle the situation. Just knowing that there is a plan in place, and a few basic essentials are set aside, is enough to cut the fear off before it takes root.
What I find particularly concerning in this situation is that the behavior I’ve just described above sounds very foreign in 2020. It isn’t culturally normal behavior—hence the occasionally derisive use of the term “prepper”. If we turn to history, however, this is perfectly normal human behavior. The whole host of food preservation methods our ancestors developed is probably proof enough that they were serious about laying aside food for later, but if that isn’t enough for you, try to remember what your grandmother’s (or perhaps great-grandmother’s) pantry looked like. The shelves were stocked with canned and dried foods from previous years, and in some cases these foods came from her own garden. The deep freezer was full-to-overflowing with meat and other basics that couldn’t be canned. Large bins held staple foods waiting to be put into a favorite recipe.
Your grandmother lived like that because it was the normal way for people to get by. She, and thousands of grandmothers before her, were operating on the assumption that there are a whole host of reasons that access to food could be interrupted and that having extra would be helpful. Not that long ago, people had to keep a stocked pantry just to be sure they’d get through the winter months without being able to grow any of their own food. It’s only been the development of a global supply chain that has allowed us to buy fresh foods all year long, without giving any real forethought to the season or location we are living in.
This ability to buy has, in turn, given us a false sense of security. Since grocery stores always appear to have an abundance of things we need, there is no need to keep extra on hand. If I run out of something, I can always run to the grocery store five minutes away and pick it up. I have a running inside joke with a few of my friends where I refer to Amazon as “the great sky god." Whenever you need something, you have the high priest of VISA sacrifice the appropriate amount of your labor and then it magically appears at your home two business days later. The trouble is, Amazon and our other retailers are false gods and they are incapable of helping us cope with serious real-world problems.
That brings me to my final point. Christians have a moral duty to practice family preparedness. The basic assumption of my friends was that I was engaging in abnormal, fear-based behavior that reflected a lack of trust in God. Yet as we’ve seen family preparedness is historically normal human behavior and actually reduces the fear we experience during an emergency situation. What else might Scripture have to say about the situation?
“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
1 Timothy 5:8
“The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.”
I could go on here, but these two texts provide a couple of good starting points. Paul isn’t saying anything new to Timothy: all through Scripture we see that part of righteous living is working diligently to provide for those who are under our direct care and responsibility. This is especially true for the members of our own households, but extends to anyone looking to us to care and provide for them, and—as we see in the book of Acts—it should include other believers as well. What’s more, as Proverbs points out, part of wisdom is looking to the future and making wise plans. Almost no one would suggest that making plans for the future is inherently sinful, yet—for some reason—when those plans include reasonable precautions against hard times, we jump to the assumption that they are rooted in a lack of trust.
Yet practicing preparedness is an essential part of trusting that the Holy Spirit will use Christians to love and care for our neighbors in difficult circumstances. If I do nothing to prepare for myself, then I will be in need of care when things go wrong. If I make a plan to care for myself and others, then in difficult times I can show the love of Christ for others by helping meet the needs of my community. Extra food means I can provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, and in the context of COVID-19 this will be especially true in the coming days for our older neighbors and church members who will have difficulty managing the chaos at the grocery store and need to stay home and away from crowds in any case. It may also include low-income families or single mothers whose entire economic situation may be jeopardized by schools and businesses shutting down. Preparedness helps us build a stable platform from which to love others well and without fear, because we know that we are standing on a firm foundation.
If followers of Christ want to reject fear and love our neighbors well, then we need to get serious about engaging in the normal and rational human behavior of preparing for hard times. This will include planning, skill development, and laying aside a bit extra for difficult times—all of which the church can discuss in more detail when there is enough interest. Ideally this should be done in community, with church leadership taking the lead in making the community of faith prepared to act out the Gospel with loving-boldness no matter what happens. However, even if the action doesn’t include the whole community, we are nevertheless called to faithfully prepare ourselves to be serve our Lord—regardless of what lies before us.