Corina and I were on a marriage retreat late last week when the spread of the coronavirus hit home in the United States, prompting new restrictions for public gatherings and a wave of “panic buying” across the country.

On Saturday evening, the two of us went out for a few groceries. As we walked through the aisles, the empty shelves drew my attention. What had disappeared, and why? These questions fascinated me.

What surprised me most was the absence of any meat in both the frozen and refrigerated sections. A few lonely bottles of barbecue sauce stared at me from the shelf. The produce section looked like it had been raided, with empty buckets where potatoes usually sat. Down the center aisle, the only flour that remained was what had spilled out from bags that had been bought earlier. No rice to be found. The pasta section had only a few stray packages left.

The next aisle was a study in contrast: the candy section was overflowing. No shortage of sweets! Kit Kat, M&M’s, Hershey’s—all my favorites where there in all their flavors, packed in large quantities on the shelves.

The contrast between the meat section and the candy aisle reminded me of an important truth: In a time of suffering or crisis, people go for what they need most, not what they like most.

In a global pandemic with disruption, distancing, and isolation, no one who ran to the store was thinking about sweets. They were thinking about sustenance.

There’s a lesson here for all of us when it comes to our faith. The temptation in our day is for preachers and teachers, songwriters and artists to try to draw crowds by serving up sweets over sustenance. Just give people what they like the most, whether it’s the catchiest song, or the self-help book or Bible study, or a sermon series that chases the latest fad.

In times of abundance, it’s easy to forget the fundamental truths: the goodness of creation, the holiness of God, the reality of sin, the suddenness of suffering, the inevitability of death, and the need for salvation. We create the illusion that we are in control, and we expect the church to come alongside us with tips for better living, something that will sweeten the life we’ve cooked up for ourselves.

But what people like is not always what people need. When suffering hits and exposes our weakness—when we encounter the frightening diagnosis, the sudden accident, or the death of a loved one—sweets don’t satisfy. The candy aisle cannot sustain us. And unless our spiritual diet contains something more substantive, we will confront these challenges with spiritual anemia instead of strength.

What we need most is meat-and-potatoes Christianity. We need sustenance that will get us through the trial. We need churches that remind us of the fundamental truths we so easily ignore.

John Owen once said, “Christ is the meat, the bread, the food of our souls. Nothing is in him of a higher spiritual nourishment than his love, which we should always desire.”

During this season of uncertainty, why not take an inventory of our spiritual habits and practices?

Why not take this opportunity to dig deeper into God’s Word, to read books that wrestle with the fundamental questions of life, and to cultivate relationships that go beyond superficial pleasantries?

What if pastors were to take a long look at their teaching over the last year, and church leaders were to consider the focus of their activities, to see if we’ve been overly dependent on sweets instead of sustenance, on fads that felt so fresh and relevant instead of truths that are timeless and enduring?

What if we could emerge from this crisis with a faith that is more solid and more substantive?

Sustenance over sweets.