This week’s God and Suffering story is a little different. I am privileged to host an interview with Simon Guillebaud, founder and Director of Great Lakes Outreach (GLO), Burundi. Simon is a missionary with a difference: passionate yet level-headed; reckless in terms of risking his own life in moving to one of the most dangerous countries in the world, yet business-canny and a highly-effective leader.
As a sought-after international speaker, he doesn’t pull his punches when he talks about the call of the gospel and what it means to take Jesus seriously – yet he is that rare creature who lives out what he urges others to do. Strategically partnering with local African organisations and bringing together a plethora of mission organisations throughout the world, he has seen 100,000 people come to Christ in Burundi in the last eight years. I’m so excited to introduce him to you:
You live in Burundi, Central Africa. What made you decide to move out there?
I came in response to a simple prayer sixteen years ago: “God, I surrender, I’ll do anything and go anywhere.” I got a very dramatic answer to that prayer when someone came and told me he felt God was calling me to Burundi. In my business job, in front of the computer, I asked God for a radical sign about Burundi if I should go, whereupon the phone rang and the voice on the other end asked me: “Do you know anyone who wants to work in Burundi?” That was my call, if you can believe it!
And what do you do in Burundi?
Well, it’s an extraordinarily varied role. At heart I’m an evangelist, so preaching is a significant part – in schools and churches around the country. That’s what makes me come most alive. We support 9 local organisations, involved with orphans, streetkids, Muslims, students, cows, pygmees, schools, businesses, medical clinics and more, and I network and connect and fundraise on their behalf. I travel and speak around the world about three months of the year. I love it, but there are huge pressures on me in the mix. I also mediate conflicts, host a lot of visitors, write, and have the daily administration that comes with heading up an organisation.
What does suffering look like for some of your friends in Burundi?
Well, even this week, there have been three gangs of marauding machete-wielding men terrorising our neighbourhood. So we padlock our doors and pray more and more than anything I’m desperate that my kids don’t get freaked out by the guns and screaming to be heard. But normally it’s not as bad as this – I’m hoping it’s just a low period!
Most of my paid colleagues struggle to even eat one meal a day because of food prices. Girls sell their bodies often (to their teachers) if they want any chance of continuing their studies. Most have experienced the trauma of having a loved one raped or killed in the long war.
There are lots of very bleak things, but also huge positives – men and women of extraordinary faith that defies the grimness of their personal circumstances, a church that’s growing incredibly fast, stunning testimonies of community and national transformation through our work. I count it an incredible privilege to live and work here, and have now even got Burundian citizenship.
In Burundi, how do attitudes towards suffering differ from your home country?
It is the world’s hungriest nation, second poorest, tenth most dangerous, and more – so it’s easier here to keep a sense of perspective surrounded by many people who are in a far worse state than me. Nobody out here ever thought they had a divine right to health. Health is a gift – one of God’s greatest – and seen as such it means that people live much more grateful lives in general.
What about your own experience of suffering?
I have recently released a devotional, Choose Life. Let me share briefly with you how this devotional came about. I had been planning to write it for a while, but only started during a week spent preaching in Canada. I had flown from my home in Burundi to Halifax for a conference, and went to bed on my first night with jetlag. I preached at the conference and spent the rest of the week either having tests at hospitals or lying in bed.
This strange fatigue could not have hit me at a more unlikely time. I turned forty that week and was the fittest I’d ever been, training for an Ironman, simply in great physical shape.
That feeling of jetlag, twenty months on, is still with me. The past year and a half of physical brokenness has been a challenging time, and it has required me to make daily choices – will I indulge myself in self-pity, or make the most of it? Will I waste the day in bed, or use that time constructively in writing and praying? Will I count my blessings or focus on the negatives – ultimately, will I choose life or death?
And how have you responded?
After about a month of frustration at not recovering, I made one very deliberate choice. Whatever the root cause of my sickness, I would not let Satan get the victory in my life. However long the sickness would last, I would make sure that God would get the glory, and the time would be maximized for him. My most influential book, More Than Conquerors: A Call to Radical Discipleship, was written during a similar season of fatigue eight years ago, and I have loved seeing how even that dark time was totally redeemed and how many lives were stirred up through the fruit of my own physical weakness. May that similarly be the case this time! That is my prayer.
Now that you’ve written the book, has the fatigue gone?
It’s been twenty months now since I haven’t felt that mixture of hangover/post-15km run fogginess or weariness. Strangely I can get on with life as normal – turn on the energy levels to ‘rough-and-tumble’ with my three little kids, up my game when I need to – but it definitely takes the edge off the usual levels of joy I used to experience. I do occasionally slip into moments of self-pity, but they tend to be few and far between due to living in Burundi.
I long to be released from this season of yuk to feeling fiercely alive again. Come on God, the book’s done now! If only it worked that way…
What ‘gold’ have you seen God bring out from your suffering?
God has used this small experience of suffering in my life. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would not have written the book ‘Choose Life’, which is already shaping many thousands of people’s lives.
What would you advise to others who are going through a season of suffering?
Each day for each one of us brings fresh chances to choose – big choices and little choices earthed in gratitude or guilt, in faith or in fear. By God’s grace I’ll go on making more good choices than bad, whatever the circumstances, all for His glory. May you do the same.
Simon Guillebaud – Author; speaker; founder of Great Lakes Outreach; passionate about challenging people to make their lives count; committed to seeing Burundi transformed; married to Lizzie with Zac, Grace and Josiah completing the team. Read his blog and hear his sermons at SimonGuillebaud.com, and see a video of him speaking on prophetic justice here.
Simon’s latest book, Choose Life: 365 Readings for Radical Disciples is an inspirational new devotional with scriptural reflections designed to keep you walking closely with Jesus and choosing life in every circumstance. For more info, see this short video.
[tweetit]“I long to…feel fiercely alive again”– @Tanya_Marlow interviews @SimonGuillebaud on choosing life despite suffering[/tweetit]
[tweetit]“I decided…However long the sickness wd last, I would make sure that God wd get the glory” – @SimonGuillebaud’s story[/tweetit]
[tweetit]“This week, [we had] 3 gangs of marauding machete-wielding men terrorising our neighbourhood.” – @SimonGuillebaud[/tweetit]
[tweetit]“I’m desperate that my kids don’t get freaked out by the guns”– @SimonGuillebaud talks suffering and life in Burundi[/tweetit]
[tweetit]“Health is a gift”. Amazing interview – @SimonGuillebaud on living in 2nd poorest nation and his own chronic illness:[/tweetit]
Over to you:
- “Men and women of extraordinary faith that defies the grimness of their personal circumstances” – who do you know who fits this description? Who are your inspirations?
- How helpful do you find it to count your blessings when you are in a period of illness or suffering?