Most historic Christian biographies are written about outstanding servants of Christ whose ministries were marked by exceptional events, fruitfulness and significance. For every such prominent person, thousands of ordinary Christians serve the Lord faithfully and fruitfully but never have the story of their life and ministry recorded in a book … or even in a magazine article or a blog.
Recently I was reminded of one such ordinary individual. In fact, some originally thought of her as below average in terms of her Christian service capacity. It’s a privilege to share her story, both as a way of honoring the Lord for how He used one of His “lesser” servants and as a means of encouraging ourselves in our own service for Christ.
Malena Svalheim was born in Norway on April 6, 1899. Her family possessed modest wealth, and she was raised on a large farm. She also grew up with a strong interest in missions.
Malena and her brother inherited an estate from their grandmother. Malena used her part of the inheritance to go to America and to fund her education at a Scandinavian Bible institute in Minneapolis. There, due to her being a slow learner and having difficulty with the English language, she soon gravitated to the bottom of each class. Rather than dropping her as a student, her instructors encouraged her to attend classes taught in English merely as an auditor.
The April 29, 1925, issue of a Norwegian denominational paper contained a photograph of those at the Bible institute who were preparing for missionary service overseas. The article accompanying the picture detailed the future service plans of each student … except one. Though Malena was included in the picture and desired to go as a missionary to Africa, there was not a word in the article about her. The omission was not accidental. Not even the teacher who wrote the article thought she would ever reach the foreign field.
After failing to be accepted by a mission board as a candidate for Africa, Malena returned to Norway. A year or two later she received a sizeable estate from another relative. Employing that inheritance as her means of ongoing support, she went to Swaziland, South Africa, as a self-supporting missionary at twenty-nine years of age.
There at the Esinceni Mission Station she cooked and kept house for two other women missionaries, thus freeing them to devote more of their time to evangelism and teaching. Capitalizing on her farm upbringing, Malena superintended the work of the local school children in the fields and made sure the mission’s cows were well taken care of.
Malena also had a heart for evangelistic ministry. Like the other missionaries, she went out, sometimes for weeks at a time, to live with and minister to Africans in outlying villages.
Once after returning from a week of meetings at an out-station, Malena, at the urging of others, related some of her recent ministry opportunities. She told of sharing from God’s Word at a meeting at a school the previous Thursday. Immediately following her testimony, several individuals stood and declared, “I choose Jesus.” There was much weeping and confession of sin. Several Christians at the meeting also confessed their sins in a spirit of genuine repentance. “I couldn’t explain what happened,” Malena concluded, “except that the Spirit of God came over us. It certainly could not have been the result of something I said.”
When Malena died in 1958, after three decades of service in Africa, many fellow missionaries and Africans attended her funeral. Several spoke of her faithful service to Christ. “She gave us the Gospel,” one woman testified with tears.
Malena Svalheim serves as a reminder that Christians of ordinary or even seeming-lesser abilities and potential can be significantly used of the Lord if they remain faithful and active in serving Him. The story of our life and ministry will probably never be compiled in a book and may not even be mentioned in an article. That’s perfectly fine as we’re not to serve the Lord in order to be noticed or honored by others. Instead, we serve out of gratitude for what Christ has done for us and seek to honor only Him through our service. We count it a high privilege to be used of Him in advancing His kingdom work and helping others in His name.
I would enjoy hearing about ordinary or even unlikely-seeming individuals you know of whom the Lord has greatly used for His glory and the good of others.
Copyright 2013 by Vance E. Christie