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  • Writer's pictureMarnie Hammar

When God Asks You to Leave What You Know Behind

By Rebecca Y. Madden

Hear Him Louder Essay Series: Rebecca's Story

In 2002, my husband, Jay, sold his business and began to work at our church as an interim pastor. He loved the job, but he was told that he would only have the job until they found a qualified seminary graduate. During his time at our church, they sent him to Willow Creek Community Church for an evangelism conference. While there, he heard about a three-year internship program that offered a seminary degree, ministry experience, and inner journey work. It sounded good; however, we lived in South Carolina and this internship was in Chicago. Not possible. Jay returned home to tell me about it, and it lodged in my heart. A few months later, he got the news that our church had found the perfect candidate and that his job would not last much longer. He decided to call Willow Creek again to learn more about the internship. They said that we should come to Chicago in a couple of weeks for an internship training weekend. Jay mentioned that to me and I said, "NO!!!! You check out all the other seminaries and all the other opportunities. If after a few months you still are interested, I will go with you." Right after that, Jay went away for a previously scheduled trip. The first night that he was away, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning. This was highly unusual for me. I had very young children at the time, so they were typically the only reasons that I would wake up in the middle of the night. I rolled over and went back to sleep. The second night of his absence, I woke up again at 4:30 in the morning. Not 4:25. Not 4:32. Again, I rolled over and returned to sleep. The third night, when that 4:30 a.m. wakeup call came again, I finally tossed back the covers and said, "Okay, God. What is it?"

I sat in my red chair, the place where I most often read, and prayed. The book, The Power of Praying Wife, was open to Chapter 9, “His Purpose.” I began to read, "Everyone has purpose. It's the reason we exist. When he discovers that purpose, and is doing what he was created to do, becoming what he was created to be, he will find fulfillment. This can only contribute to your happiness as well."

I kept reading. Then came the tears. Then the sobbing. As I continued to read, it was as if God was writing with a black Sharpie on the pages of this book, "Go to Chicago!"

When Jay called later that day, I explained the events of the early morning, and what I thought God was telling me. He was blown away. About two weeks later, we arrived in Chicago to sub-zero wind chill weather, and we made our way to Willow Creek. The internship gathering included twenty interns who were applying for the program. Many of applicants had been in the process with Willow Creek for about a year, not mere weeks.

On Saturday night, we attended their Vision Night church service, an annual event attended by thousands of people. The incredible music, heartfelt teaching, and the crowd of believers that surrounded us filled my soul and overwhelmed me all at the same time. I had never been a part of a service like that before. My traditional church experience was being stretched in every way, from words to sights to sounds, to my soul. When the vision and values of the church were described, I listened close to the final value: full devotion to Christ. Taking the hand of Christ and leaving your agenda behind. Gulp.

As the weekend continued, we learned more about the internship, interspersed with times of reflection with music and prayer. The internship director prayed, using the same words that I had read that day at 4:30 a.m.: Created to be and created to do.

Then we sat quietly for reflection and prayer while a song called “Open Up” played in the background. The lyrics spoke to my heart: “I want to make a wager of faith. I want to put my trust on the line. Lord, if I let it fly and open up the lines of communication, will there be miracles?”

I sat in a chair, bent over with my arms on my legs as the words and music surrounded me, my tears falling onto the carpet. My heart shifted. I desired to fully surrender to God and His plans.

Though we were becoming more sure that we should continue to pursue this internship, we still prayed that God would close the door. He didn’t.

A few months later, we packed up a four-year old son, a seven-year old daughter, a dog, and our personal belongings in a Honda van with 40 years’ worth of memories from our South Carolina life in tow. We left our families, friends, church and home – everything that we’d ever known. As we staked both a "For Sale" and a "For Rent" sign in the front yard of our dream home, we felt like we were jumping off a cliff.

We fell – but for six and half years, we were caught perfectly in the middle of God’s will for our lives. While those years were hard, they were the most life-changing, soul-shaping, purpose-filled, Kingdom-building experiences we’ve ever had. We wouldn't trade all the money in the world for the blessings and opportunities that we had following God’s call to Chicago. Even though we left all that we knew behind, listening for Him and surrendering to Him led us to more than we could have asked for or imagined.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).

Photo credit: Wix image.


The Hear Him Louder Essay Series is a guest writer series where God's daughters share their stories of hearing God’s whispers in their every day. It’s meant to serve as an encouragement for the times when God feels far and seems quiet. When we read each other’s stories of how He meets us, it reminds and reassures us that He is near. May this series be an invitation for us to listen for His voice together.

Don't miss any posts in this series! Subscribe to receive notifications for each new essay, posted every other Thursday. When you subscribe, you'll receive a link to a FREE five-day devotional (45 beautiful pages!) called, “Closer: Five Days to Hearing God Louder.” Each day features teaching on one posture and a guided journaling section to help us practice taking steps toward hearing God louder in our every day.

Learn more about each of these five postures:

New to this series? Check out the rest of the series!

Interested in contributing to the Hear Him Louder Essay Series? The call for submissions opens twice a year. To submit an essay outside of those windows, contact me.


About Rebecca

Rebecca Madden grew up in South Carolina where she also met Jay after college. After marrying, they began to dream of starting a family and felt the need to find a church home. Their church family sustained them through the loss of their firstborn son, Brock, and miraculous birth of their daughter, Neale, and second son, William. As Jay felt God’s call on his life, they moved to Chicago to be a part of Willow Creek Community Church. While there, Rebecca worked on Listen to My Life to help people engage their life story.

In 2009, the Maddens moved to Atlanta for Jay’s pastoral call to Peachtree Church. Soon thereafter, Rebecca was also asked to join the staff. She currently serves as the Director of Women’s Ministry. Jay and Rebecca are co-writing a book,, to record God’s extraordinary presence in their ordinary lives. You can find Rebecca on Instagram and on Facebook at BreathlessHaste.


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