God at the Center

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by Michael Ridgeway

phil-heather-joel-god-center-marriageHeather Joel calls it "amusement at first sight." When Phil, a long-haired bass player with orange bell-bottoms, entered the radio station where she worked, she was intrigued.

He and his Christian rock band had been invited to the station for an on-air interview. But while his fellow band members talked about music in the radio studio, he sat in the reception area chatting with Heather.

Phil Joel, bass player for the Newsboys, was smitten. A year later, Phil and Heather were married. And so began their adventure of marriage, God and rock 'n' roll.

In 2004, they created an organization called deliberatePeople to help others pursue a deeper relationship with God. Phil left the Newsboys in 2007 to focus on this new ministry.

Thriving Family talked with Phil and Heather Joel about the journey they've taken through their 14 years of marriage. They spoke about the importance of communication and putting God first, and they shared how their relationship has gone from good to great.

Heather: We [Phil and I] have always been great buddies, but the adventure part of our marriage began probably nine years ago.

Phil: We refocused individually on the Lord and realized that our relationship with God is first and foremost.

How did that affect your marriage?

Heather: It dramatically affected our marriage. We are a team. Phil is seeking the Lord on behalf of our family as the husband and the father; I'm seeking the Lord on behalf of our family as the wife and the mother, and so as we come together, there's completion in that vision. Over the last four or five years, we're like, "Wow, who says you can't go for a 10 in marriage?" Our culture tells us that settling for a 5 or 6 is probably the best we can hope for. I don't believe that's what God thinks at all. He wants us to thrive! We still don't know exactly what 10 looks like, but we're going after it.
So what have you done to move closer to a 10?

Phil: Without a vision, we perish. I don't think I had a vision coming into marriage of what it was meant to be like. But the Lord's really given me a vision. I have this thought about being on our deathbeds, and I want her to be able to look at me and say, "Hey, you were great. You were the man I signed on for. You were the man God intended for me on this earth, and I am looking forward to walking the streets of gold with you in heaven." Yeah, it may sound corny, but that's the vision.

And what are you doing deliberately to get there?

Phil: Every morning I'm getting up and saying, "Lord, show me more of who You are, show me more about who I am, in light of who You are. Show me how You want to change me. Show me the truth You want to fill me with." I think it's really important to put yourself in that position every day and say, "Lord, teach me, lead me, guide me. Make me the man You want me to be, because culture's telling me who I need to be. There are all kinds of voices trying to tell me what a man is meant to look like. But, Lord, I want You to shape my years on this earth as a man — as a husband and a father." That's my job, to get before the Lord, hear from Him, walk with Him.

Can you give me an example of some specific things that God has told you that you need to do?

Phil: It's great to spend time with the Lord. But then I get with Heather and say, "What's the Lord showing you, and what are you hearing?" And we talk about it. We talk about our lives and what the Lord's showing us about our lives through His Word and how we're to apply it to our marriage. We've got to come together, and that's when God speaks to us, brings us into a fuller understanding. If I cut her out of the equation and say, "She's just going to submit and do what I tell her, and God's going to show me things," then I'm getting ripped off, she's getting ripped off and our entire family is getting ripped off.

Heather: We do a lot of talking. I think most men typically say, "Give me the bullet points." But I love how Phil's gone, Yeah, that might be how I feel, but I'm going to push past my feelings because I know the things she wants to communicate to me are important. And so we do a lot of front-end talking.

What does that mean — front-end talking?

Heather: We don't let things pile up. If he's communicated to me in a way that bothered me, I don't just suck it up and go, Well, I'm the wife, and I've got to handle that and just keep praying for him. I think, I'm his teammate. That didn't come off right. And we always talk it through so there's not the build-up of tons of misunderstandings or tons of miscommunications. We just deal with it right there and then.

That's a lot of work.

Heather: It's a lot of work on the front end, but it saves damage and heartache, I think. It has worked so well for us. I feel like Phil listens and hears me and wants to know the things that the Lord is showing me. Therefore, I feel like a teammate. I feel like a partner.

Phil: We have a 100-percent rule. We don't move [on a decision] unless we're 100 percent for something. We want to make sure that we're moving in solid agreement.

Heather: So if we come to a decision that we don't agree on, then we do nothing. We stop.

What if it's an essential decision that has to be made?

Heather: We wait. There's never been a decision in the whole time we've been married, with the 100-percent rule in place, where we've looked back and gone, "Eww, that was a bad decision."

Heather, let's talk a little bit about your vision. We heard a little of Phil's. What do you hope for your marriage?

Heather: We have this thing that we call "Door No. 3." Door No. 3 represents the plans and purposes God has for us, and they're good. The Enemy, his big fun is to sidetrack us off of those goals. If he can get us away from Door No. 3, then he wins. I don't know all the things the Lord has for us, but I know they're good. So I'm just staying focused on what we're doing right now. I really want to be where I'm supposed to be, doing the things the Lord has for us to do now, knowing that those steps will connect, and we'll look back, and we'll see a path behind us, and we'll go, "Wow, Door No. 3!"

What are some of the challenges that might keep you from having a healthy, thriving marriage?

Heather: The culture is knocking at the door all the time, telling us we have to be busier, that we have to do all kinds of social networking to be relevant. It takes so much time. That [pressure] is coming at us all day, every day.

Phil: All day, every day. The last record we made is called The New Normal, and it's really about putting what is normal in culture under the microscope. We need to say, "Stop a second," and let's just take stock of where we are in culture — what's coming in, what voices we're listening to, what ways we're living, what we're spending our time and our money doing — and let's just ask the Lord, "Is this what You want, or is there something new? Is there a new way we need to look at our finances, how we use the computer, how we educate our kids, how we do marriage?" I think we just quickly bite into what culture brings our way. We need to walk with caution, slower, not in fear, but a little slower.

So do you feel a pull to get involved in things?

Heather: Oh, yeah, there's always that new thing that will be a pull, and so it always works to say, "OK, does this fit in this season [of our lives]?" If it can't fit in peacefully, it's probably not right.

Can you think of an example?

Heather: Yeah, do we need 300 or 400 friends, or do we need to really focus on the friends who are sitting in our living room? We could get awfully busy, awfully quick, you know, in the click of a mouse.

Phil: We like people, and we like to be social, but we have to be very protective of our time — everybody does. Even to seemingly good opportunities, sometimes we have to say, "No." We've been blessed because God has shown us the importance of marriage without having to get into a crisis.

Heather: We have been at different points in our lives where there was definite potential for a crisis. But I think the communication stuff and the 100-percent rule — those are major tools the Lord has used to prevent crises.


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2010 Focus on the Family. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.


For more on Phil and Heather Joel, watch their video Deliberate Parenting.


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