Seminary professors probably don't study Stormie Omartian, but perhaps they should. Judging by book sales, Omartian influences more prayers than anybody else in America (save perhaps Prayer of Jabez author Bruce Wilkinson). Most of her readers are women. Most of her books follow a formula.
Start with the titles: The Power of a Praying (choose one) Wife, Husband, Parent, Woman, or Nation.
The contents are similarly patterned. The Power of a Praying Wife, for example, considers every aspect of her husband's life: his wife, his work, his finances, his sexuality, his temptations. In each short chapter, Omartian explains why that area of a man's life matters, and how it can be transformed by God's help. She uses lots of experience from her own marriage. Then she offers a sample prayer, often two or three pages long. Finally there are "Power Tools"—Scripture verses to use in praying.
Omartian doesn't teach how to pray so much as what to pray. She gives you the subject matter, plus the words and Scripture passages. This is not advanced prayer, mystical prayer, or miracle-a-day prayer. Her writing is not fancy. The closest counterpart is the book in your hardware store that tells how to install a sink. Omartian's books are tools for people who want home improvement. For illustrations, she uses snapshots from her own remodeling.
Omartian began in Hollywood. While still in college, she started work as a singer, dancer, and actor in the heyday of musical variety TV shows. She played a ditzy blonde on Glen Campbell's show, along with many other roles. Now in her 60s, she appears in publicity photos as a flawlessly made-up blonde with blue eyes. "My wife," husband Michael writes, "is a 'babe.' "
Michael himself is a Grammy-winning music producer who has worked with half the pop acts you've heard of. The Omartians worked together on several critically acclaimed CCM albums, including White Horse (1974) and Mainstream (1983). The Omartians and their dogs Sammy and Wrigley live in a gorgeous house on a hill outside Nashville. In the basement offices and recording studio, one wall is lined with Michael's gold and platinum albums, another with Stormie's magazine covers.
Stormie recorded successful exercise videos in the 1990s. Her children are professional musicians. She speaks before huge audiences all over America. She has sold six million books. Otherwise her life is fairly ordinary. If you met her at Wal-Mart, Omartian would not strike you as anything special—just an attractive middle-aged woman who talks in a rush of words and wants grandchildren in the worst way possible. "A sweet woman," her pastor, Rice Broocks, calls her. "Some people who talk about prayer, you wonder if they ever go to the grocery store."
A Hellish Childhood
Omartian grew up with an abusive mother. The family was poor, and Omartian often went to bed hungry. When she was a little girl on a remote Wyoming ranch, her mother would lock her in a closet and leave her for hours. She also beat her and cursed her. Her father, a quiet and gentle soul, was too passive to defend her. They had no neighbors. The little girl would make up poems and stories to entertain herself.
Ultimately Omartian's mother would be diagnosed as schizophrenic, though she was never hospitalized. Her daughter, an only child until she was 12, believed her mother hated her.
The family moved to Southern California, where her father ran a gas station and later worked at Knott's Berry Farm. Omartian felt ashamed of her home. She believed herself ugly and unlikable. In junior high school, she tried to commit suicide. In high school she compensated for her shaky confidence by joining student government and participating in school plays. She always got good grades. While studying music at UCLA she began to work in Hollywood. Soon she was singing, dancing, and acting on one TV show after another. Yet she grew even more unhappy. "No matter what glamorous and wonderful things happened to me," she says, "I still saw myself as ugly and unacceptable."
She used drugs and practiced occult religions. Relationships with a variety of men, married and unmarried, led to illegal abortions. She had panic attacks wherever she worked. She entered a brief and loveless marriage. Deeply depressed at 28, she began to plan her suicide.
That was when a friend talked her into visiting a young pastor, Jack Hayford. He gave Omartian three books to read: C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, the Gospel of John, and a book on the Holy Spirit. When they met again, Hayford invited Omartian to commit her life to Jesus. "I left the office feeling light and hopeful, though I didn't know what it all meant," she later wrote.
Tools for Demolishing Despair
Omartian had almost no church background. She knew nothing about Christian living. Furthermore, she soon discovered that her problems had not gone away. But she had incredible motivation to grow. "She had been so wounded and bruised, so injured, she was broken at all points," Hayford remembers. "Yet she was remarkably gifted, with a ready heart and a quick mind. There was a childlikeness in Stormie's heart toward God that she has always maintained."
Even though she fell in love with Hayford's church, The Church on the Way, Omartian continued to struggle with depression. Even after marrying Michael and quitting show business, she had daily thoughts of suicide. A church counselor, Mary Anne Pientka, believed that a spirit of oppression was involved. She suggested three days of fasting, followed by a careful regimen of confession and prayer. "When we prayed, that depression lifted," Omartian says. "It was the most amazing thing. I had no idea that could even happen. I felt the depression lift and I thought, 'Okay, this is amazing, this is like taking an aspirin, and you get rid of your headache.' I was assuming it would be back in the morning.
"But the next morning I woke up and it was still gone. And the next day, it was still gone. And the next, and the next, and the next. I tell you, if I wasn't a believer before, I was then. I was never so shocked. I tell you, it wasn't my faith. It was a demonstration of God's power, and I really had nothing to do with it. I was so amazed. That changed my life."
Omartian started a prayer group in her home. She carefully selected a group of church friends, many in the entertainment business. "I was the only one who didn't have 8-by-10 glossies," says Patti Brussat, a close friend. Their experiences praying formed the basis for Omartian's first books on prayer.
Omartian knows that some people need thoughtful counseling as well as prayer. Some people need medical attention. A chemical imbalance requires drug therapy, she says. Omartian also knows that not all our prayers get answered as we prefer. "For example, I've always prayed that my kids would be safe, that they wouldn't be in an accident." But her children did have accidents. "You shouldn't get mad at God if he doesn't answer exactly the way you prayed it," she explains. "He heard you. Just trust him."
Strikingly, she gives hardly a hint of Pentecostal distinctives. Hayford's church is Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal denomination, yet Omartian never mentions speaking in tongues, and says almost nothing about demonic activity. She doesn't even name the book on the Holy Spirit that Hayford gave her when they first met, because some denominations don't agree with it. "I feel God has spoken to me, that I'm to be a uniter," she says. "And the things I speak about are universal."
For the same reason, Omartian steers clear of politics. Being a uniter doesn't necessarily mean avoiding controversy, though. In Nashville she's successfully pushed to change the "rebel" name for two different schools, because she thinks the term is divisive. With any board she belongs to, "If I see that the board is white, and there are no black people, I say there's something wrong. I say let's draw in others. This is a country that is multiracial, multiethnic. If we're doing a musical project, there's no way I'm going to do it with 18 white singers. No way. If there's not color in here, I'm not going to do it."
Omartian's most popular books have to do with marriage. She is remarkably open about her difficulties, not in spectacular marital troubles but in the mundane stuff of getting along. She brought a load of problems into her marriage. Michael had his own baggage, as she makes clear in The Power of a Praying Wife and The Power of a Praying Husband. Apparently Michael was what some would refer to as a typical male. He could be rude. He had a frightful temper. He would rather watch sports on TV than have a conversation with his wife. He came home late for dinner and didn't apologize. He often seemed to care more about his golf game than his children. All this Omartian describes in matter-of-fact prose. "My husband," she writes, "will not do something he doesn't want to do. And if he ends up doing something he doesn't want to do, his immediate family members will pay for it."
"When I wrote the book, Michael asked me, 'Do you have to tell all this?' I told him, 'I don't have to, but my entire credibility is that we do not have a perfect marriage. We have gut-level struggles, and we almost lost it.'"
In Omartian's view of marriage, men and women follow traditional roles. Part of the tradition, though, is that a woman has a mind of her own. Omartian clearly does not wait around for hubby to tell her what to think. She assumes that women often initiate change in a marriage, but she knows they can't do it by direct means. Praying for their husbands, which requires trying to understand their husbands, can transform a marriage.
In The Power of a Praying Wife, Omartian shares her favorite three-word prayer: "Change him, Lord." God never seemed to answer this prayer, she says. She learned to begin with a different prayer: "Lord, change me." God had to start somewhere, and he started with the person who made herself available. The ultimate aim, though, is for God to change both partners.
Her recipe doesn't start with male leadership or female submission. She believes in both, but also knows that neither is fully possible until both characters are transformed. Women want to submit, Omartian says, but submission isn't the same as obedience. "I know of a woman who submitted to an abusive husband, and he ended up killing her," she writes in The Power of a Praying Woman. "That is not submission, that's foolishness."
She is realistic about marriage. Stubbornness, rudeness, and selfishness are routine. Abuse, alcohol, and drugs aren't far off. The difference is prayer. For Omartian, no problem is impervious to prayer, because no problem is impervious to Jesus. She manages to be a realist and an optimist at once.
In 2002 Omartian nearly died. For months she had been in and out of hospitals and doctors' offices, but the problem remained undiagnosed. Finally, in February, she felt something inside her explode. Agonizing pain followed. Though tests still brought no clarity, a surgeon finally opted for exploratory surgery. He found a burst appendix. Another hour, he told Omartian, and he would have been too late.
Because the risk of infection was so great, Omartian's surgical wound had to remain open for months. After two months her gall bladder burst, leading to another operation. Even now she feels the effects. Travel is particularly difficult. A high-energy person, she is learning to cope with limitations, "just at the time of life when I can do things I always wanted to do."
Prayers for the Last Chapter
Health and beauty have been her lifelong preoccupations, but now she is forced to think beyond them. Fellow members of her prayer group—she always has a prayer group—have begun to pray their way through the problems of old age. "We all thought, why don't we pray about our deaths? Why don't we pray about our aging? Why not? I prayed this for my dad, when he was so terrified. He did not want to end up in a hospital or an old folks home. I prayed, 'God, when it's time for him to go and be with you, let him die in his sleep.' And that's exactly what happened. He was 93."
A classic American combination of pragmatism and optimism keeps pushing Omartian into new arenas. Her latest books, The Power of a Praying Nation and The Power of Praying Together (written with Jack Hayford), press intercession out into the whole world. In the post-9/11 era, she is intensely aware of global issues. She wants to teach people to pray with specificity and intelligence about the problems of the world.
Omartian has a humble view of her gifts. She doesn't think of herself as a terrific speaker, and on style points she's right. Her rhetorical technique is to rush through her material, hardly taking a breath. As for writing, Omartian says her publishers have been disappointed that her books don't win awards, but she can't see that they should, considering the marvelous competition. (She's a dedicated reader and soaks up Christian nonfiction.) She writes clearly and personally, sharing what she knows. She has a gift for practicality, but doesn't seem to think of it as great writing any more than do the authors of home repair manuals.
So why has she sold six million books? There is no organ music. Voices are not hushed. Prayer is not a Sacred Subject, but medicine. Try this, I did, it works, Omartian says. Let me show you how. "Her methodology is not mechanical," Hayford says. "She is consistent in the old-time Methodist sense of the word."
Asked how she would like to be remembered at her funeral, Omartian jumps to a ready response: "I would like them to say that she pointed me toward Jesus." She's not really promoting prayer, as though the activity itself had any intrinsic merit. Omartian loves Jesus. Prayer is a way of joining him in his loving intentions for the world, inviting him to show his marvelous power.
Tim Stafford is a CT senior writer.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Stormie Omartian's website has more information about her books and a mailing list.
Omartian's books, The Power of a Praying Wife, Power of a Praying Woman, The Power of a Praying Parent, Power of a Praying Husband, The Power of a Praying Nation, The Power of Christmas Prayer, The Power of Praying Together, Praying God's Will for Your Life, Praying Through Life's Problems, Just Enough Light for the Step I'm On, Greater Health God's Way, Lord, I Want to Be Whole, and Stormie, are available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Chances are good that whenever you're reading this, the CBA Bestseller list will have a few of Omartian's titles on it.
More articles about Stormie Omartian from our sister publications include:
Unlocking the Power of Prayer | How best-selling author Stormie Omartian turned pain and desperation into a passion for prayer. (Today's Christian, November/December 2002)
The Power of Prayer | Here's what best-selling author Stormie Omartian wants you to know about. (Today's Christian Woman, July/August 2002)
Take Five: Stormie Omartian | Best-selling author Stormie Omartian hasn't had an easy life. Yet she's learned how to overcome the tragedies of childhood abuse and years in a verbally abusive marriage to discover a joy-filled life through the power of prayer. (Today's Christian Woman, July/August 2001)
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