Have you ever heard someone say something like, "He is a gracious man." or "She is a gracious woman."? What does the word gracious mean in this context? Doesn't it mean something akin to kindness? I have realized recently that hearing and using the word gracious in this fashion has corrupted my mind and confused my understanding of various Bible passages in which the word grace is used. Let's see if it has negatively influenced you.
Early in my Christian life, 35 years ago, I memorized Colossian 4:6: "Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person." I remember wondering at how speaking kindly to a person would give me wisdom in what to say. How have you read this verse? Have you thought as I have?
We Christians say that grace means unmerited favor. In my Mormon culture there is no such thing as unmerited favor. Grace usually means something like God's kindness and generosity to give you another chance to do what is right. And if God is really feeling gracious and you are really sincere, then he will help you do the right thing. The Mormons speak of life as a time of probation, as a process of learning to do the right things--of learning to make the right choices consistently--of learning to live in a worthy manner. And they teach that God is committed to helping them do that. We Christians don't officially teach this, though we occasionally get tricked to think this way.
What would be the sense of this verse if we replace the word grace with unmerited favor and other words associated with the gospel? Here is my paraphrase. "Let your words always reflect unmerited favor. You do this by setting your mind on the gospel, on perfect love, on God's requirement of perfection, on Christ's death for helpless sinners as the demonstration of God's love, on a relationship based on the gift of righteousness rather than a reward of doing the right things. When you see others through the eyes of perfect love you will know how to speak to them in a way that honors God and His care for them." Unmerited favor is expressed in kindness, but kindness isn't the real issue. Reading grace here as eyes of perfect love takes the pressure off me.
I have begun pausing at the word grace and asking myself if I am reading it as kindness or unmerited favor. It has been surprising to realize how many places I have been reading it incorrectly as kindness. Try it yourself and notice how often you have been tricked too. Clear thinking leads to clear speaking. We certainly need clear words today in our confused culture.