2 Cor 1:3 is a verse that would be very easy to trivialise:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we have ourselves have received from God.
It would be very easy to turn this into soothing and vague words that amount to little more than lovey-dovey "let's be nice to everybody". The difficulty I have with many liberals is that they like to talk about love, compassion and comfort, but prefer to leave the content blank or vague. It would be easy to do with this verse.
Start to ask questions about the verse, however, and it takes on a whole different edge. Who is the "us" being talked about? What troubles have they been experiencing? What is the nature of the comfort they have received from God? Why did God let them get afflicted if it was his intention to comfort them? Wouldn't it have been easier and kinder to not let them be troubled in the first place?
The people in question are Paul and Timothy, and the troubles (ESV "afflictions" translates it better, I think) they have been experiencing are severe hardships for preaching Jesus in the province of Asia. We read about the troubles in v8-11 (and 4:8-12, and especially in ch 11), where we discover that they had been under pressure so severe for proclaiming Jesus that they despaired of life and felt under the sentence of death. In fact Paul describes the troubles as "sharing in the sufferings of Christ" - ie people trying to kill them just as they persecuted and killed Jesus, and for the same reason: the message about God and salvation in Christ.
These are the circumstances in which they have experienced and learned about the comfort that God provides. The comfort from God crops us several places in the letter, but here we read that it contains:
- A God given ability to put hope in God who raises from the dead, when life itself seems in danger (1:9)
- Practical deliverance from deadly peril (1:10)
- Confidence that he will continue to rescue them when they can't help themselves (1:10)
- The releasing of many people's prayers to God and God giving clear, obvious answers (1:11)
This comfort, we read, produces patient endurance in those who receive it (1:6). Of course! They are seeing God at work, winning souls through their dire circumstances. If that won't produce faith that will endure such circumstances, nothing will.
The reason Paul starts the letter like this is because the Corinthians are also suffering for Jesus. He is writing as part of God's comfort to them. He is saying "God has shown us mercy when we faced persecutions for Jesus and he will do the same for you. Therefore our hope remains firm, and you don't have to worry that yours will be shaken. Yours will remain firm too as God pours similar comfort into your lives" (1:7).
All of a sudden these verses no longer seem about vague nice compassion when anyone is feeling troubled. (That's no excuse for not being kind and compassionate, it's just to say that these verses aren't about that). No, this is about how God practically pours in his love, care and deliverance when Christians are proclaiming Jesus bravely and suffering for doing so.
Finally, the comfort is greater than the sufferings. It says in v5 that the sufferings of Christ flow into the lives of his servants, but the comfort we receive overflows. His mercy is greater than our circumstances. His ability to show us compassion is greater than our greatest need. His ability to protect and provide is more than adequate for our direst shortfall when we are living and speaking for Jesus with bold faith. Paul and Timothy had discovered it. They wanted the Corinthians to be assured of it so they would continue to stand for Jesus. And they wanted us to know about it so that we will too.