The language of gratitude is slowly losing an important nuance. Sometimes we use the language of thanks, when we really just mean that we are glad. Thanks are always directional. Gratitude always has an indirect object; to be grateful, to give thanks, you must be grateful TO someone. You cannot be thankful without thanking someone. You can be generically glad or impersonally happy for some thing or situation, but you cannot be grateful unless you are addressing it TO someone.*
Imagine a perfect autumn day. You sleep in peacefully, and when you wake up, the house is quiet. You slip out and go for a walk in your brisk, newly-wet Portland neighborhood. The long-awaited rains have washed the atmosphere, cleaning away the dust, pollen, and ash that have been hanging in the air for the last several weeks. You breathe easily, and as you pass your neighbors’ houses, you notice that their yards look as refreshed as you feel.
You come home, grind coffee and put water on to boil.
During the day, you read a little, reflect, and finish a couple of simple tasks that have been hanging over your head. You were not stressed, but you feel satisfied and accomplished.
Later you meet up with friends or family for dinner, and the conversation is both deep and light. You laugh, and you discuss things of substance. The time together is delightful. You feel closer to those around the table, like you know what’s going on in their thoughts and their lives. They have encouraged you, and it seems you have been able to do the same for them.
At the end of the day, you take up your normal chores to get ready for bed. You straighten the living room, get your running shoes out for the morning, do the dishes, and brush your teeth.
Doing the dishes, you think back over the day, and there’s a sudden wave of contentment. You are intensely peaceful, happy, and glad for everything and everyone in your day.
Isolated with just your memory at that point, you can be deeply glad, happy, and content. But there is a deeper and better experience waiting. A relational, devotional practice, and it is necessarily directional and interactive. This gladness and contentment deepen, when they become gratitude, but to grow into gratitude, your thanks must be addressed, whether that is to the people who facilitating and participating in your day, or to God.
The most appropriate order would be to God and then shared with the people involved, because not only are you thankful for the things they did, you're thankful to God for putting these people in your life. Your friends and family deserve thanks for their love and interactions with you, but they didn’t give you peaceful sleep or bring the rain. In fact, they have chosen not to remove themselves from your life, but God put you together in the first place.
Paul does both in his greeting to the Philippian saints: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” When he prays for them, he gives thanks to God for them and their partnership in the gospel with him (there’s the directional & devotional piece). Then, he shares his gratitude with the people who occasion it (there’s the communal practice).
*If you want to think more about the logic here, consider what misplaced gratitude says about our need to place gratitude somewhere. If my children buy me a tie for Father’s Day, I may really enjoy the tie, and I may share my appreciation with you when I show you the gift. BUT I cannot be thankful to you for a gift you had no part in giving. To thank you would violate the nature of gratitude. I am thankful for the tie, but thanks that are improperly aimed are improper. To be properly thankful for the tie, I have to be thankful TO those responsible (partially or entirely) for the gift. Misplaced gratitude helps illustrate the reality that thanks (if it is thanks and not general gladness) must be placed/ addressed with or to someone.